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U.S.-Indonesia military ties extensive


Facing increased pressure from Congress, human rights groups and outraged world opinion, President Clinton earlier this month suspended military-to-military ties (including remaining training programs), government military transfers and commercial weapons sales to Indonesia.

The White House said the order would suspend $2.5 million in government-to-government military deals and $40 million in pending commercial transactions, including agreements for spare parts for F-16 fighter jets. It would also put a question mark on $400 million worth of military contracts already underway.

The announcement came just three days after State Department spokesman James P. Rubin downplayed U.S. influence upon Indonesia, saying that U.S. military assistance this year comes to just $476,000. “It’s not as if we have a military assistance program that could be cut off,” he told reporters.

That remark triggered quick responses. Typical was one by William D. Hartung of the World Policy Institute in New York. “The Clinton administration’s recent statements on the massive slaughter being undertaken by anti-independence militias in East Timor have portrayed the United States as an innocent bystander with little or no leverage over the Indonesian armed forces’ actions in the territory. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

What influence does the United States have to rein in the Indonesia military, by all reports deeply involved in the killings of thousands of East Timorese civilians? That question forces yet a larger one: What responsibility does the United States have in these killings?

The answers begin to emerge in a look at U.S.-Indonesian military ties over the past quarter-century, a period involving five U.S. administrations. It is a story, with few exceptions, of presidents working with the Pentagon and arms manufacturers, placing economic interests ahead of human rights concerns.

U.S. military involvement in Indonesia developed in the mid-1970s after President Suharto succeeded President Sukarno, taking the archipelago out of the communist bloc and aligning it with the West. That’s when the Ford administration and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger got the United States involved.

Writing in the Aug. 26 issue of Mother Jones, J. J. Richardson states that a declassified memorandum of a July 1975 conversation between President Gerald Ford and then-Indonesian President Suharto demonstrates the extent of the new U.S. support. The memo shows Ford asking Suharto bluntly: “How big a navy do you have and how big a navy do you need?”

It was in December 1975 that Portugal pulled out of East Timor and Indonesia invaded. The Ford administration’s implicit acceptance of Indonesia’s actions there can be traced to the eve of that invasion. According to Richardson, on Dec. 6, 1975, Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Suharto in Jakarta; the next day, Indonesian troops flooded into Dili, capital of East Timor. That same year, Ford approved the sale of 16 OV-10F Bronco ground-attack aircraft to Indonesia.

The Indonesian annexation, never approved by the United Nations, set off a bloody independence struggle in the territory. It also set off brutal acts of Indonesian military suppression that have lead to the deaths of an estimated 200,000 East Timorese, up to a fifth of the mostly Catholic population.

That struggle and those deaths went largely unnoticed in the Western press. This changed, however, in the wake of the Aug. 30, U.N.-sponsored independence vote. For five days, with the world’s media focused on the island territory, the Indonesian military and militias and their brutal tactics were in full view.

The events following the vote cast U.S.-Indonesian military ties in a new light. During Clinton’s first presidential campaign, he called the United States’ approach to East Timor “unconscionable.” As president, however, he has continued to supply the Indonesian military with much of what it has requested. In 1993, the first year of Clinton’s presidency, the Pentagon negotiated nearly $30 million worth of arms sales to Indonesia.

A World Policy Institute analysis of official Pentagon and State Department statistics on arms exports reveals that since the first year of the Clinton administration in 1993, the United States has supplied Indonesian forces with over $148 million worth of weapons and ammunition, including technical support and spare parts for Indonesia’s arsenal of U.S.-supplied aircraft and armored vehicles.

Furthermore, commercial sales of U.S. military equipment licensed by the State Department have increased substantially over the past three years from $3.3 million in 1997 to an estimated $16.3 million last year.

As recently as 1997 the Pentagon, according to the World Policy Institute, violated the spirit of a congressional prohibition on providing U.S. military training to Indonesia by giving assistance to Indonesia’s notorious Kopassus counterinsurgency units under the Joint Combined Exercise and Training program.

Kopassus has long been implicated in acts of repression in East Timor. Kopassus members are suspected of involvement in the recent campaign of murder and harassment of pro-independence figures in the territory.

The militias were witnessed carrying M-16s from the United States as their primary rifle, rifles most likely given to them by members of the Indonesian armed forces.

Since Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, the U.S. government has approved sales of over $1 billion in U.S. weaponry to the Jakarta regime, according to the study by the World Policy Institute. This has made it a mid-level arms purchaser among the nations of the world.

Ford was the first president to begin significant arms sales to Indonesia. That policy continued -- and grew -- during the Carter presidency despite Jimmy Carter’s professed concern for human rights, Richardson writes. He adds that presidents from Carter to Clinton repeatedly approved the sale of lethal equipment. Weapons ranged from 12 Northrop Grumman F-5E Tiger 2 fighter/ground-attack dual-use aircraft, sold in1977, to the 1986 sale of 12 General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcons (now manufactured by Lockheed Martin). The Falcons are lightweight fighters specializing in air-to-ground combat.

Critics of these policies have charged that Indonesia, facing no external threats, has concentrated on building forces capable of suppressing internal dissent.

U.S. policy toward Indonesia began to change following a November 1991 massacre in Dili. Indonesian military forces -- using American-supplied M-16 assault rifles -- fired on a crowd of peaceful Timorese demonstrators, killing as many as 271 by some estimates. Two American journalists, Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman, witnessed the massacre; both were severely beaten.

News of the massacre prompted international outrage. Fifty-two U.S. senators wrote to then-President George Bush encouraging the United States to support the territory’s right to self-determination. Congressional opposition to the U.S.-Indonesian relationship grew. In October of 1992 Congress voted to cut Indonesia’s military training aid provided under the U.S. International Military Education and Training program. The $50-million-a-year program trains foreign military officials in the art of conducting warfare.

In 1994, the State Department -- responding to continued pressure from Congress and grassroots organizations alike -- banned the sale of small arms, riot gear and other “crowd control” items to Indonesia. Despite the ban, the Pentagon directly negotiated over $11 million in arms sales to Indonesia, and Washington approved over $90 million in commercial sales, according to Richardson.

In 1996, the United States proposed selling nine Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter/bomber jets to Indonesia. However, in June 1997 the Indonesian government withdrew from the planned fighter purchase, saying it was being branded unfairly as a human rights abuser.

Military training exercises have been a key element in U.S.-Indonesian military ties over the years. According to the Center for International Policy, the Pentagon spent nearly $1 million in funds to train Indonesian armed forces in 1997 alone. U.S. Green Berets, Marines and Air Force commandos participated in some 41 exercises between 1992 and 1997.

Unless Congress can muster the will to force a more stringent and permanent ban on arms shipments to Indonesia, the “freeze” in U.S.-Indonesian military ties will likely be a temporary pause in an otherwise cozy and long-term relationship.

Indonesia and arms information Web sites

Americans for Democratic Action: www.adaction.org
Amnesty International USA: www.amnesty-usa.org
Arms Control Association: www.armscontrol.org
Center for Defense Information: www.cdi.org
Council for a Livable World: www.clw.org/cat
East Timor Action Network: www.etan.org
Institute for Policy Studies: www.ips-dc.org
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns: http://www.maryknoll.org/GLOBAL/OFFICE/office.htm
NETWORK: www.networklobby.org
World Policy Institute: www.worldpolicy.org

Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999