US agreed to reverse Indonesian army ban for Obama visit
Philip Dorling and Nick McKenzie
December 17, 2010
INDONESIA threatened to derail a visit to Jakarta by President Barack Obama this year unless he overturned the US ban on training the controversial Kopassus army special forces.
Leaked US State Department cables reveal that the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, privately told the Americans that continuing the ban - introduced in 1999 because of Kopassus's appalling human rights record - was the ''litmus test of the bilateral relationship'' between the US and Indonesia.
Six months later the US agreed to resume ties with Kopassus, despite fierce criticism from some human rights groups and American politicians about Jakarta's failure to hold officers to account for their role in atrocities.
The cables, made available exclusively to the Herald by WikiLeaks, detail US concerns about Indonesia's failure to prosecute the military personnel responsible for murder and torture during the conflicts in East Timor and Aceh.
But they also reveal that US diplomats in Jakarta believed that Dr Yudhoyono's demands should be met to ensure that Indonesia's military and security services would protect US interests in the region, including co-operation in the fight against terrorism. It was also argued that closer military ties would encourage further reform of Indonesia's military.
The Indonesian leader's call to lift the Kopassus training ban is described in a January cable from the US embassy in Jakarta.
''President Yudhoyono (SBY) and other senior Indonesian officials have made it clear to us that SBY views the issue of Army Special Forces (KOPASSUS) training as a litmus test of the bilateral relationship and that he believes the … visit of President Obama will not be successful unless this issue is resolved in advance of the visit.''
The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said in July that the US needed to renew links with Kopassus ''as a result of Indonesian military reforms over the past decade, the ongoing professionalisation of the TNI [army], and recent actions taken by the Ministry of Defence to address human rights issues''.
An expert on the Indonesian military, the Australian Defence Force Academy associate professor Clinton Fernandes, said the cables appeared to show that members of Congress such as Patrick Leahy - author of the 1999 ban on training with Kopassus - ''have not been told the real reason for Mr Obama's decision, which was to provide photo opportunities for the President''.
''The decision to renew links shows contempt not only to the victims of gross human rights violations but to members of the US Congress,'' Professor Fernandes said.
US diplomatic cables from the past four years reveal that Jakarta's intense lobbying to lift the Kopassus ban was largely supported by the US embassy in Jakarta, which cited the Australian military's ties with Kopassus as a reason to lift the ban. An April 2007 cable says that ''our Australian counterparts often encourage us to resume training for Kopassus''.
But numerous cables also detail serious US concerns about resuming ties. In October 2007, the embassy told Washington that ''Indonesia has not prosecuted past human rights violations in any consistent manner.
''While we need to keep Indonesia mindful of the consequences of inaction on TNI accountability, Indonesia is unlikely to abandon its approach. We need therefore to encourage the Indonesian government to take alternative steps to demonstrate accountability.''
Another 2007 cable details US concern about the appearance at a Kopassus anniversary celebration of Tommy Suharto, the notorious son of the former president who served several years in prison for arranging the killing of a judge who convicted him of fraud.
In May 2008 the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was briefed by US diplomats that ''the key impediment to expanded engagement remains the failure of the GOI [Indonesia] to press for accountability for past human rights abuses by security forces''.
The cable welcomes Indonesia's continuing military reforms but noted they were not ''the same as putting generals behind bars for past human rights abuses''.
Last last year, about six months before the US lifted its Kopassus ban, a senior US official, Bill Burns, told Indonesian counterparts that ''engagement with Kopassus continued to be a difficult and complex issue, particularly as there remained many in Washington, including in Congress, with serious concerns about accountability for past Kopassus actions''.
But the US cables also reveal the Jakarta embassy's efforts to water down the background screening that Indonesian military officers must undergo if they undertake training in the US.
The US embassy is also revealed in another cable as heavily playing down a report by Human Rights Watch last year that alleged Kopassus soldiers had committed recent human rights abuses in Papua. The embassy calls the report unbalanced and unconfirmed and says the abuses detailed do not appear to ''meet the standard of gross violation of human rights''.