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Indonesia’s Bloody Brand of CounterTerrorism


In a June 8 “web memo,” The Heritage Foundation called Indonesia “a large, vibrant democracy and a key piece of the geostrategic puzzle in Asia.” The right wing Washington think tank went on to describe Jakarta as “among the United States’ most important partners in the War on Terror.”

But critics contend that Washington’s enthusiasm for its Indonesian military “partners” has been at the expense of any accountability for military atrocities. On April 26, the U.S.-based East Timor and Indonesia Human Rights Network (ETAN) condemned the participation of Indonesian Major General Noer Muis in a joint U.S.-Indonesia military exercise. ETAN pointed out that General Muis has been indicted for crimes against humanity in East Timor.

Photos of Muis with U.S. Army Pacific commander Lt. General John M Brown III were featured on the U.S. Army, Pacific website where Muis was described as co-director of a “command post” exercise, Garuda Shield, which took place in West Java from April 16-27. After ETAN’s statement, the army quietly removed photographs and altered captions.

John M. Miller, ETAN’s National Coordinator, said “General Muis belongs in a courtroom, not a joint U.S.-Indonesia command center. The Bush administration has repeatedly stated that it supports accountability for the horrendous crimes committed in East Timor in 1999. Working with an accused mastermind of those crimes is a funny way to show it.”

On February 24, 2003, Muis was indicted with other senior officers by the UN-backed serious crimes process in East Timor. The indictment states that Muis “failed to take necessary and reasonable measures to prevent the crimes being committed by his subordinates and he failed to take necessary and reasonable measures to punish perpetrators of those crimes,” despite being “repeatedly informed” of those crimes. At least 1400 people died, hundreds of thousands were forcibly displaced, and most of East Timor’s infrastructure was destroyed as the Indonesian military punished the territory for its pro-independence vote in a 1999 UN-supervised referendum.

The Indonesian government refused to cooperate with the serious crimes process, instead establishing its Ad Hoc Human Rights Court on East Timor to fend off calls for an international tribunal. Trials began in Jakarta in 2002. Eighteen people were indicted; Twelve were acquitted at first trial, and five, including Muis, had their convictions overturned by Indonesia’s Appeals Court. Only the conviction of East Timorese militia commander Eurico Guterres now stands. The Appeals Court upheld his conviction but halved the sentence by five years. Miller told me, “the whole process has been a farce.”

A UN Commission of Experts formed in February 2005 found that the trials of Indonesia’s Ad-hoc Human Rights Court were “manifestly inadequate,” showing “scant respect for or conformity to relevant international standards.”

In 2000, two years after the ouster of the dictator Suharto, pressure mounted to reform the Indonesian military (TNI) territorial command structure, which allows the armed forces to maintain units down to the village level throughout the country. But this apparatus has actually been reinforced in the name of “counterterrorism.” In late May, Indonesian marines killed four farmers in a land dispute. An investigation by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights contradicted military claims of self-defense, finding no evidence that the civilians intended to attack the marines. On June 5, Bambang Widodo Umar, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia, told the Jakarta Post that the shootings show “TNI structural reform is not working. Conflicts between the military and civilians are happening everywhere. The TNI should not be involved in everything. Let law enforcement institutions, such as the police and the courts, be responsible for law enforcement.”

But an Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) statement “on the Occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, June 26, 2007” indicates that Indonesian police also lean toward excessive force with a zeal that recalls US military practices at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. In discussing cases in which Indonesian police beat suspects to death, the Hong Kong-based AHRC wrote, “It is hard for victims of torture to find ways of obtaining redress, including compensation, reinstatement and punishment of the perpetrators. The conclusion one may inevitably draw, is that Indonesia is a state which allows its agents to torture persons and denies the victim the right to seek redress for such a crime.”

On June 5-7, Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders, visited the contested region of West Papua, and came to similarly disturbing conclusions. Her report on the visit stated:

“The Special Representative is deeply concerned by the testimonies that she has heard indicating the continuing activities of the police, the military and other security and intelligence agencies that are aimed at harassment and intimidation of defenders or to restrict their access to victims and to sites of human rights violations. She has heard credible reports of incidents that involve arbitrary detention, torture, harassment through surveillance, interference with the freedom of movement and in defenders’ efforts to monitor and investigate human rights violations. She was also informed of cases where human rights defenders were threatened with prosecution by members of the police and the military. She is also concerned about complaints that defenders working for the preservation of the environment and the right over land and natural resources frequently receive threats from private actors with powerful economic interest, but
are granted no protection by the police.”

Papuans who met with her are facing increased surveillance and harassment. Dissidents in West Papua called on the UN to reconsider the 1969 “Act of Free Choice” in which 1,022 Papuans, chosen by the Indonesian Government and operating under military threat voted unanimously for annexation.

Col. Burhanuddin Siagian, head of the Jayapura sub-regional military command in West Papua responded to these calls with the same sort of language he used while overseeing Indonesian military carnage in East Timor in 1999: “(W)hat is absolutely certain is that anyone who tends towards separatism will be crushed by TNI.” Col Siagian, twice indicted for crimes against humanity in East Timor, added, “we are not afraid of human rights.”

A 2004 law mandated the government’s taking over TNI businesses, but that process is moving slowly at best. In February, Human Rights Watch said Jakarta’s foot-dragging on the issue “undermines civilian control over the TNI and fuels human rights abuses,” as the Indonesian government has no control over the allocation of profits from military businesses. Off the books paramilitary operations, such as those currently underway in West Papua, are thought to be funded by such monies.

The Jakarta Post recently reported, “Almost 70 percent of TNI’s annual budget is derived from its diversified business activities. This year’s defense budget is set at 32 trillion rupiah (US$3.63 billion) or 4.5 percent of the state budget.” But though the government initially identified 1,500 businesses that could be classified as military properties, the defense minister now say that only six military businesses as profitable enough to qualify for takeover. Critics note that this overlooks military co-ops and foundations, which are major sources of both income and corruption. In addition, only targeting legal businesses will obviously not address the significant problem of illegal military operations.

“Unless the issues of Indonesian military’s human rights and budget accountability are resolved, serious violations of human rights will continue and military reform will remain stalled,” says Miller. “By providing military equipment and training, the U.S. is only encouraging the TNI to continue business as usual.”

BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He can be reached at


Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at:

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