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US "national security" favors Indonesian thugs
by Gary LaMoshi    Asia Times
Entered into the database on Saturday, December 03rd, 2005 @ 12:05:31 MST


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DENPASAR, Bali - The Bush administration's decision to drop its arms embargo against Indonesia and resume full military ties fits a pattern of policy failures in East Asia. These failures underscore profound ignorance not only of the region but of where the US's true interests lie.

You'd think it impossible for US policymakers to be so foolish and cavalier about a key region, until you look at the mother of all Bush failures, Iraq, and see that similar ignorance and arrogance created that debacle.

Or maybe apparent mistakes in East Asia - a nuclear North Korea, ascendant China, remilitarizing Japan - aren't mistakes at all, but subtle and complex calculations that come easily for people like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, even if they're difficult for us to grasp.

The US made its decision to normalize ties with Indonesia's armed forces last week, citing its own "national security interests". The statement specifically cited Indonesia's self-evident strategic role in Southeast Asia as the region's most populous country astride major shipping lanes, and floated a fantasy that it is "a voice of moderation in the Islamic world".

Moderation is waning in Indonesia (seeIndonesia's Islamists flex their muscles, October 27) and, even within Southeast Asia, Malaysia and tiny Brunei have greater claims to Islamic leadership, except of course in terms of Islamist-inspired terrorism.

You'd think that US national security interest would revolve around strengthening Indonesia's nascent democracy, which could in fact make it a political example for the Islamic world, and helping it fight terrorism internally, since Indonesia has been a terrorist target more often this century than any country that hasn't hosted a US-led invasion. Those could be compelling interests, possibly worth overlooking a few hundred deaths that can't be stopped now. But restoring military aid won't advance those goals; instead, it's more likely to set them back.

'We deserve it'

After meeting with US President George W Bush at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit a couple of weeks back, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono argued for resumption of military ties saying, "We deserve it because we have undergone a reform in our military, with an emphasis on respecting human rights and democracy."

Seven years after the fall of president Suharto's New Order regime, the reform scorecard is far more complex. Tentara Nasional Indonesia (the armed forces, TNI) has withdrawn from its formal role in politics by giving up its reserved seats in the legislature. TNI also renounced its dwi fungsi (dual function) of preserving internal as well as external security. It offered the flawed but heart-warming declaration that its troops shouldn't vote, to show absolute political neutrality. TNI also even has gone along (so far) with the peace deal in tsunami-ravaged Aceh.

But the armed forces are still the country's most powerful institution - Suharto's political ruling vehicle, the Golkar party, ranks second - and remain largely beyond civilian control. TNI still finances much of its budget through business enterprises and is at the root of much of the country's corruption, the industry where Indonesia stands out globally. Suharto-era heavies still dominate the military ranks and politics, right up to former general Yudhoyono.

The US suspended military sales and exchanges with Indonesia in stages during the 1990s after mass killings in East Timor by soldiers and military-sponsored militias. There have been no meaningful convictions of military figures for these or other atrocities linked to TNI. The Bush administration may not mind Indonesia's Abu Ghraib-style justice (Iraqi prison where inmates were abused), where a few low-level scapegoats take the blame. In fact, the US military justice system may have learned from it.

Military personnel have carried on the New Order tradition of political violence, from the murder in 2001 of Papuan separatist leader Theys Eluay to the in-flight poisoning of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib in September 2004. The Munir case is particularly instructive. (See Arresting decay in Indonesia, Asia Times Online, July 7)

Like old times for New Order

Munir was a highly effective opponent of the New Order and its tailings, especially the military. A presidential investigative commission linked his murder to the National Intelligence Agency (BIN), then headed by General Abdullah Makhmud Hendropriyono, a key Suharto henchman.

Investigators found BIN documents proposing to rub out Munir by poisoning him on a flight. Yet prosecutors only brought charges against an off-duty pilot (with links to BIN) and some flight attendants, refusing to take the case beyond the plane's cabin to its masterminds.

