When a rash of explosions rocks Jakarta, they are the immediate suspects. When mysterious "ninja" killers execute dozens of Muslim scholars in East Java, senior politicians whisper their names. And when aid workers are killed in West Timor, United Nations officials point their way.
Every authoritarian regime seems to have them, a cross between Praetorian Guards and playground bullies. The Shah of pre-revolutionary Iran had his Savak. Baby Doc Duvalier relied on the Tonton Macoutes in Haiti.
In Indonesia's case, "they" are the Special Forces Command, known as Kopassus, a 6,000-strong unit that has forged a reputation as the toughest and most terrifying within a military known for its brutality.
Though it's virtually impossible for the unit to be guilty of all that the average Indonesian believes, Kopassus remains Indonesia's largest collective suspect for good reason. The Command's terror tactics it employed against insurgents in East Timor and Aceh are legendary.
When Indonesia began moving toward democracy at the end of Suharto's 32-year reign, many assumed the unit's position would fade. That view was bolstered when the reformist President Abdurrahman Wahid promised to punish rights abusers and push the military out of politics.
Instead, Kopassus has quietly begun to rehabilitate its reputation. While debate rages over whether soldiers should be tried for human rights abuses, the unit is winning back authority and respect.
"Their method was terror, and it was being employed in the service of Suharto," says Munir, a lawyer who runs the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence. "But efforts to find justice are running up against the tradition of military impunity."
The apparent success of Kopassus in putting its dark past behind it is a symbol of how little has changed within the Indonesian armed forces - and a measure of the challenges ahead.
It's a problem that plagues countries trying to make the transition from authoritarianism to democracy - and one that foreign powers like the US helped create. Indonesia's status as an anti-Communist bulwark during the cold war led to US training and support of the military, particularly Kopassus. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US taught its soldiers intelligence gathering and counterinsurgency skills.
But the US and other Western powers strategically averted their eyes when those lessons were put to sometimes brutal effect at home. Like other parts of the relationship, Indonesia-US military ties have been pared down to almost nothing following the calculated brutality of Indonesia's retreat from East Timor in 1999.
Mugiyanto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, understands the danger first hand. In March 1998, he was an unknown democracy activist. Then he was picked up by Kopassus, taken blindfolded to an interrogation center, and strapped to a table. Over two days, he was beaten and given electric shocks while being interrogated about his political beliefs and the whereabouts of his friends.
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.
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