Indonesia confronts unruly past
Instead of disbanding, a rogue Army unit is trying to remake its image.
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After Suharto's fall, 11 Kopassus operatives were found guilty of kidnapping and torturing Mugiyanto and eight other activists - and then sentenced to 22 months in jail. Their commanding officer, Prabowo Subianto, a son-in-law of Suharto's who admitted he ordered the abductions, was honorably discharged. He's now brokering oil-for-food deals in Iraq on behalf of Minister of Industry and Trade Luhut Pandjaitan - himself a former Kopassus officer. "The forces of democracy still have a hard fight ahead of us,'' says Mugiyanto.Skip to next paragraph
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Mugiyanto was one of the lucky ones. Human rights activists say the unit helped kidnap and kill 15 democracy activists in Suharto's final days. Munir believes that 900 more - mostly East Timorese and Acehnese independence activists - disappeared into Kopassus interrogation centers never to be seen again, "But the law makes it very difficult to prosecute unless we can produce a body."
Kopassus, for its part, doesn't dispute its past, but insists that it is gearing up for Indonesia's reformasi era by focusing on external defense rather than internal control. "What's the point in denying the past? There are plenty of open secrets now," says Major Herindra, a 13-year Kopassus veteran who now serves as the unit's public-information officer. "We're putting more emphasis on human rights training now. We're not gathering intelligence on our own citizens anymore."
Not only did Kopassus spy on civilians, but it also infiltrated other branches of the military. It operated as a sort of "army within the Army" that could short-circuit the chain of command and set up so-called "black operations" in places like East Timor.
With President Wahid complaining that elements of the armed forces are trying to foment instability to create an authoritarian backlash, Kopassus operatives are seen by the average citizen as the natural perpetrators.
Over the past six months, the capital has been rocked by mysterious bomb blasts - the most recent being last week. From the day the blasts began, suspicion fell on Kopassus, which grew when the police picked up a Kopassus private in connection with the deadly bombing of the Jakarta Stock Exchange in September. But Herindra says the soldier had deserted his unit and was "acting alone."
Indonesia's military is chronically underfunded and soldiers traditionally take outside work to make ends meet. Military analysts say in that context, the unit's explanation could make sense. "Anyone with money could have paid for that," says one diplomat.
The best chance for accountability rests with the promised prosecution of senior officers for crimes against humanity in East Timor. When the former Indonesian province voted for independence in August 1999, pro-Jakarta militias, created and trained by Kopassus, went on a well-calculated rampage, killing dozens and driving 250,000 people from their homes.
Attorney General Marzuki Darusman says 22 officers implicated in abuses in East Timor will go on trial in January. Making that possible is a new human rights law, passed by parliament in early November and now awaiting only Wahid's signature.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society