US, Indonesia mull closer ties

Joint tsunami efforts have spurred calls to mend military ties limited by human rights concerns.

The USS Abraham Lincoln wrapped up a month-long emergency relief mission last week and left the waters off Indonesia's tsunami-afflicted Aceh Province.

But left in the Lincoln's wake are ripples of interest in both the United States and Indonesia for a return to closer ties. Fresh debate has emerged in Congress over whether to restore relations with the Indonesian military, which had been damaged by human rights concerns. In Indonesia, the month-long US presence has so far helped to polish America's image, which political observers say had been tarnished by the war in Iraq.

"The tsunami in Aceh showed that people in the West were serious in giving aid to Muslim counties," says Ulil Abshar Abdalla, an Islamic scholar and liberal Muslim activist. "It will shift perceptions of the West as a bloc."

Mr. Ulil says that prominent Islamic leaders thanked US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at a meeting at the US Ambassador's residence in Jakarta. "It was the first time, I'd heard [the Islamic leaders] say thanks," says Mr. Ulil. "It made me very happy."

Mr. Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia, is among those calling for closer military ties with the world's largest majority-Muslim country. Wolfowitz told reporters in Jakarta last month, "We would also like to see how the TNI [the Indonesian military] has endeavored to put itself under the control of civilian supremacy."

Supporters of mending the 13-year rift with Indonesia's military argue that it could be a more central ally in the war on terrorists, including Southeast Asian groups linked to Al Qaeda. Indonesia's navy also polices the Malacca Straits, a major world shipping lane prone to pirate attacks, and, intelligence agents say, possibly a major marine terrorist attack.

Critics claim that the Indonesian military has not done enough to reform itself after decades of human rights abuses, including in Aceh province, which has been the site of a separatist rebellion since 1976.

Human rights concerns

The US ended a training program known as IMET with Indonesia in 1991 after Indonesian soldiers massacred demonstrators in a graveyard in mostly Catholic East Timor. The ties were further scaled back in 1999, after the Indonesian military orchestrated a scorched earth campaign killing hundreds, following East Timor's vote for independence in a UN-sponsored plebiscite.

The US training programs, which included courses on operating a civilian chain of command, are exactly those needed by militaries such as Indonesia to improve their record, argue supporters such as Sen. Kit Bond (R) of Missouri. Under the IMET program, Indonesian officers were exposed to Western military practices, including codes of conduct and rules of engagement.

John Haseman, a former US military attaché in Jakarta, says that the "cost of cutting IMET" has been that many senior officers have not had exposure to US military practices. Some US military observers have noted that tsunami relief coordination went more smoothly with the Thais because both militaries know each other under the IMET program, and have conducted military operations together. India, Pakistan, and Malaysia also take part in the program.

In a speech in late January, Senator Bond called for an end to military sanctions against Indonesia, claiming the country could be a stronger ally in the war on Al Qaeda-linked terrorists. In a statement, Bond said that sanctions on the sale of spare parts had slowed the delivery of aid to tsunami victims. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also believed to support closer ties.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the architect of the 1999 restrictions, disagrees. Senator Leahy, a vocal critic of the TNI, argues that Indonesia's military has done little to change its ways. He says Indonesia has failed to bring to account officers involved in atrocities in East Timor, dismissing the convictions of a Jakarta-based ad hoc court for human rights crimes in East Timor.

In the US Senate last week, Leahy accused the Indonesian military of consistently obstructing justice.

"Although senior Indonesian military officers have repeatedly vowed to support reform, they have done next to nothing to hold their members accountable for these heinous crimes," he said in a statement.

Some ties remain

Leahy said that Indonesian officers already receive some US training. Such programs include counterterrorism skills. And Indonesia, with proper disclosure, can purchase from the US some military spare parts for "nonlethal" items.

US investigators have accused the Indonesian military of blocking an FBI investigation into the deaths in 2002 of two Americans for 18 months in the far-flung Papua province near a gold mine operated by a US company. The murders have further complicated efforts to restore links.

Although he did not mention the IMET program, after his visit to Indonesia in mid-January, Wolfowitz said that cooperation between the US and Indonesian militaries could mean closer ties. He said that the US needed to "help build the kind of defense institution that will ensure in the future that the Indonesian military, like our military, is a loyal function of a democratic government."

A study sponsored by the United States-Indonesia Society (USINDO), a Washington-based nongovernment organization, is also calling for the US to lift restrictions on military ties. The report from USINDO, whose members include US corporations that do business in Indonesia, such as Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold and Exxon-Mobil, is calling for expansion of military ties.

Meanwhile, the US still has a 1,000-bed hospital ship, the Mercy, in Aceh's waters as part of the $4.5 billion relief effort there.

But Islamic scholars such as Ulil say that among many ordinary Muslims the enhanced post-tsunami image for the US - regardless of the relations between the governments - will not be permanent. "As long as there is aggression, as long as there is a US presence in Iraq, there will be distrust [among ordinary Muslims], it has very deep roots in history."

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