You can read this failure to get to the heart of the plot in various ways. At one extreme, you could conclude that Yudhoyono is protecting BIN, truer to his military uniform than democracy or rule of law. The more likely answer is that even a democratically elected president who's a former general doesn't have the power to stand up to this ruthless military cabal that targeted Munir - not just to eliminate an enemy but to send a message that it still operates with total impunity.

If the US wants Indonesia to become a strong democracy, the last thing it should do is strengthen the hand of these dark forces by turning on the arms spigot.

On the terrorism front, the Indonesian police, separated from TNI in one of the few meaningful reforms since Suharto's fall, are the key. With aid from the US (police were already exempt from the embargo), Australia, Japan and others, the police have compiled an impressive arrest record against terrorism suspects. US-trained Detachment 88 carried out the November 9 raid that killed master bomber Azahari bin Husin. Resuming military ties won't help the police and could even hurt by distracting US attention and/or Indonesian funds from the police to TNI.

TNI has been trying to horn in on anti-terrorism activities, hoping to restore its neighborhood and village spy networks that enforced political orthodoxy under the New Order. Additional US funding may make it easier for TNI to reestablish its internal security role in anti-terrorism clothes. That's not to say that TNI hasn't played a big role in terrorism to date.

Pandora's box

Indonesia's revival of violent Islamic extremism traces directly to New Order loyalists, working through and within TNI, to undermine the reformist regime of Abdurrahman Wahid by stoking sectarian clashes in Central Sulawesi and the Malukus and perpetrating a string of religious and secular bombings. (See Terrorism links in Indonesia point to military, Asia Times Online, October 8, 2004)

Some experts dismiss this link between the military and killing in the name of Islam, drawing bright-line distinctions between violent Muslim militias in Ambon or Poso and Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda-linked group blamed for attacks on Western targets.

This parsing may have some legitimacy for drawing the family tree of violence or seeking research-grant funding, but it misses two broader points. TNI's funding and encouragement gave legitimacy and clout to radical Islam that had been fully discredited and driven out under Suharto. That opening made jihad fashionable in Indonesia. Fringe theorists try to connect the Bali attacks to TNI, but it's more likely a case of the monster it created rampaging out of control.

More importantly, TNI clearly and virtually worked openly to destabilize a legitimate president it feared might undermine its power. In the wake of these efforts, Wahid was impeached in 2001, and no subsequent president has challenged TNI's prerogatives or alumni. TNI has not reformed appreciably, and it's not hard to imagine what will happen if another reformer wins the presidency or another courageous soul carries on Munir's advocacy effectively. Does America really want Indonesia to be a nominal democracy with military thugs standing guard?

Wolf prints?

Actually, "nominal democracy with military thugs standing guard" against excessively corrupt and/or sectarian politicians has been the history of America's longstanding Muslim allies, Turkey and Pakistan. US policymakers may well see that model as viable for Indonesia.

Paul Wolfowitz, former Bush administration deputy secretary of defense, was US ambassador to Jakarta during the 1980s. When Wolfowitz wasn't at his wheel spinning questionable intelligence on Iraq into whole cloth about weapons of mass destruction or cheering native-welcoming US liberators and reconstruction paying for itself, he may well have argued that only TNI has the strength to hold together a diverse archipelago of 17,000 islands across 5,000 kilometers.

In any case, Wolfowitz couldn't help wax nostalgic about simpler New Order times of economic growth and political stability, without terrorist attacks, Islamist sentiments and other threats to foreign investors. Wolfowitz's protege, Rice, granted the waiver to resume military ties last week over Congress's objections.

It's easy to understand that the Bush administration, measuring by the standard of US national security, doesn't see much benefit in freedom or democracy for Indonesia and thinks of TNI as its only reliable partner. So what if putting the US squarely back in TNI's corner makes it easier for anti-American forces to flourish? It's not as if the Bush administration is trying to win any popularity contests in Indonesia.

Gary LaMoshi has worked as a broadcast producer and print writer and editor in the US and Asia. Longtime editor of investor rights advocate, he's also a contributor to Slate and