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Indonesia: Business as Usual

image by Gabriel Held

Ever since the student-led movement ousted Indonesia’s autocratic leader Suharto in May of 1998, Indonesia’s attempted transformation to democracy has progressed haltingly, to say the least. Longtime observers of the world’s fourth most populous nation immediately argued that reformasi and demokratisasi would be difficult if not impossible as long as Indonesia’s military (T.N.I.) remained free of civilian control. That change was supposed to take place, but it hasn’t. The consequences could be a death knell for Indonesia’s demokratisasi.

            Indonesia’s military has long considered itself the champion of Indonesia’s self-preservation, after their original rag-tag outfits defeated the Dutch colonial army in the late 1940s. But the military, once a nationalist icon, has become a disgrace. After Suharto rose to power with the blood of as many as two million Indonesians on his hands —mostly members of the Indonesian Communist Party (P.K.I.), leftist sympathizers, and Chinese Indonesians —Indonesia’s military has shaped itself into a ruthless vehicle of suppression and an elite political machine, well-positioned to obtain legal prerequisites for themselves, the country’s corrupt ruling elite, and multinationals such as ExxonMobil and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc.

                  “The military owns a lot of its own business, is involved in a lot of legitimate and illegal businesses: prostitution rings, charging tolls, extortion from merchants,” says Kurt Biddle, coordinator of the recently formed U.S.-based Indonesia Human Rights Network (IHRN). “You can’t control a military [that] ends up receiving most of [its] funding from other sources.” A recent report from the International Crisis Group in Brussels estimated that the T.N.I. earns nearly seventy percent of its income from its own private resources.

                  But kingdom-building in the vast, sprawling archipelago of well over 13,000 islands has always been contentious—for the Majapahit and Malacca empires in the 14th and 15th centuries, for the Dutch colonialists, and for the government of the Republic of Indonesia over the last fifty years. The current reformation process, which consists of decentralizing the extremely corrupt and centralized government, is being squeezed by uneven distribution of natural resources in the nation’s 350-plus districts. At the same time, inexperienced administrators find themselves forced to introduce new taxes that they are often unable to collect—while they await promises of funds from the central government. Meanwhile, the central government is caught between regional governmental demands and massive foreign debt exacerbated by a weak rupiah.

                  Worst of all, little has improved involving human rights in the last few years. Hardly a soul has been prosecuted for the murder and scorched earth campaign in East Timor following the August 30, 1999 independence vote. Twenty-two suspects in five different cases have been named, but no indictments have been issued. Major General Adam Damiri, the highest-ranking suspect, was merely reassigned to Aceh, where human rights violations are continuing at a clip equivalent to those in East Timor.

                  According to the Indonesian human rights group Kontras (The Commission for The Disappeared and Victims of Violence), from January 2000 to February 2001, in Aceh 673 people have been killed and 161 have disappeared, and there have been 907 cases of torture. At the end of the April thousands of troops, trained by the country’s notoriously brutal special forces (Kopassus) were airlifted into Aceh. The recently released 2001 Amnesty International report on Indonesia explains that in Aceh, “Hundreds of people were extra-judicially executed. Some victims were tortured before being killed. Scores of people “disappeared” or were detained because of their alleged connection with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Torture and ill treatment were routine in both police and military custody and some people died as a result of torture. A significant proportion of the victims were ordinary civilians, including women, children, humanitarian workers, human rights defenders and political activists.”

                  Rogue military personnel have also aggravated inter-religious violence in the former Spice Islands, the province known as Maluku. Extortion schemes and illegal businesses have been reported as soldiers and police exploit tensions between Muslims and Christians. In the past two year violence in Maluku has displaced some 500,000 people and killed more than 5,000. In West Papua, the other region most feared by Jakarta for its pro-independence sentiment, Indonesian police and military have continued their Suharto-era traditions of violently suppressing pro-independence activists with arbitrary detentions, torture, and killings. Five Papuan independence leaders are currently on trial for treason.

                  The United States has been the principal purveyor of weaponry and training to the Indonesian military ever since Suharto’s brutal rise to power. Prompted by the devastation in East Timor, the U.S. Congress finally placed a ban (the Leahy Amendment) on training and assistance to the Indonesian military. But even though abhorrent violations have continued, the Pentagon recently made inquiries into resuming weapon sales and training to the Indonesian military.

                  The U.S. military’s participation in a joint “humanitarian exercise” with the Indonesian military in May sparked criticism. The so-named Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) takes place annually and includes several Asian nations. Some U.S. House Democrats sharply criticized the Indonesian government for ongoing human rights abuses in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for fiscal years 2002 and 2003. “This bill proves that the U.S. Congress has heard the many voices here in the U.S. who are gravely concerned about worsening human rights conditions throughout Indonesia,” Biddle says. IHRN has urged the Bush Administration to stand strong in support of Indonesian democratization and to maintain and strengthen the current Congressional ban on U.S. aid to the Indonesian military.

                  “If the U.S. were to suddenly begin military assistance that would send totally the wrong message. That would be a very dangerous step,” said Sylvia Tiwon, a professor of Indonesian culture and literature at the University of California at Berkeley. “That would really shore up the army. Right now, the army has such a poor public image because of its record on human rights violations.”

