U.S. Helps Indonesia's Kopassus Despite Human Rights Record

Kopassus is coming in from the cold and the debate is heating up.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is lifting a 12-year-old ban on military cooperation with Indonesia's notorious special forces. Washington slapped on the ban in response to allegations of widespread human rights abuse by the red beret-wearing commandos during the dark days of the last decade of the 32-year reign of the dictator, Soeharto.

Kopassus stands accused of a long list of shadowy misdeeds against Soeharto's opponents.

Through the 1990s atrocities such as disappearances, torture and killings took place in Jakarta, other big cities and the countryside. Kopassus was also blamed for violent excesses in the restive provinces of Aceh and Papua along with East Timor, which fell into chaos when it broke free from Indonesian rule in 1999.

A lot has happened since Soeharto was forced from power in disgrace and later died. It's clear that Washington wants to reward Indonesia for transforming itself into a functioning (albeit imperfect) democracy where human rights have greatly improved.

But there are also strong security reasons for the thaw.  From the mid-1960s, successive U.S. administrations cultivated Indonesia as a staunch anti-communist force. Washington helped its military and tolerated the excesses of its generals.

Now  Indonesia is a key ally in America's struggle against extremism.

Southeast Asia's largest country is the world's most populous Muslim nation. While its President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono promotes diversity, secularism and tolerance, his security forces work hard to stamp out Islamist militants. The two countries formed a common bond during the so-called "war on terror" when bombs went off in Bali and Jakarta in the years after 9/11. 

The U.S. isn't the first Western nation to restart military aid for Kopassus. Neighboring Australia (who lost 88 citizens in the 2002 Bali bombings) restored joint training programs with Kopassus in 2005. 

Human rights groups are far from happy. While they admit Indonesia has come a long way since Soeharto's tyranny was put to an end by massive street protests and riots they say some rights abuses still take place. Moreover, those allegedly responsible for some of the worst cases of the past remain at large and unpunished --some even hold senior official positions.

Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, describes Gates's announcement in Jakarta as "a stunning betrayal of the standards the U.S. has." She says the change could "have ramifications well beyond Indonesia, in effect telegraphing to abusive militaries worldwide that the Obama administration's human rights standards are up for negotiation."

Barack Obama is going to Jakarta later this year for an official visit that has already been postponed three times. Will this decision overshadow his trip back to a city that he called home as a child for four years?  What will it mean for Indonesia's continuing push to build a robust democracy? 

Geoff Spencer is Asia Society's Vice President for Communications. He was a foreign correspondent who reported from Indonesia from 1997 to 2002.





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Geoff Spencer oversees Asia Society's online, public relations, and marketing departments. He has over 25 years of experience as an Asia-based journalist.