Kopassus Reinstatement Stirs Outrage

Human rights organizations across Asia and the world are reacting with disappointment and anger over the July 22 decision, announced in Jakarta by US Secretary of Defense Robert M Gates, to lift his agency's decade-old ban on cooperation with the Army's elite Kopassus special forces unit, which has been accused of widespread terrorism against foes of the Indonesian government.

The ban was instituted in 1999 in the wake of charges that Kopassus had taken part in extensive human rights abuses as the Suharto regime teetered on its last legs. There is considerable speculation that the Indonesian government, which has been seeking reinstatement of Kopassus's status for several years, was threatening to seek tie-ups with the Chinese military for training and assistance if the Americans didn't do it.

Eyewitnesses have accused Kopassus of being involved in or even supervising riots in Jakarta in May of 1998, including the mass gang rape of ethnic Chinese women amid serious racial tension between Indonesians and the Chinese minority. Prabowo Subianto, the now-divorced son-in-law of the strongman Suharto, commanded the Kopassus from 1995 through 1998 and was accused of involvement in various "riots, plunderings, rapes and murders" by various human rights organizations over his attempts to keep East Timor from seceding. Nonetheless, Prabowo survived to become a businessman and politician to run as vice president in 2009 national elections with Wiranto, another army general who was widely accused of human rights violations.

Kopassus soldiers were also accused of abducting student activists during the 1998 crisis. Four Kopassus soldiers were convicted of the strangulation killing of Thuys Eluay, the former chairman of the Papuan Presidium Council in 2001. Two received light prison sentences of three and a half years and two others received three years and none were discharged from the service. Indonesian human rights organizations say the unit has continued to commit abuses in Papua, which continues to have a strong breakaway movement.

The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), where separatists bore the brunt of Kopassus suppression during East Timor's 1999 secession from Indonesia, condemned the Obama administration's decision. John M. Miller, the national coordinator for ETAN, said that: "Slipping back into bed with Kopassus is a betrayal of the brutal unit's many victims in Timor-Leste, West Papua and throughout Indonesia. It will lead to more people to suffer abuses. Working with Kopassus, which remains unrepentant about its long history of terrorizing civilians, will undermine efforts to achieve justice and accountability for human rights crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste (East Timor)."

Amnesty International, in a statement from Washington, DC, said the reinstatement "sends the wrong message in a country where mass and severe human rights violations have taken place in an atmosphere of impunity. US support to this unit undercuts the recent efforts advocating reform within the Indonesian military." The human rights organization called on the Obama administration "to make public what commitments they received from the Indonesian authorities about bringing Kopassus military leaders to justice and also calls upon President Obama, in his upcoming visit to Indonesia, to speak publicly about human rights abuses in Indonesia and to meet the families of those killed by the Kopassus."

Human Rights watch, in a statement issued in New York, said "The Obama administration's decision to lift a more than decade-long ban on US military assistance to Indonesia's abusive Special Forces seriously undermines its commitment to promoting respect for human rights in Indonesia and weakens US standards for military cooperation globally. Kopassus has been responsible for numerous serious human rights abuses - including killings, enforced disappearances, and torture - since the 1990s. The Indonesian government's failure to remove Kopassus soldiers convicted of serious abuses from the military, and its recent appointment of officers credibly linked with abuses to leadership posts within Kopassus and the Defense Ministry made repealing the ban particularly inappropriate."

US Sen. Patrick Leahy, the author of the law that bans US support to foreign militaries that violate human rights, said Kopassus "remains unrepentant, essentially unreformed and unaccountable," adding that "I deeply regret that before starting down the road of re-engagement, our country did not obtain and Kopassus did not accept the necessary reforms we have long sought."

Nonetheless, Gates defended the decision, saying: "The United States will begin a measured and gradual program of security cooperation activities with the Indonesian Army Special Forces," during a news conference after meeting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He added that the decision was made as "a result of Indonesian military reforms over the past decade, the ongoing professionalization of Tentara Nasional Indonesia, the Indonesian Armed Forces, and recent actions taken by the Ministry of Defense to address human rights issues." "I understand there's been a dramatically declining number of violations of human rights," Gates said, adding that the US government was "responding to the progress." The initial stages, Gates said, could include allowing Kopassus to participate in select conferences and events involving non-lethal subjects like rule of law, human rights and the military decision-making process. "I noted to the president that these initial steps will take place within the limits of US law and do not signal any lessening of the importance we place on human rights and accountability," the defense secretary said. "Our ability to expand upon these initial steps will depend on continued implementation of reforms within Kopassus and TNI as a whole," Gates said.

The officials said that the Defense Department is not seeking funding from Congress for the renewed engagement with Kopassus. The US State Department would be in charge of vetting individual members of Kopassus before allowing them to participate in training with the American military.

Leahy, who heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that authorizes funding for foreign operations, was relieved that Gates did not announce full-fledged cooperation. "A conditional toe in the water is wiser at this stage than diving in," Leahy said. "We're going in with our eyes open," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. "Kopassus has a dark past. We recognize that. We're going to be insisting that Indonesia live up to its stated commitments."