                  The Leahy Amendment spells out six conditions for Indonesia to fulfill before military ties can be renewed. The most important of these is an insistence on accountability for abuses perpetrated throughout Indonesia, particularly in East Timor. “The Bush Administration has to have a letter of certification to Congress saying that the six conditions have been fulfilled, and the Administration is not willing to step out on a limb and certify that yet, because they have in no way been fulfilled,” Biddle notes.

                  The Indonesian judicial system also is in need of an overhaul. Both the Criminal and Criminal Procedure Code were supposed to have been significantly rewritten and implemented by the end of 2000, but neither changed at all.  Detainees are rarely allowed their rights and there is no sound witness program. Judges have inherited an attitude of fear ingrained from Suharto’s New Order regime. “There have been cases where there have been brave courageous judges who have rules against the powers,” Tiwon observes, “but as of yet, most cases of even the worst human rights violations don’t make it to court. And if they do, they still look into the past.” She adds that it’s “not just a case of incompetent judges, and dishonest judges, but terrified judges.”

                  Meanwhile, current President Abdurrahman Wahid hangs on to his presidency by a slender thread. Unless he steps down or turns over executive reins to the president in waiting, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the People’s Consultative Assembly, the nation’s top legislative body, and one full of many legislators with ties to the Suharto regime, is set to begin impeachment proceedings August 1, possibly sooner.

                  The Indonesian military’s confidence must be returning after it recently refused orders from Wahid to institute martial law, which would have allowed Wahid to dissolve Parliament and avoid impeachment proceedings. The crux of the impeachment had rested on charges of corruption, “Bruneigate” and “Bulogate,” for which Wahid was cleared by the nation’s attorney general. The total of the missing money came to somewhere around five million dollars, miniscule compared to the billions of dollars filched by Suharto & Co., which the same legislators are ignoring.

                  Wahid’s loss of support has come quickly since his inauguration in October 1999. His declarations that those who violated human rights in East Timor and elsewhere would be prosecuted, along with his conciliatory attitudes towards Indonesia’s secessionist-minded provinces, further pitted the military against him. “There have been some very systematic attempts by Suharto’s group, Golkar, and the military working with other parties to dislodge the current president,” says Tiwon. Golkar is the political party created by Suharto, which engineered all past elections overwhelmingly in his favor. “If they dislodge this current president, what does it say about the chances for any of his successors?” asks Tiwon.

                  Megawati’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, now includes many old Golkar figures as well as international terrorists such as Eurico Guterres, perhaps the man most responsible for the campaign of death and destruction in East Timor perpetrated by pro-integration militias and the T.N.I. East Timorese and many of the international community are still awaiting a UN Tribunal for Guterres and the others. Factions of the New Order, the instigator of violence across the archipelago, reappear in many forms, most recently as the Anti-Communist Alliance (AKA), which is threatening bookstore owners to purge their shelves of books by Karl Marx, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and Indonesia’s most famous author, Khalil Gibran,as well as works from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, self-help guides that would hardly inspire a return of the P.K.I.

                  U.S.-based multinationals have merely compounded the hardships faced by Indonesians. Nike, Adidas, and Reebok have fought against a living wage for labor, while the Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc. has plundered some of the large gold and copper mines in its own West Papua. According to the Indonesian environmental group WALHI, the company is dumping 300,000 tons of waste every day, polluting rivers and the southern coast of West Papua. Indonesian security forces have repeatedly suppressed peaceful protests against the mines, and Freeport-McMoRan has continually evaded responsibility for both human rights violations committed near its facilities and the environmental devastations caused by its operations. In Aceh, meanwhile, ExxonMobil has been criticized for engaging in similar activities—financing the presence of Indonesian military personnel to protect the extraction of liquid natural gas from its massive Arun gas field.

                  Whether Indonesia’s 21st century can be any different from its past remains to be seen. The desires for power and political manipulation are rife, threatening to tear apart the reformasi that the Indonesian people have risked life and limb to achieve. The military and corrupt political factions are successfully reasserting political power. The future of the Leahy Amendment under the Bush Administration, meanwhile, remains uncertain. Yet just as international pressure played a role in shaking Indonesia’s Dutch colonialist shackles, perhaps it can once again sway the nation’s current government towards the type of democracy Indonesia’s founders originally sought.

                  Gregg Salisbury is a journalist living in St. Paul, Minnesota.

To find our who represents you, visit

For more information:
The Indonesia Human Rights Network:

Amnesty International:

Human Rights Watch:


International Crisis Group:

Points of Action*

*from the Indonesia Human Rights Network

- Urge your Representative and Senators to help strengthen current restrictions on U.S. military assistance to Indonesia in the FY 2002 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill.

- Press for an International Tribunal for human rights violations committed in Easte Timor throughout the occupation (1975-1999), and justice for victims and survivors of human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian Armed Forces throughout Indonesia.

-Encourage your Representative and Senators to co-sponsor House Resolution (H.Con.Res. 60) or Senate Resolution (S.Con.Res.9), which condemn the post-referendum violence in East Timor and urge the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal to prosecute crimes against humanity perpetrated in East Timor.


Gregg Salisbury

Gregg Salisbury is a journalist living in St. Paul, Minnesota.


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