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The U.S.-Indonesian Military Relationship

Author: Adam O’Brien
October 3, 2005

What is the history of U.S. military involvement in Indonesia?

The United States for decades has supplied a variety of military assistance to Indonesia, a multi-ethnic archipelago of a country that is home to some 241 million people and, not incidentally, the world’s largest Muslim nation. During this period, Indonesia was ruled primarily by dictatorial leaders, and as a result, American military aid often was controversial. In 1998, Indonesians took to the streets to oust their longtime strongman, Suharto, opening up a period of democratic reform. But internal conflicts, some ethnic, some religious and others purely local, continue to roil the nation, and human rights groups still view the Indonesian military as a serial abuser of human rights. That set up a dilemma for Washington, which during the 1990s curbed severely its military ties with Indonesia’s armed forces, only to ramp it up again after the events of September 11, 2001. The 9/11 attacks convinced U.S. policymakers that confronting al-Qaeda-linked terrorist networks in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, had to take priority.

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What kinds of security assistance is the U.S. currently providing Indonesia?

U.S. assistance to Indonesia’s armed forces (TNI) and internal security agencies funds six different programs and initiatives:

  • International Military Education and Training (IMET). Under this Department of Defense program, foreign military personnel receive training in order to increase professionalism, strengthen respect for democratic values and human rights, and cement Indonesia’s ongoing cooperation with the U.S. military. From 2002-04, Indonesia received $1.3 million from this program. The IMET program was suspended from 1999-2002 due to concerns about human rights abuses by the TNI in East Timor. In 2005, Indonesia received $600,000 in IMET funds, while President Bush plans on asking Congress to increase funding to $800,000 in 2006.
  • Antiterrorism Assistance Program. This State Department program will spend $6 million in 2006 to train and equip a special Indonesian counterterrorism police unit called Special Detachment 88 (SD-88). SD-88 was launched in 2003 in response to the Bali bombings and has already received $14.8 million from this program.
  • Counterterrorism Fellowship Program. The Department of Defense funds education in counterterrorism practices and strategies for Indonesian military and intelligence officials. From 2002-04, $4.2 million has been spent on this program.
  • Military spare parts for non-lethal items. In 2000, the U.S. began allowing Indonesia to purchase, with proper disclosure, some military spare parts for "non-lethal" items. For example, in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami disaster, the U.S. sold spare parts for Hercules C-130 military transport planes so that Indonesia could deliver humanitarian supplies to Aceh province, where a long separatist insurgency has been ongoing.
  • Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Although Indonesia has not historically qualified to receive grants and loans for weapons and other military equipment and training, Congress partially opened the door to such assistance in 2005 by providing $6 million to the Indonesian navy for maritime security. Amnesty International and other rights groups oppose this move, however, on grounds that Indonesia’s armed forces have not acted to end their human-rights abuses.
  • Economic Support Funds. From 2001-04, the U.S. government gave Indonesia $23.2 million in general economic assistance, part of which is spent bolstering the country’s police and security forces.
Why does Washington provide assistance?

Indonesia is considered a central theater in the war on terrorism by many policymakers in the Bush administration. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, which, combined with rampant poverty and political instability, could fuel the growth of al-Qaeda-linked terrorist cells. The lush and luxuriant resorts of the island of Bali have already been the scene of two spectacular bombings targeting foreign tourists attributed to the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah, which has been linked to al-Qaeda. The bombing in 2002 killed 202 people, while the recent October 2005 suicide attacks have killed at least 19.

Has the assistance been effective?

U.S. officials claim their support of Indonesia as a partner in the war on terror has led to real strategic successes. For example, William P. Pope, acting coordinator for counterterrorism, reported in May 2005 congressional testimony that SD-88 had arrested the lead terrorist behind an Australian embassy attack in Jakarta and apprehended three terrorists as they prepared to bomb a major shopping center. However, given the most recent Bali bombings, terrorist groups are still able to successfully conduct operations on Indonesian soil.

Are there restrictions placed on U.S. assistance?

Currently, Congress does not allow U.S. military assistance in the form of licenses to export lethal defense articles to Indonesia and only provides limited and conditional foreign military financing. Congress has stated that these restrictions and limitations will only be lifted if the Indonesian government holds the TNI accountable for gross human rights violations committed in places like East Timor, if it tackles corruption in the army, and if it cooperates fully in the war on terror.

Has the TNI improved its human rights record?

According the State Department’s 2004 Human Rights report, the Indonesian government’s human rights record remains poor. The State Department goes on to say that in 2004: “Security force members murdered, tortured, raped, beat, and arbitrarily detained civilians and members of separatist movements, especially in Aceh and to a lesser extent in Papua.”

Furthermore, the Indonesian Government has done little to hold accountable those in the military who have committed human rights abuses in the past. After the events on East Timor in 1999, when the island voted for independence and were met with an Indonesian military offensive killing at least 1,400 people, Human Rights Watch reports the country has investigated only five cases and brought only eighteen people to trial. The government “has failed to hold accountable a single member of the security forces for the human rights violations committed during this period.”

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