US plan to train Indonesia's special forces sets off alarm

The Obama administration wants to strengthen ties with Indonesia, including training for its special forces. But Indonesia’s elite military unit has been investigated for beatings, disappearances, and assassinations.

Special forces: Indonesian Army Chief Agustadi Sasongko Purnomo (l.) makes Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (r.) an honorary member of the elite Kopassus Special Force Command during a ceremony in Jakarta last August.

President Obama wants to signal a continued strengthening in US-Indonesia ties when he travels to the world’s largest Muslim country later this month.

But an administration proposal to further deepen post-9/11 military ties by resuming US training of Indonesia’s special forces is running afoul of human rights advocates.

Mr. Obama is keen to showcase Indonesia as a stable, democratic partner, a regional counterweight to China that is working shoulder-to-shoulder with the US to fight Islamic extremism. Extremists have struck Indonesia with bombings since the 9/11 attacks. (Monitor analysis: Jakarta attack may show evolution of Islamist terror group.)

Weighing security interests and human rights

But human rights activists say the US interest in rights and a foreign partner’s accountability to its own people should not be sacrificed for security interests.

The US military has been barred by law since 1997 from training Indonesia’s Komando Pasukan Khusus, better known as Kopassus.

The elite unit served as the strong arm of the Suharto regime that fell in 1998, but has been investigated since then for beatings, disappearances, and, assassinations. Officers linked to past abuses have not only remained in the unit but have been promoted, human rights investigations have found.

The Obama plan for skirting the congressional prohibition on ties to military units whose abusive members have not been brought to justice is to limit US training to younger Kopassus soldiers who entered the unit after the most high-profile abuse cases.

While some Asia experts hail the proposal as a positive reflection of Obama’s commitment to closer ties with Indonesia, human-rights experts say the move sends the wrong signal.

“I don’t know how young these soldiers [who would be eligible for training] are supposed to be, because the last documented cases of abuse are from last year,” says John Miller, national coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) in New York.

Investigating past abuses

Mr. Miller says the intent of the so-called Leahy law of 1997 (authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy) was not primarily to prevent future abuses or the training of rights abusers, but to encourage the investigation and resolution of past abuses – something he says has not been systematically done.

“Now if we simply circumvent this law, it will be like saying, ‘You haven’t held past abusers accountable, so we’re going to go ahead and reward you,’ ” he says.

But others say that the US has benefited from closer ties to Indonesia, including its military, in recent years, and that the Obama administration is right to seek a way to work with Kopassus. (Indonesia: How will it adapt counterterrorism strategy? Monitor report here.)

“It is in America’s interest to enable as full a range of options as necessary for Indonesia to be able to respond effectively to terrorism at home,” writes Walter Lohman, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, in a recent commentary about Obama’s upcoming trip. Ties with Kopassus can be reestablished in a way to “provide tailor-made training opportunities for Indonesians with fully vetted human rights records,” he adds.

Several Kopassus officers have been in Washington recently to try to work out a training deal that Obama could announce during his visit, which begins March 20.

ETAN’s Miller says he expects the administration is pressing for “commitments” from Indonesia on human rights measures that Obama could announce along with any resumed training. But he says he’s not optimistic about how binding any commitments might be.

“They have resisted that kind of overt commitment in the past,” he says, “I don’t see what’s changed to make them more open to such restraints now.”

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