The U.S. Congress has voted to maintain restrictions on U.S. military aid to Indonesia, in an effort to force the country to take further steps to improve its army's respect for human rights. The decision ran counter to a request from the Bush administration to eliminate the restrictions, but pleased activists who say Indonesia's reforms have not gone nearly far enough.
The House of Representatives was willing to remove the restrictions, but the Senate was not, and when members of the two bodies met to negotiate a compromise, the Senate's view prevailed.
"The House has a sense that things are going in a very constructive direction and that there is a case for exchanges at a professional level that can be beneficial to both societies," said Representative Jim Leach, a Republican, who is chairman of the House subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific.
He says the compromise that became law earlier this month imposes only slightly easier conditions for expanding U.S. military aid to Indonesia.
"I think it represents a step forward, although perhaps not as great a step forward as might be warranted at this time," he added.
Senator Lisa Murkowski disagrees. She is also a Republican and is Representative Leach's counterpart as chairwoman of the Senate's subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific. She says Indonesia's new president has only made initial steps toward reforming the military and holding people accountable for past human rights violations in East Timor and elsewhere.
"With the right leadership and a strong leadership, I think that he can move them in the right direction," she said. "Am I convinced that they're there yet? Probably not."
This year's Foreign Operations budget sets three conditions Indonesia must meet before limits on U.S. sales of military equipment can be lifted and the U.S. Defense Department can provide financial help for Indonesia's military purchases. Last year there were four conditions, and they were slightly different.
"As seen from what we had last year, I believe there is an improvement," said Suhardjono Sastromihardjo, Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the Indonesian embassy in Washington.
The thrust of the congressional requirements is for Indonesia to prosecute soldiers who committed human rights violations in East Timor in 1999, cooperate with international investigations of what happened in East Timor and improve civilian control of the military. A requirement for help in the global war on terrorism has been dropped, and the country's police force is generally praised in that regard.
The law says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice must confirm to Congress that the conditions have been met. Until then, Indonesia can only buy "non-lethal" military equipment from the United States. But the law also gives the secretary of state the option of waiving the conditions if she asserts that U.S. national security interests are at stake.
"We hope that, in this case, the secretary of state could use the wavier so that we can buy not only the non-lethal military hardware, but also the lethal ones," said Suhardjono Sastromihardjo.
But U.S. and Indonesian human rights activists hope that does not happen. At the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, national coordinator Karen Orenstein says Indonesia is mostly only talking about military reform and will never actually take the necessary steps unless the United States keeps the pressure on by maintaining the conditions on military sales.
"Well, they should be maintained because there hasn't been an adequate level of military reform," she said. "There's been little, if any, actual reform. If the Indonesian military and government want those conditions to be entirely lifted and want a totally normalized relationship with the U.S. government in terms of security systems, then they simply have to comply with what's expected of any professional military and uphold protections for human rights, and hold their members accountable for violations."
Minister Sastromihardjo says Indonesia is working on reforms, but he acknowledges the country cannot yet meet the congressional conditions.
"I cannot blame those critics who [say] Indonesia has not done enough, but please understand that it takes time to really change everything, because we are dealing not only with the military issue, we are dealing with the social issue, political issue, economic issue," he added.
The Indonesian diplomat says the country's military wants to improve what he calls its "firepower" by buying new fighter aircraft, warships and ammunition, and by upgrading its aging U.S. weapons and radar systems.
Whether that will happen is now in the hands of Secretary Rice. She and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had written to Congress before the vote asking for the restrictions to be removed. The Bush administration says Indonesia's military has made noteworthy progress on human rights, and the best way to promote more progress is to help its modernization effort.
A Pentagon official familiar with the issue says the administration believes it does not need legal restrictions to conduct a responsible arms sales policy. But that same official, who requested anonymity, acknowledges that Indonesia has not met the congressional conditions as of now. So in the short term a wavier, which would likely draw considerable criticism from Congress and activists, is the only way Indonesia can possibly get what it wants from its military relationship with the United States.