Here We Go Again

U.S. considers renewing military ties to Indonesia

by Rachel Rinaldo

In These Times magazine, May 13, 2002


With lush volcanic mountains rising out of sapphire seas, the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is stunningly beautiful. In recent years, however, Sulawesi's natural beauty has been overshadowed by conflict in Poso, a small city at its center. Now, just as a fragile peace agreement has calmed violence in Poso and the surrounding areas, the island is becoming one of many justifications for the United States to renew its support for the Indonesian military.

As part of its war on terrorism, the American military has been eager to restore relations with its Indonesian counterpart. Those ties were cut off after military violence in East Tlmor in 1999, but are slowly being restored. Only Congress can renew direct funding for foreign military training, but there are signs the move is being considered.

In late March, U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (RAlaska) traveled to Indonesia to discuss military cooperation with Vice President Hamzah Haz. And in late April, senior officials from the State and Defense Departments will attend a two-day forum with Indonesian officials to evaluate security cooperation between the two countries, along with the possibility of restoring full military ties. "The Bush administration is capitalizing on the argument of terror to do what they already wanted to do," says Karen Orenstein, Washington Coordinator for the East Timor Action Network. "They're just speeding it up."

Poso has experienced outbreaks of fighting since late 1998, when a dispute between Christian and Muslim youths sparked vigilante attacks. More than a thousand people have been killed, and more than 50,000 refugees remain scattered throughout several towns in the area.

The most recent fighting erupted in late November and early December, when Muslims attacked Christian villages near Poso. By the time the violence had subsided, at least 100 people were dead, thousands had fled, and hundreds of homes and other buildings had been destroyed.

In late December, government intervention persuaded both sides to sign a peace accord that appears to be holding, for now.

Experts warn that the bloodshed in Poso is not a simple religious conflict, and say that only a careful look at history can explain the violence there. In the mid-'70s, the government of General Suharto opened the Poso area to transmigrasi, a national policy of moving people from the crowded islands of Java and Sumatra to less populated areas. Transmigrasi brought in large numbers of mainly Muslim outsiders to a previously isolated, mostly Christian area.

By the '90s, many Christians felt disadvantaged and believed Muslims were getting richer faster. "The colonial regime created these divisions," says Lorraine Aragon, an anthropologist at East Carolina University, "but the policies of Suharto tried to suppress the problems, never coped with them, and [ended up] exacerbating them."

After the Suharto regime fell in 1998, tensions were renewed. The unsteady governments of B.J. Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid did little to resolve them. Finally, in early December, Indonesian President Megawati Sukamoputri sent more than 2,000 soldiers and police to Poso, dampening the violence.

Despite the peace accord, many are too wary of the Indonesian military's shoddy human rights record to take much solace in its presence in Sulawesi. The military and police are known for taking sides in local conflicts. "The Indonesian military is the biggest source of terror to its own people," Orenstein says.

Human rights violations by the Indonesian military are well-documented, but the Bush administration seems likely to brush them aside. Most infamously, senior military officials are suspected of directing the militia-led brutality in East Timor following the province's vote for independence in August 1999. Hundreds were killed, and more than 250,000 civilians were forced into neighboring West Timor. Eighteen mid-level officers are currently on trial in a special human rights court in Jakarta for their role in the invasion, but there are no plans to hold accountable the most senior military officers, some of whom now hold important government positions.

The arrival of the radical Muslim group Laskar Jihad in Poso last July only further complicates matters. In recent months, there has been much debate over whether Laskar Jihad has links to al-Qaeda. Formed in 2000, the group is known for its involvement in the beleaguered province of Maluku, where 9,000 people have died in fighting in the past three years. A similar, yet shakier, peace agreement was signed there in February, but Laskar Jihad still claims to have thousands of fighters in Central Sulawesi, Maluku and other areas.

The chief of Indonesia's Intelligence Agency, A.M. Hendropriyono, stated in mid-December that al-Qaeda once had a training camp near Poso. But other top Indonesian officials have denied reports of al-Qaeda connections. While there have been arrests of a number of Indonesians said to be part of a terror ring, clear links between Indonesia and al-Qaeda remain elusive.

Liem Soei Liong, a member of TAPOL, a group campaigning for human rights in Indonesia, warns that different wings of the Indonesian military have their own agendas. "Hendropriyono will use the presence of Laskar Jihad in Poso as proof of the existence of al-Qaeda in Indonesia," he says, "[because] he is pushing for the full restoration of relations between the Pentagon and the Indonesian military." The CIA and State Department have yet to find solid evidence of an al-Qaeda presence in Indonesia, Liong says. Nevertheless, "Hendropriyono's tough approach will likely impress hard-liners in Washington."

In the meantime, the Pentagon has found ways around the limitations, funding training of the Indonesian military and police from the recently created Regional Defense Counter-Terrorism Fellowship program, which has no restrictions on which countries can participate. "Over the past year, the Pentagon has rewarded the Indonesian military with training and increased contacts," Orenstein says, "but human rights conditions in Indonesia continue to deteriorate."

In March, the Bush administration requested $16 million in supplemental appropriations for training Indonesian military and civilian personnel, saying the money was intended for humanitarian, peacekeeping and counter-terrorism initiatives.

Orenstein and others warn that U.S. support gives the Indonesian military legitimacy and that it will capitalize on the war on terrorism to deal harshly with political opponents. Sulawesi is again relatively quiet, but it seems unlikely that the military presence will end or that the recent strife will fade away entirely. The problems here did not begin in 1998, Aragon adds: "The inequities go back much further."

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