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Secretary of State Clinton Should Bring Human Rights Pressure on Indonesia

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Message John Miller

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Indonesia offers the new Obama administration the opportunity to chart a new course in U.S. relations with world’s largest Muslim-majority country. The Secretary of State has sent an important signal about the importance of the relationship, by including Indonesia among the first countries she will visit in her new office.

Indonesians are certainly excited by the election of President Barack Obama, who lived there as a child. How long this honeymoon will last may depend on the administration’s policy towards engagement with Indonesia’s notorious military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia or TNI).

Secretary Clinton should break with the Bush administration’s failed policy of engagement with the TNI. The U.S. should once again use military assistance as leverage to promote reform and human rights.

For decades the United States was the Indonesian military’s largest weapons supplier. Indonesian officers earned prestige and promotions by training with the U.S. military. Beginning in the 1990s, Congress began to limit military assistance. When the people of East Timor voted for independence in 1999, Indonesia’s security forces unleashed a campaign of death and destruction in response. The Clinton administration then cut all ties to the Indonesian military. A few months later Congress made part of that ban law. For several years, U.S. assistance was conditioned on human rights progress. By 2005, the Bush administration had succeeded in reinstating nearly all assistance to the TNI.

Not surprisingly, re-engagement did not end the entrenched impunity of Indonesia's security forces for crimes against humanity and other serious violations committed in East Timor, West Papua and elsewhere. The TNI continues to resist civilian control and emphasize internal security. It resists attempts to dismantle its "territorial command" system which enables its continued involvement in business and politics. The implementation of a law meant to end military involvement in business has degenerated into farce, and its units are accused of involvement in a variety of illegal enterprises, including logging and narcotics trade.

While the abandonment of substantive pressure on human rights and reform was justified by the “war on terror,” the State Department's own Country Reports on Terrorism credits the Indonesian police for "major successes in breaking up terrorist cells linked to ... violent Islamic extremist organizations." The TNI goes unmentioned.

In its last years, the Bush administration sought to train members of Kopassus, Indonesia’s Special Forces, which was responsible for some of the worst human rights violations throughout the archipelago. U.S. assistance to Kopassus is currently on hold, and the new administration will have to decide whether or not to cooperate with the notorious unit. The U.S. should also avoid Indonesia’s main military and civilian intelligence agencies (BAIS and BIN) which have long records of repressing human rights activists and other critics. Retired senior military officials working in Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency (BIN) are suspected of planning and ordering the 2004 assassination of Munir Said Thalib, Indonesia's leading human-rights advocate.

The victims of U.S.-supported military human rights violations are clear about the need to leverage military assistance. East Timor's official Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation called on countries to make military assistance to Indonesia “totally conditional on progress towards full democratisation, the subordination of the military to the rule of law and civilian government, and strict adherence with international human rights.” An Indonesian human rights activist told the Jakarta Post soon after Obama’s election that the U.S. should ‘reinstate its military embargo against us’ another Indonesian activist said "if Indonesia does not respond positively to U.S. pressure.’

When she visits Indonesia, Secretary Clinton should turn the page on the Bush administration’s subversion of human rights concerns in U.S. foreign relations. She can open a new chapter in U.S. relations by making clear that future support for the Indonesian military is contingent upon real reform and genuine accountability for human rights crimes. By doing so, she can make clear that U.S. support for human rights and democracy is real, not just rhetoric.

John M. Miller is National Coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, a U.S.-based human rights group (

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John M. Miller is National Coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN). He is Treasurer of the War Resisters League.
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