Accessibility links

Breaking News

US Military Wants More Interaction With Indonesia

The U.S. Defense Department would like to increase its military interaction with Indonesia, but in a vote earlier this month the U.S. Congress continued its practice of imposing restrictions on that interaction until Indonesia improves its human rights record. For this second of two reports on U.S.-Indonesia military relations, VOA Defense Correspondent Al Pessin at the Pentagon spoke to the U.S. Pacific commander and others involved in the controversy to find out how the limitations affect U.S.-Indonesian military relations and the broader strategic situation in the region.

Indonesia lies just about in the middle of the vast expanse of the U.S. Pacific Command, which stretches from its headquarters in Hawaii nearly to the coast of Africa. The U.S. Pacific commander, Admiral William Fallon, would like to do more to work with the Indonesian military, but his hands are somewhat tied.

"Frankly, the real challenge for us is that there have been a number of restrictions that have been applied to our ability to provide the kind of assistance that we are capable of providing. I've encouraged our leaders in Washington to seriously consider loosening these restrictions, and to allow us to provide more military financial support and educational training to the Indonesian military establishment," he said.

Admiral Fallon says more educational exchanges with the Indonesian military would contribute to the reforms the country's new government is trying to implement. "I found on my visit, and in my extensive discussions, that there's a clear recognition of the sins of the past, a desire and willingness to change behaviors. We've seen evidence of some of that, and in my opinion we need to be doing more. I'd like to see us do more," he said.

Admiral Fallon points to what he calls a "remarkable turnaround" in the situation in Indonesia since the tsunami late last year, including a peace agreement with rebels in hard-hit Aceh Province.

Republican Representative Jim Leach, the chairman of the House of Representatives' subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, would also like to see more U.S.-Indonesia military exchanges. "The challenge in Indonesia is to have the military become exclusively a force for modernization rather than repression," he said.

But his fellow-Republican and counterpart as chairwoman of the Senate's East Asia and Pacific subcommittee, Senator Lisa Murkowski, is not convinced that Indonesia's military commanders have demonstrated a sincere commitment to build an army that respects human rights and brings violators to account. "You have to be concerned that there will be those that would perhaps take advantage of additional flexibility and use it to their gain at our expense," he said.

Human rights activists point out that restrictions on U.S.-Indonesian military educational exchanges have largely been eliminated in recent years, leaving only prohibitions against selling Indonesia lethal military hardware and providing direct financing for the country's military purchases. Karen Orenstein of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network says those restrictions should remain until Indonesia's military takes more concrete steps to demonstrate a new respect for human rights. And she says past military educational exchanges and training have not helped accomplish that.

"The Pentagon has said that under Suharto. They said it during 1999 at the height of violence in East Timor. And they say it now. Their line hasn't changed. We have decades of training and close relations with the Indonesian military, and it only proved that human rights training we were training, or didn't give, didn't have any effect," she said.

But Admiral Fallon, the U.S. Pacific commander, also has another concern. He notes that the commander of Russia's Pacific Fleet recently visited Indonesia, and talked with officials about providing help for the country's military modernization effort. "It's clear that there needs to be some extensive overhaul of their military, and they know it. And they're looking for help wherever they can get it. And in the absence of us providing assistance, as their military ages, as their equipment deteriorates they're going to be probably increasingly looking to other sources to help them. They need help. They haven't been shy about asking for it. We are very willing to do it. We have to figure out how to move forward to be able to support them," he said.

Ms. Orenstein, the human rights activist, says Indonesia's military is heavily invested in U.S. equipment and a U.S.-style structure, and is not likely to change that.

But the Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the Indonesian embassy in Washington, Suhardjono Sastromihardjo, says the United States should not rely on that assumption. "We want to upgrade our military with or without the United States, of course. And we are looking to diversify our military stocks of aircraft, ships, firepower, radar systems, and so on, by maintaining relations with other countries, such as Russia, China, South Africa and others, just to find alternatives if we are always restricted by the U.S," he said.

Mr. Sastromihardjo says he hopes the U.S. Secretary of State will exercise her authority to declare a wavier of congressional restrictions on military sales to Indonesia. But if she doesn't, he says his government might well turn to other countries for help.

Meanwhile, Indonesia, which has been hit twice by major terrorist attacks, is the largest recipient of U.S. international aid for counter-terrorism training. But most of that money goes to the country's police force.