Is Indonesia finally going after its feared special forces unit?

The murder of four inmates by Kopassus members has put pressure on Indonesian authorities to end the unit's impunity.

Indonesia has been giving off signals that it may clean up its Special Forces unit (Kopassus) after some of its members raided a prison in Central Java last month to murder four inmates.

The victims were implicated in the murder of Sgt. Heru Santoso from the unit, which was synonymous with wet work and torture during the Soeharto dictatorship. The fact that the four slain prisoners were held under Indonesian civilian law and subject to a judicial process didn't sit well with the men whose unit has for decades seen itself as divorced from the constraints of civilian oversight.

At first there were denials that it was the military that had raided a prison and executed four prisoners (the suggestion that there might be such well-trained and armed militias on the Indonesian street, not from the military, drawing justifiable howls of derision). Then there were suggestions that it might have been the military.

Then, a few days ago, came a clear admission. Deputy military police chief Brig. Gen. Unggul K. Yudhoyono said that nine Kopassus members had confessed to the murders, and promised a trial. On April 6, Kopassus head Maj. Gen. Agus Sutomo promised a public trial for 11 members of his unit accused of the murders.

The Indonesian press played a decisive role in leading to the swift admission of what almost every knowledgeable observer in Indonesia suspected to be the truth. And the role of public opinion in this case is a clear sign of how much has changed in Indonesia since the fall of Soeharto, whose 32-year dictatorship, backed by the US and others, had turned the military's domestic interventions into a black box that few dared to examine.

But, case closed? Not exactly. When Unggul announced the confessions, he had the following to say: "The perpetrators bravely admitted to committing the crime on the first day of our investigation on March 29 ... the attack was based on esprit de corps after discovering that a group of thugs had sadistically and brutally murdered First. Sgt. Heru Santoso, the assailant’s superior, who once saved his life in an operation."

The "assailant" in the above refers to a Kopassus member so far only identified as "U." But the tone of the general's comments is far short of what one would hope for when a group of soldiers murders a group of civilians.

Indonesian human rights activists allege that the head of the regional military command Maj. Gen. Hardiono Saroso and Yogyakarta police chief Brig. Gen. Sabar Rahardjo discussed the killing of Kopassus Sergeant Heru before the assault on the prison, and say it appears that a green light for the attack was given at senior levels of both the military and the national police.

The two men were both relieved of their jobs over the weekend, certainly a sign of greater accountability for military abuses in Indonesia. But is it symbolic? It might be.

In the decade or so of democratic development since the fall of Soeharto and the difficult years that followed, the military has maintained a privileged position in domestic politics. While a British grandmother can be sentenced to death for smuggling cocaine, as happened today, soldiers enjoy much lighter sentences. After Kopassus murdered Papuan independence activist Theys Eluay in 2001, seven members of the unit were given jail sentences: The longest sentence was three-and-a-half years. All seven were promoted as well.

That was the old pattern. I covered the independence effort in East Timor in the late 1990s. Before the territory voted for independence, Kopassus was the most feared unit when it came to quashing independence efforts, and was in the lead of the government's scorched earth policy to punish Timor's vote for independence afterward. A few years later, six members of a pro-Indonesia militia were given maximum sentences of 20 months for murdering three United Nations workers – one an American – and multiple officers associated with the creation of the militias were promoted.

So, are we seeing a PR effort to manage a problem? Or real change?

Time will tell.

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