Put Human Rights at Center of U.S.-Indonesia Relations

President Obama must emphasize human rights and the rule of law in U.S.-Indonesia relations. The president is scheduled to travel to  Indonesia this weekend.

“The U.S. must not ignore injustice and human rights violations to advance narrow strategic and economic interests that have little to do with the well-being of the U.S. or Indonesian people,” said ETAN National Coordinator John M. Miller. “While much has changed in Indonesia since the Suharto dictatorship, U.S. security assistance does not promote further change. Instead it encourages impunity and further violations of human rights.”

“We are calling for a new relationship between the two countries built on an honest assessment of the bloody past,” said Miller. “Instead of offering more weapons and more training to Indonesia’s military, President Obama should suspend this assistance until there is an end to abuses and real accountability for past human rights crimes.”

Since Obama’s last visit to Indonesia, the human rights situation has deteriorated in West Papua and religious intolerance has grown.

“President Obama can send a strong message against impunity by making clear he and and other senior U.S. officials will not to meet with any Indonesian politicians — including likely presidential candidates, such as retired generals Prabowo and Wiranto — who have been credibly accused of human rights and other crimes,” said Miller.

Background

During his planned trip to Bali, Indonesia, Obama will attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and engage in bi-lateral talks with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

ETAN has raised issues related to human rights and Timor-Leste at APEC, since the first APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting near Seattle in 1993. When in 1994, APEC last met in Indonesia, East Timorese protesters seized the spotlight when they climbed the fence of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta.

Presidential Politics

One of the top contenders for next year’s presidential election, former General Prabowo Subianto, is notorious for directing crimes against humanity in Timor-Leste, Jakarta, and elsewhere. Prabowo headed Indonesia’s notorious Kopassus special forces and was commander of Indonesia’s strategic forces Another candidate is former General Wiranto, indicted for crimes against humanity related to his command responsibility for atrocities in Timor-Leste as defense minister and army commander in 1999. Both are barred from travel to the U.S.

Indonesia will hold parliamentary elections next April 9. The first round of the presidential election will be held in early July 2014.

West Papua

Indonesian security forces continue to suppress of freedom of expression in West Papua and to engage in deadly “sweeps” to drive villagers from their homes. The Indonesian government continues to jail peaceful protesters. It holds dozens of political prisoners from West Papua and elsewhere. Access to West Papua by international journalists, rights investigators and others remains restricted. West Papuans are seeking internationally-mediated negotiations with Jakarta on their political status and other human rights issues.

Religious Intolerance

Houses of worship of religious minorities face physical attack and their followers confront discrimination and physical violence in many areas of Indonesia. Police and public officials often refuse to defend those under threat and sometimes take the side of the attackers, using their office to spread bigotry and enforce discrimination.

Security Assistance and Human Rights

The U.S. government has not yet apologized for its role in supporting human rights violations — including collaboration with Suharto’s seizure of power in 1965 and the subsequent mass killings; the turnover of West Papua to Indonesia; and the backing of Indonesia’s illegal invasion and occupation of Timor-Leste.  Instead the Obama administration has moved closer — most recently through the sale of deadly Apache attack helicopters  – to the largely unreformed Indonesian military and police responsible for many of those crimes.

The helicopter sale was announced in late August and includes no conditions on their use. The helicopters will increase the Indonesian military’s ability to pursue “sweeping” operations in West Papua and  extend its capacity to stage operations after dark and in remote areas.

This sale represents the latest step in the Pentagon’s increased engagement with the Indonesian military (TNI). In 1999, restrictions on U.S. engagement with the Indonesian military were tightened as the TNI and its militia were destroying East Timor (now Timor-Leste) following the UN-conducted referendum on independence. Through the 2000s, restrictions on engagement with the Indonesian military were gradually lifted, even though it has not been held accountable for atrocities in Timor-Leste and throughout the archipelago, and continues to violate human rights violations continue in West Papua and elsewhere.

In November 2010, prior to a previous trip to Indonesia, ETAN urged the President “to decisively break with past U.S. support for torture, disappearances, rape, invasion and illegal occupation, extrajudicial murder and environmental devastation. U.S. weapons, training, political backing and economic support of Indonesia facilitated these crimes. President Obama should apologize to the peoples of Indonesia and Timor-Leste for the U.S. role in their suffering during the Suharto years and to offer condolences to Suharto’s many victims throughout the archipelago.”

TNI personnel are not accountable to the civilian judicial system, nor is the TNI as an institution subordinated to civilian government policy or operational control. For decades, the TNI has drawn funding from a vast network of legal and illegal businesses enabling it to evade even civilian government budgetary controls. Legislation to restrain the TNI has been weak and only partially implemented. The Indonesian government has steadfastly refused to cooperate with Timor-Leste and international judicial processes.

Timor-Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste (CAVR) urged nations to “regulate military sales and cooperation with Indonesia more effectively and make such support totally conditional on progress towards full democratisation, the subordination of the military to the rule of law and civilian government, and strict adherence with international human rights, including respect for the right of self-determination.”

ETAN was founded in 1991 to advocate for self-determination for Indonesian-occupied Timor-Leste. Since the beginning, ETAN has worked to condition U.S. military assistance to Indonesia on respect for human rights and genuine reform. The U.S.-based organization continues to advocate for democracy, justice and human rights for Timor-Leste and Indonesia. Read other articles by East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), or visit East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)'s website.