WASHINGTON - Will U.S. training improve the Indonesian military's terrible human-rights record?
During a visit to Jakarta in early August, Secretary of State Colin Powell vowed he would get Congress to restart a military training program suspended in 1992 after Indonesian troops committed atrocities in East Timor. He argued that exposing officers to democratic institutions and human-rights values would have beneficial effects.
But this is a risky and questionable proposition at best. American taxpayers could end up helping to train killers and torturers. By resuming training without significant progress by the Indonesian government to control and discipline the military, the Bush administration risks undermining those working for democratic reform in Indonesia. Greater reform is the best way to safeguard against Islamic radicalism.
Among those welcoming moves by the Senate Appropriations Committee to lift restrictions on International Military Education and Training (IMET) is Brig. Gen. Tono Suratman, deputy spokesman for the Indonesian armed forces.
But General Suratman was indicted for crimes committed in East Timor in 1999. He was then the commander for East Timor when Indonesian troops and proxy militia groups launched a campaign of terror following the U.N.-administered referendum on independence. (At that time, he was a colonel, but he later was promoted for his misdeeds.)
Congress will take up the foreign aid bill for fiscal year 2003 when it reconvenes. The administration is asking for $400,000 for IMET in Indonesia, with no strings attached.
This is the dilemma facing policymakers: the United States wants to strengthen ties with the Indonesian military without giving it greater legitimacy and symbolic support. Yet the decision to expand security assistance is seen by many in Indonesia as a vote of confidence in the military and endorsement of its prominent role.
Despite decades of U.S. training of military officers during Suharto's rule, there is no clear evidence that abuses by the military were in any way reduced as a result.
Now, with a democratically elected government in Indonesia, the Pentagon argues that things have changed. But none of the diplomats or human-rights lawyers I spoke with in Jakarta this spring believed fundamental military reform was likely before the elections in 2004, when President Megawati Sukarnoputri will be counting on the army's support.
The Pentagon wants to train Indonesian officers in the United States and teach them about internationally recognized human rights, military justice systems and "fostering greater respect for the principle of civilian control of the military."
But Indonesian trainees would return to a country where the armed forces remain the single most powerful institution, where there is a culture of impunity for serious crimes committed by troops against Indonesian civilians and so-called "separatists" in Aceh, West Papua and elsewhere, where civilian courts are corrupt and woefully ill-equipped to handle prosecutions of security officials and where the top generals involved in atrocities in East Timor haven't even been indicted.
In such an environment, can any amount of U.S. training make a significant difference?
Washington was stunned when an Indonesian special ad hoc court acquitted five military and police officials of a church massacre in East Timor. The court acted just days after Mr. Powell's visit, and while the U.S. Pacific commander, Adm. Thomas Fargo, was in Indonesia, warning that closer ties with the Pentagon would depend on "accountability and reform."
The State Department expressed disappointment over the verdicts, but neither Mr. Powell nor the Pentagon backed away from their promise to restore IMET. By seeking to lift restrictions on IMET, conditioned on accountability for abuses committed in Indonesia and East Timor, while at the same time calling for greater accountability, the administration is sending mixed signals.
The United States should send a consistent message. It should provide funding for the Indonesian police, now separated from the military but urgently in need of training and technical support. More than $31 million for the Indonesian police has already been appropriated or is pending in next year's aid bill.
But Congress should maintain human-rights conditions on lethal arms sales and supplies to the Indonesian military - both commercial and U.S.-funded. The administration backs these restrictions.
Congress should also adopt the same modest conditions, proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, on resumption of IMET. The president is required to certify that military personnel credibly alleged to have committed gross human-rights violations have been suspended and that military authorities are fully cooperating with prosecutions of abusers.
Indonesians are trying to rebuild their country's civil institutions after more than 30 years of authoritarian rule. The United States should keep up the pressure for effective civilian control of the military as essential for democratization.
Mike Jendrzejczyk is the Washington director for Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.