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US Hopes Latest Engagement With Indonesia Will Boost Influence on Human Rights


Analysts say concern over China's growing influence in Southeast Asia is only a small factor in the the U.S. government's decision to re-establish military ties to Kopassus, Indonesia's counter-terrorism force.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates lifted an 12-year ban on American assistance to Indonesia's Special Forces Command, known as Kopassus.

Some analysts argue that China's growing influence in the region is a key reason the U.S. decided to re-engage in relations with Kopassus.

But Defense analyst Ian Storey with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore disagrees. "In the case of Indonesia, it is more plausible now to argue now that the U.S. is more concerned with China's rising influence in Southeast Asia as a whole," he said. "And this has been a factor in re-energizing the military-to-military ties with Indonesia, but not the primary factor. It's a factor."

Alexandra Wulan with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta says that the renewed relations could have a positive outcome for Indonesia.

"First of all of course the U.S. goal in Southeast Asia countering terrorism for instance, and their second one, this is like a consolation for Indonesia and of course assurance to Indonesia as well that the U.S. still wants to engage with Indonesia and the region," Wulan states.

The ban was the last major sanction imposed on the country for Suharto-era human rights abuses.

During that time, Kopassus members were convicted of abducting student activists in 1997 and 1998 and for abuses that led to the 2001 death of a Papuan activist. The unit was also implicated in serious human rights abuses in Aceh Province, and in East Timor before that territory gained independence in 2002.

Human rights organizations claim the unit continues to commit abuses, especially in Papua, a mineral-rich island with a secessionist movement, since Indonesia began democratizing in 1998. As a result, they have denounced the U.S.'s decision to lift the ban.

Mr. Gates said that for him the question of working with Kopassus came down to the best way to advance human rights. He said working with them will produce greater gains in human rights for people.

Analyst Wulan agrees, "Dealing with human rights issues in Indonesia, of course, Indonesia will need knowledgeable military [training] on those sort of principles of course. So education, military training would be significant for the Indonesian military to deal with human rights issues," she said.

Storey says improving Indonesia's military capacity will not change the balance of power in Southeast Asia in the near future.

"Indonesian armed forces although they are large, they are not very capable," Storey says, "that is to say they are not capable of power projection. Indonesia does not have a strong navy. In fact its navy is barely capable of patrolling the country's territorial waters."

Analysts say Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries may use the potential growing influence of China as a way to extract concessions from the U.S., but they don't want to change the balance of power in the region. They still look to the the United States to protect sea lanes and other vital interests in the Pacific.

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