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Indonesia Hopes for Improved Military Ties with US; Rights Groups Concerned

A debate has begun over whether the United States should renew full military ties with Indonesia. Opponents say the Indonesian military should improve its human rights record before links are restored, but the Bush administration says that greater ties now would lead Indonesia's security forces to conform to international standards of behavior.

Washington cut military ties with Jakarta in 1999, shortly after the Indonesian army went on the rampage in East Timor, killing more than a thousand people and forcing tens of thousands more into exile. The relationship chilled further in 2003, when the army was suspected of being involved in the murder of two American teachers in the restive province of Papua.

But U.S. and Indonesian troops worked well together in the massive relief operation that followed December's devastating earthquake and tsunami. Bush administration officials are indicating it is time to normalize the military relationship with Indonesia, which has become a key ally in the war on terror.

Indonesia is keen to resume joint military training and to gain access to U.S. weaponry. Marty Natalegawa is the spokesman for the Indonesian foreign minister, and he says that this would be a good time to renew relations.

"This is especially pertinent, especially important and should be especially non-controversial now given the fact that Indonesia now, in contrast to the past, is also a democracy," he said. "And it [is] always important to make sure to sustain this democratic path Indonesia has begun to have also the Indonesian military exposed to democratic thinking not only within Indonesia but also in the United States."

But resuming full military ties would require the consent of the U.S. Congress and human rights groups are already lobbying against the move. The New York-based pressure group East Timor Action Network says the Indonesian army still commits abuses and has failed to bring those responsible for past violations to justice.

Indonesia set up special courts to try those responsible for the violence in East Timor, but the courts acquitted the military and police officers who were tried, provoking accusations of a cover-up by rights groups.

The record of the Indonesian army includes many proven cases of serious human rights abuses, but the new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, himself a U.S.-trained retired general, says he is committed to turning the army into a professional body that answers to a civilian leadership.