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US-Indonesia Move Closer to Full Military Relations - 2002-08-15

The United States is moving toward restoring full military relations with Indonesia after a three-year hiatus. Washington has also decided to give Indonesia more than $50 million in aid to improve its security forces. Analysts say these steps may give a renewed sense of legitimacy to the Indonesian army, whose image has suffered because of the army's alleged involvement in atrocities in East Timor.

For decades, the United States was a major source of support to the Indonesian army - providing training and sophisticated weaponry. During the Cold War, the United States saw the Indonesian government as a staunch anti-communist bulwark in a region with many potential and real adversaries. But human rights groups opposed U.S. support for the Indonesian military, seeing it as endorsement of hardline tactics by Indonesian security forces against political and ethnic dissent.

In 1999, Washington suspended its military relations with Jakarta after the Indonesian army was implicated in violence that wracked East Timor at the time of its referendum on independence.

Now, prompted partly by the U.S.-led war on international terrorism, U.S.-Indonesian military ties are on the mend. Secretary of State Colin Powell, during his recent visit to Jakarta, announced that the United States will provide more than $50 million in aid to Indonesian security forces.

Most of the money will go to the Indonesian police. Some is earmarked for training the army in counter-terrorism measures and a small amount ($400,000) needs U.S. congressional approval to be used for military education.

Analysts say the resumption of U.S. aid may boost the army's standing in Jakarta. "We still have to see what effect the American support will have. I think it is considerable," said Daniel Lev, a specialist on Indonesian politics at the University of Washington. "And I think the political leadership of the army is overjoyed by this renewal of the connection, even though there is very little money provided as yet for the army. It's basically for training of officers here. What's important about it is the symbolic support. It is a relegitimation of the army."

Professor Lev says although the Indonesian army is losing its reserved seats in the country's parliament, its political influence will remain strong and will be boosted by the resumption of ties with Washington.

Kelley Currie, who watches political developments in Indonesia, agrees that renewed military ties may be good for the army's self esteem.

"It may serve internally to boost their morale and to restore some of their lost sense of well-being, because they certainly have taken a beating in the past three or four years, when the practices of the military have become very much public information within Indonesia and it has tarnished their image internally," said Ms. Currie, who is deputy director for Asia with the International Republican Institute. "But it doesn't really do much, having improved relations on a mil-to-mil basis with the United States, doesn't really do much for the Indonesian military in terms of their image with the Indonesian public, in my opinion."

Professor Lev agrees that not everyone in Indonesia is pleased with the prospect of U.S. support for the army, and he points to protests outside the U.S. embassy in Jakarta during Secretary Powell's visit.

"You will notice that students are demonstrating against that renewal of support," he said. "And many, many other people are very distressed by this, because they understand that the politics of it is much like the politics of 1957, when the United States supported the army for Cold War reasons. Now, it's for reasons of Islamic radicalism."

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country. While most of the population follows a moderate version of Islam, there are some radical groups, and a few that engage in violence for local political or separatist purposes. Some militant Indonesian muslims are suspected of links with Al Qaida, the international terrorist organization. Ms. Currie says the United States may want better cooperation with Indonesia's military in order to combat international terrorism, but she says that's not what the Indonesian people are told.

"In the news that's for local consumption, about this improvement in relations with the United States, the spin on it is very different than what we get and what we see on this side," she said. "They are very clear to draw a bright line between any cooperation with the United States on security issues and the war on terror. The Indonesian military leadership does not want to be associated with the war on terrorism."

Ms. Currie says the Indonesian army does not believe its domestic credibility or popularity are enhanced by joining the United States to fight Islamic militants.