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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 9, 2005
US, Indonesia almost back in step
By David Isenberg

Officials in Washington are increasingly confident the United States will restore full military relations with Indonesia, despite past human rights violations by that country's military.

Just last week, the countries began a two-week military exchange program in the field of planning and decision-making, according to a US Embassy statement. The program is aimed at increasing cooperation and exchanging experience between the two countries, it added.

The White House has been working hard to persuade Congress to fully lift the military embargo imposed on Indonesia. It cites as the main reason cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries in the wake of last year's tsunami as proof of improved military ties.

The Indonesian military very much wants the embargo ended, given its own of shortage spare parts. For example, on July 21 two Indonesian Air Force planes crashed in separate incidents.


Earlier this month, Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono expressed confidence that the embargo would eventually be lifted "because of the post-tsunami cooperation and good reputation of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Washington".

The Indonesians can point to the government's efforts to rein in the military's corruption-tainted businesses and improved human rights training for combat units in Aceh as evidence that it is no longer business as usual.

It doesn't hurt that Yudhoyono has made himself many new friends in the US since he came to power in October.

The Bush administration wants the ban lifted, arguing Washington should support Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation and a key battleground in its anti-terrorist efforts.

Congress suspended military cooperation with Indonesia in 1999 after accusations that soldiers deployed in the country's former province of East Timor committed rights abuses before, during and after the 1999 vote of independence.

The 2002 shooting of two American teachers in Papua province has also complicated ties between the two countries, with human rights groups alleging rogue Indonesian soldiers were behind the shootings.

Nevertheless, the US government has revived several joint military training exercises and endorsed limited sales of military equipment to Indonesia.

In late July a US Navy task force with about 800 personnel arrived in the Indonesian town of Surabaya to hold annual military exercises with the Indonesian Navy after a two-year delay. The Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) was the ninth since it was initiated in 1995. The annual exercises were canceled in 2003 and 2004 at the request of the Indonesian Navy. And the United States has allocated millions of dollars to equip and train Indonesian police's strike force, Brimob, along with police from the Philippines and Thailand.

But a US Government Accountability Office report noted that the US violated its own law by training 6,900 Indonesian, Filipino and Thai police without determining beforehand whether they had a history of human rights violations.

The Southeast Asian police were trained by the US Justice Department with State Department law enforcement assistance between 2001 and 2004 at a cost of US$265.7 million, the report said.

Among the 4,000 Indonesians trained in civil-military relations and human rights issues were 32 trainees "from a notorious special-forces police unit previously prohibited under State (Department) policy from receiving US training funds because of the unit's prior human rights abuses", the report said, referring to Brimob. The administration of President George W Bush resumed the training program in February.

In late July the United States Agency for International Development announced it had agreed to provide US$20 million worth of assistance to help the Indonesian government reform the country's weak court system.

On August 2, US ambassador to Indonesia B Lynn Pascoe spoke at the start of a two-day security dialog between senior US and Indonesian defense officials in Jakarta. He said, "You can be sure that the executive branch is working to open the way for the normalization of military to military relationships."

The forum was the third round of talks between Indonesia and the US. The first dialog was held in Indonesia in 2002, the second in 2004 in Washington.

Brigadier General John Allen, a director for Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Pentagon, led the US delegation, while the delegation from Indonesia was led by Major General Dadi Susanto, who is also director general on defense strategy at the Ministry of Defense.

Toward the end of the forum Allen said, "The restoration of the cooperation is proof of the growing positive atmosphere." Allen also expressed the appreciation of the US government over President Yudhoyono's commitment to step up military reforms, civil control and accountability.

On the basis of these considerations, Allen said the US government will soon normalize its military relations with Indonesia including the lifting of the embargo on military equipment.

At the same time that the forum was concluding Allen said the United States supports a plan by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to start coordinated air patrols next month over the pirate-infested Malacca Strait.

The plan is seen, in part, as helping to quell foreign jitters about security in the world's busiest shipping lane, seen by many as a prime target for terrorists.

This appears to be the successor to the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) for Southeast Asia, (with a particular focus on the Malacca Strait), which the United States proposed in the spring of 2004, an extension of the Proliferation Security Initiative. The initiative proposed the use of US special forces to police sea traffic on the strait. But the initiative was not acceptable to Indonesia and Malaysia.

On July 20 the Senate approved its version of the fiscal year 2006 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. The bill would continue restrictions on Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and export of "lethal" military equipment to Indonesia until certain conditions are met.

The Senate bill, however, would provide $1.5 million in FMF for the Indonesian Navy. International Military Education and Training funds would not be made available until the Secretary of State submits a detailed report on US and Indonesian efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the ambush and murder of two US citizens and an Indonesian in West Papua on August 31, 2002.

But the House version would remove all restrictions on military assistance. When the House passed its version, only a reporting requirement introduced by Democrat Representative Patrick Kennedy, who supports legislated restrictions blocked by the Republican leadership, referenced the poor human rights and justice records of the Indonesian military.

A conference committee with representatives from both chambers must reconcile the two versions of the bill after Congress reconvenes before it is sent to the president for signature.

But it is unclear when that might happen. Currently, Congress has a full agenda and not much time left. Only two of the 13 annual appropriations bills have been finalized and sent to Bush for his signature. Legislatively, Congress has many higher priorities than Indonesia. These include the defense appropriations bill, Iraq, the nomination of John Roberts as the next chief justice of the Supreme Court, all of which will take up substantial Senate floor time, as will various domestic programs.

Reached by phone, one senior congressional defense specialist said: "There are so many moving parts in the budget and appropriations cycle that one cannot blow off the prospect of budget reconciliation between the Senate and House as a mere technicality. In fact, it is a virtual certainty that the foreign operations bill will not be finished by the October 31 deadline."

That means that the foreign operations bill will be funded by a continuing resolution, which is legislation in the form of a joint resolution enacted by Congress, when the new fiscal year is about to begin, to provide budget authority for federal agencies and programs to continue in operation until the regular appropriations bill is enacted.

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues. The views expressed are his own.

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Storm over the Malacca Strait (Aug 25 '05)

US back in step with Indonesia (Mar 3, '05)

US debates new links to Indonesian military (Jan 19, '05)

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