War Crimes and Punishment in Indonesia

In the wake of the death sentence given to a suspect in last year’s Bali bombing and the recent Jakarta car bombing that killed 10 people, the U.S. mainstream media is again focusing on Islamic fundamentalist terror in Indonesia. But in the rush to speculate on the state of Jemaah Islamiyah, the group most often associated with both atrocities, and its possible links to Al Qaeda, Western journalists are overlooking other crimes committed by the leading source of terror attacks in the archipelago: the Indonesian armed forces.

On August 5 the Indonesian government’s ad hoc Human Rights Court on crimes against humanity committed in East Timor during April and September 1999 sentenced Major General Adam Damiri, who oversaw the 1999 Indonesian military (TNI) scorched-earth East Timor campaign, to three years in prison. Given the scale of the devastation the TNI visited upon the former Portuguese territory in retaliation for its UN-supervised vote for independence (after 24 years of TNI occupation), the punishment was hardly impressive. Few observers think the general will actually wind up serving any time: the court convicted only three Indonesian “security” officers for their complicity in rape, murder, and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese; all are free on appeal.

Damiri, the final, and most senior, of 18 suspects facing charges, missed several court appearances because he was busy overseeing the current war on Aceh, an oil-rich province in Northern Sumatra where Exxon-Mobil has long been implicated in military crackdowns on civilians. That Damiri was granted the right to continue with activities much like those he was charged with responsibility for in East Timor, and that the prosecutor asked for an acquittal before sentencing, starkly illustrates why the International Crisis Group recently described reform TNI reform as “dead.” Adding insult to injury, the prosecutor again asked for an acquittal while appealing the sentence.

Meanwhile, the UN-established Serious Crimes Unit in East Timor has indicted more than 60 Indonesian soldiers or officers, including Damiri and former commander General Wiranto, for crimes against humanity committed in 1999. All are in Indonesia and, given Jakarta’s refusal to cooperate with East Timorese extradition requests, it is extremely unlikely they will face prosecution shy of enormous change within the archipelago or a UN-backed international tribunal.

Damiri’s argument that in East Timor, “soldiers acted quickly to prevent unrest from spreading, evacuate victims and arrest culprits” would be comic if the reality were not so tragic. Countless East Timorese eyewitnesses described the armed forces doing just the opposite. And Damiri’s stunning claim that if the military hadn’t acted, “the death toll would have been far higher,” is belied by the widely reported role the armed forces played in both direct attacks on civilians and the training and arming of militias that acted as proxies in much of the repression. Australian academic and Indonesia expert Damien Kingsbury notes that “the evidence [of TNI support for the militias] has been released in Australian intelligence documents of radio intercepts, transcripts of that, vast quantities of material; files and documents that we actually found in East Timor after the ballot, after the TNI had been pushed out by the international forceshaving been one of the observers there at that time, we all got to see this, first-hand. With our own eyes we saw the TNI handing over weapons to the militia, literally in the street.” Due to inadequate forensic work after the fact (thanks in no small part to lack of pressure from the U.S.), no one will ever know how many East Timorese civilians the military and its milita allies killed.

Like other tactics employed in the brutal East Timor occupation, forcible displacement of civilians for their “protection” is part of the current Aceh campaign. The powers that be in Jakarta have also torn a page from the twisted Bush foreign policy playbook by instituting a program of “embedding” journalists, while deporting independent U.S. freelancer William Nessen and a Japanese photographer and harassing other independent-minded reporters. On May 29 the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned sniper attacks on journalists in Aceh, citing at least six cases in which unknown gunmen opened fire on convoys of both foreign and Indonesian journalists. The New York-based watchdog group noted “mounting evidence of a systematic effort by Indonesian security forces in Aceh to restrict reporting on the fighting there.” Though most international observers have been forced out of the territory, numerous eyewitness reports of rape, torture and extrajudicial executions have still emerged from the region. The TNI also blandly admits to launching a “strategic hamlet” program which may move up to 200,000 Achenese civilians from their homes into camps.

Activists inside Indonesia campaigning against these horrors face the serious jail time that officers responsible for the atrocities don’t. In one of the more egregious recent examples, though he repeatedly called for a peaceful solution to the conflict in his homeland and worked for an alternative to armed resistance, Acehnese student activist Muhammad Nazar was sentenced to five years for spreading hatred toward the government. The London-based human rights group TAPOL noted that the conviction was made “on the basis of a law that clearly challenges the principle of freedom of speech and of expression.” As in resource-rich Papua at the other end of the archipelago, where indigenous people have grown equally tired of TNI attacks on civilians, other Acehnese dissidents have simply been killed.

The TNI has vested interests in prolonging conflict in contested regions. Such areas provide them opportunities to assert their importance as an institution needed to prevent the breakup of Indonesia. Aceh, Papua and other areas also provide the armed services with ample opportunities to enrich themselves: the police and military profit from their involvement in illegal businesses including illegal logging (contributing to massive devastation of rainforests), prostitution, drug trafficking, the trade in endangered species, and extortion.

For the TNI to be restrained from perpetrating further bloody repression in Aceh, Papua and elsewhere, there must be accountability for its past behavior. Given the diminished power of the pro-democracy movement in Indonesia, such a reckoning will require international support; hence concerned citizens in the U.S. should tell their representatives to maintain pressure for an international tribunal for war crimes committed in East Timor, and to oppose the Bush Administration’s efforts to undo bans put in place in 1999 on aid to the TNI.

BEN TERRALL is a freelance journalist living in Oakland. He can be reached at: bterrall@igc.org


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