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US Lawmakers Consider Future of Democracy and Human Rights Indonesia

US lawmakers have been considering the future of democracy in Indonesia. At a congressional hearing, U.S. officials advocated continuing support for Indonesian democratization, while some lawmakers criticized the planned resumption of U.S. military training aid to Jakarta:

Opening the hearing of the House Asia-Pacific Subcommittee, Congressman Jim Leach said Indonesia has shown that it is managing a dramatic transition from a corrupt era to democracy.

Noting three elections in Indonesia, he says Indonesians should be proud of this progress which would have been unimaginable three years ago, and in which a civil Islamic society played a key role.

At the same time, Mr. Leach says challenges lie ahead for Indonesia's President and other leaders. "We wish them success in promoting economic growth, resolving peacefully separatist and communal conflicts, improving implementation of de-centralization and regional autonomy, improving the human rights record and accountability of security forces, combating terrorism and ensuing that institutions that wield public power are fully accountable to the people of Indonesia," he said.

In testimony to the committee, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Marie Huhtala, said Indonesia's President (Susilo Banbang Yudhoyono) has a strong mandate. "He has articulated an ambitious program to reform the military, fight terrorism, and control corruption. We want to see him succeed," he said.

Some lawmakers in Congress are angry the Bush administration has re-certified Indonesia for a resumption of U.S. military training funds, known as IMET, a decision formalized by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

In Thursday's hearing, Eni Faleomavega who represents American Samoa in Congress, spoke against the decision. "Even in the aftermath of the devastation caused by the recent tsunami, the media has reported that the Indonesian military has withheld food and humanitarian assistance from those believed to be pro-independence. The U.S. must not and cannot turn a blind eye to these abuses or Indonesia's repression of the people of Aceh and West Papua," he said.

State Department official Huhtala says the Indonesian military for the most part performed well after the tsunami disaster and did not attempt systematically to block relief or siphon off aid.

She says the United States continues to stress, and help Indonesia with, democracy-building and human rights. "Indonesia's human rights record is mixed and there is much to be done. That said, there has been progress, including an increased willingness among the Indonesian army to hold their own service members accountable for human rights violations," he said.

She says training funds will help make up for lost time in helping educate Indonesia's military in respect for human rights after a gap of 15 years.

A response on the human rights front came from Edmund McWilliams, a former U.S. diplomat now with the Indonesia Human Rights Network. "We have in Indonesia a new government, a fragile fledgling government, that unfortunately is not prepared or not capable of defending fully the fundamental human rights of their own people. The principal menace to those fundamental human rights and also to this government is posed by essentially the Indonesian military," he said.

U.S. officials say they believe the tsunami disaster has been a catalyst for negotiations between Indonesia's government and rebels in Aceh province, a point emphasized in testimony Thursday.

A former U.S. Ambassador Alphonse La Porta, now heading the U.S.-Indonesia Society, says the United States should help foster debate about the role of Islam as Indonesia moves forward. "There is a vigorous debate in Indonesia today about the role of Islam in both national and personal life of Indonesians, and I think the United States should support that in every possible," he said.