Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Political murder claims may threaten US-Indonesia military co-operation

Allan Nairn, an American investigative journalist, has done his best to derail attempts by the Indonesian military to lift a US ban on the training of the country's special forces or Kopassus.

Those who want the ban lifted and US-Indonesia military ties enhanced (such as the Wall Street Journal) believe that Indonesia should be rewarded for its progress on human rights since the ban was implemented by US congress in 1997 because of the alleged involvement of Indonesian special forces in a series of massacres in East Timor.

But, in a hard-hitting article in left-leaning US magazine The Nation, Nairn claims that the Indonesian military (TNI) is still practising the dark arts and was involved in a series of assassinations of political activists in the run up to local elections in Aceh last year.

According to senior Indonesian officials and police and details from government files, the US-backed Indonesian armed forces (TNI), now due for fresh American aid, assassinated a series of civilian activists during 2009.

The killings were part of a secret government program, authorized from Jakarta, and were coordinated in part by an active-duty, US-trained general in the special forces unit called Kopassus who has just acknowledged on the record that his TNI men had a role in the killings.

The news comes as President Barack Obama is reportedly due to announce that he is reversing longstanding US policy--imposed by Congress in response to grassroots pressure--of restricting categories of US assistance to TNI, a force which, during its years of US training, has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The revelation could prove problematic for Obama, since his rationale for restoring the aid has been the claim that TNI no longer murders civilians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress that the issue is whether there is a "resumption" of atrocities, but in fact they have not stopped. TNI still practices political murder.

Most of the sources for Nairn's key allegations are, unsurprisingly, anonymous. He speaks to some of the key players that he alleges were behind the killings and all they all seem to give him sketchy answers that neither prove nor disprove his claims.

The allegation that the Indonesian military has been systematically taking out civilian activists as recently as last year is a shocking one.

If true, it would clearly make it much harder for the Obama administration to persuade Congress to consent to closer military ties with Indonesia.

It would also have serious implications for relations between the central government, the military and the self-governing province of Aceh, where the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was fighting a separatist insurgency until a 2005 peace deal.

No word yet from the Indonesian military or government on these claims but I suspect they will deny them strenuously.

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