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Indonesian Cadets Learn About Human Rights - 2002-09-06

The Indonesian military's poor human rights record has drawn international criticism for years and caused a rift in relations with the United States. Now, cadets at Indonesian military academies learn about human rights, in an effort to improve the armed forces' reputation and perhaps woo more aid from Washington.

A drill instructor puts a platoon through its paces on parade. But if the soldiers do not exactly move in unison and whisper and giggle in the ranks, it only betrays them for what they are, first-year cadets at the Indonesian Army Academy in Magelang, West Java.

The school is one of three that graduate more than 500 cadets a year to serve as officers in Indonesia's army, air force, navy and marines.

The military invited a handful of journalists to the academies last week, to show it is trying to improve its soldiers' understanding of human rights.

Human rights groups say the armed forces have committed atrocities throughout Indonesia for years. Among the problems are the harsh tactics used against separatist movements and the heavy-handed handling of student demonstrations in the capital, Jakarta.

The most serious allegations come from East Timor. The military has been implicated in the destruction of much of the territory when residents there voted for independence in 1999.

After that, the military put human rights in the curriculum at the military academies. During three years at the academy, each cadet takes just over 100 hours of course work in human rights and humanitarin law out of 7,000 hours of classes.

Brigadier General Noer Muis is the vice governor of the academy in Magelang.

The General says cadets are taught basic knowledge of human rights, what he calls "the do's and don'ts." He also says the course includes case studies such as East Timor, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

It is the East Timor example that has human rights groups worried.

General Noer was the army commander in East Timor when armed militia groups virtually seized control in the weeks surrounding its 1999 vote for independence from Indonesia. Human rights groups charge that members of the armed forces were involved in the rampage.

General Noer is now on trial in Indonesia's human rights court on charges he failed to keep subordinates from participating in the violence.

General Noer says his case serves as a good chance for his students to see Indonesia's judicial process. He also says that even if he is on trial, it does not mean he did anything wrong.

For the students, it seems, the human rights classes are just another item on the list of subjects they have to master.

This first year cadet says all the students are in class. He says he will try to understand and he will become competent, but he does not want to think further about human rights. He adds that the class is just one of the steps toward his military success.

Asked about allegations that the military committed atrocities in East Timor and other provinces, this third-year cadet was not certain.

He says, as students, their time is spent studying and they do not follow such issues. But he adds, he is not 100 percent sure the alleged abuses happened.

Indonesia has nearly 337,000 soldiers and sailors. All of them are supposed to receive some training in human rights. Commanders say they are committed to improving ethics and discipline but it takes time.

General Endriartono Sutarto is the head of the armed forces.

The general says he cannot guarantee that all of his soldiers will adhere to human rights law. "It is impossible," he said. "100 percent of soldiers, they all respect the human rights. It is almost impossible."

General Endriartono says the reasons are simple. Indonesia cannot afford to pay its soldiers enough even to feed themselves. And that means some of them "get up to mischief."

The general says he is not making excuses for his soldiers' and the commanders remain ultimately responsible. But, he says, with conditions like that the military cannot operate at its optimum level.