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
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
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
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.
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
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
eRaider.com, he's also a contributor to Slate and Salon.com.