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Indonesia: Obama should press for human rights

NewsNotes, January-February 2009

Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sees the projection of U.S. soft power, including diplomacy and cultural exchanges, as “the key to world peace” in this century. He also says he is grateful for U.S. educational assistance, an increase in bilateral trade and direct U.S. investment … and lifting the U.S. arms embargo. However, if Yudhoyono’s Indonesia is truly “a shining example where democracy, Islam and modernity thrive together,” the government should put its military under civilian control, bar indicted military personnel from running for high office, and end impunity for the military for crimes against humanity and other human rights violations.

The Wall Street Journal said recently President-elect Barack Obama should rein in liberal senators and interest groups that oppose U.S. military aid for countries with poor human rights records, such as Indonesia. Such groups include Amnesty International and the New York-based East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN).

The Journal says ties between the Pentagon and Indonesia’s military help the U.S. develop relationships with officers who lead the military of “the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy.” It concedes Indonesia has had human rights problems in the past, but it says “since the downfall of President Suharto in 1998, the Indonesian military has made progress on the humanitarian front.”

However, ETAN director John Miller says Indonesia’s human rights problems were greatest when the U.S. was most engaged with the Indonesian military. He notes General Suharto took power in a 1965 coup in which up to a million persons died. Indonesia seized West Papua in 1963 and invaded East Timor in 1975. Ninety percent of the weapons used in the invasion and subsequent occupation came from the U.S.

“The only period of significant reform came during the period when the U.S. actually suspended much assistance during the 1990s,” Miller says. Changes included Suharto’s downfall and East Timor’s independence in 2002. “But since the U.S. began to incrementally reinstate military assistance in 2002, the reform process has stalled,” he says.

Miller says re-engagement has failed to end the widespread impunity enjoyed by Indonesia’s security forces for crimes against humanity and other serious violations in Indonesia and East Timor. He says the military continues to influence civil administration and politics, commerce, and justice down to the village level. He also says the military remains involved in illegal enterprises including logging and the narcotics trade.

More ominously, he adds, the Indonesian military tolerates and continues to back militias and vigilante groups that intimidate civilians, particularly those in ethnic, religious and political minorities. For instance, he says this year the Indonesian government punished Papuan people who protested for self-determination and a greater voice, with harsh reprisals including torture and long prison terms.

Miller says several retired generals who were responsible for some of the worst atrocities in East Timor are serious candidates for president in next year’s elections. For example, General Wiranto, who placed third in the 2004 presidential campaign, was indicted by a UN-sponsored court in East Timor for crimes against humanity during the UN-organized referendum on independence.

Yudhoyono, who spoke Nov. 14 in Washington, D.C., says energy security, threat of a food shortage, global warming and the credit crisis “are all ticking time bombs that require urgent action.” He cautions that “[n]one of these global challenges can be addressed by the world community without having America on board. And conversely, none of these issues can be resolved by the United States alone.”

Yudhoyono speaks for many U.S. policymakers of late when he says “we did not know” when we were facing the climate crisis that the oil crisis was waiting, and the food shortage, and the financial crisis. However, true leaders should no longer be surprised if excessive greenhouse gases trigger climate change and, ultimately, food shortages. Similarly, the oil crisis and financial crisis were triggered by human shortsightedness and greed. These are not, in Yudhoyono’s words, an unforeseen “demon … waiting in ambush.”

The U.S. is trying to reach out to the Muslim world, and Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. If Barack Obama can craft a policy to effectively address the crises in energy, food, global warming and credit – with a strong human rights component – it would truly be a baraka, or blessing, to be shared with our Southeast Asian ally of 238 million.

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