Debate reignites over US aid to Indonesia

A court ruling earlier this month exonerated four officials charged in the 1999 massacre in East Timor.

Two competing perspectives have long dominated Washington when talk turns to military aid for Indonesia. On one side there are those in Congress who call the country's military brutal abusers of human rights. They want US aid to remain suspended until Indonesia's military is reformed.

On the other side is the Pentagon and some White House officials who say the US, once Indonesia's largest source of military aid, should resume funding because of the country's importance to the war on terrorism.

That debate has been reignited since the last four Indonesian officials accused of atrocities in East Timor five years ago were exonerated earlier this month.

"The Pentagon argues from a terrorism point of view, and senators respond that the Indonesian military are terrorists," says Jeffrey Winters, a professor and expert on Indonesia at Northwestern University in Chicago.

East Timor has often found itself at the center of the debate since the Indonesian invasion of the island in 1975. Indonesia felt the pinch of severe restrictions when hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to their security forces were cut off after a 1991 massacre by the military in Dili, the capital of East Timor. The noose on US aid further tightened following the violence that rocked East Timor around its vote for independence in 1999, in which more than 1,000 people were killed - including a Dutch journalist working for the Monitor.

Now just as warming signs were reemerging, an Indonesian appeals court announced that it was throwing out the convictions of a general and three other military officers for abuses in East Timor in 1999. More than a dozen military and government officials who were charged in the rampage have been acquitted. The only two whose convictions still stand are ethnic Timorese.

The decision drew a sharp response from rights groups and governments around the world, including the US.

"We think that the overall process was seriously flawed and lacked credibility," says Adam Ereli, a spokesman for the State Department.

The impact was compounded by Indonesia's rejection of calls for a human rights tribunal or an independent review of the court's work.

"This clearly shows that the reasons military aid was suspended have not disappeared," says Mr. Winters. "The outcome of the trials will strengthen the resolve of those in the [US] Senate who said they will block any attempt at close ties."

The perception of Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, as a potential hotbed for terrorists - fueled by the devastating 2002 bombings in Bali and an attack the following year on the J.W. Marriott Hotel - is a primary reason cited by Pentagon officials seeking to renew military ties. Members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a group with reported ties to Al Qaeda, have been arrested in connection with the bombings.

As well, with world crude prices above $45 a barrel, the Southeast Asian country's oil and gas wealth is part of the calculus.

Despite the controversial court ruling, Washington's efforts to bolster ties with Indonesia have found an unlikely ally. East Timor, which for years bore the brunt of US weapons and training in Indonesia, is eagerly trying to repair relations with its former ruler as it continues to struggle to pull itself out of dire poverty.

"I would like to see the US normalize [military] ties with Indonesia and [have] IMET restored," said East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta by telephone from Australia, referring to the US International Military Education and Training program. "The US has military cooperation with countries that have far worse records than Indonesia. Indonesia is far more open and democratic than many others.

"While I regret, and many others regret, the court didn't deliver justice as promised, we have to acknowledge Indonesia's enormous progress in other areas, such as their lively democracy and free media," Mr. Ramos-Horta says.

While East Timor's calls for leniency and tolerance may complicate the debate in Washington, human rights groups in Indonesia and elsewhere are steadfast in their demand that aid be halted until the Indonesian military is held accountable. Otherwise, they say, security forces will use the impunity as a green light in campaigns against activists and insurgencies simmering in other provinces, such as Aceh and Papua.

"The military will become more confident," says Mufti Makarim, Secretary General of KONTRAS, a coalition working on rights abuses in East Timor, Aceh, and Papua. "They will think that they can go against the laws because if they are brought to court, there won't be a fair trial and they can influence the courts. This sets a very bad precedent. These verdicts will make [the military] more powerful than before."

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