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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

U.S. Risking Ties to Indonesian Military

April 01, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — The current crisis in Indonesia isn't all about money. It's also about guns, armies and political power.

The process of globalization--the flow of capital across international borders--inevitably affects a country's economy. But in the end, globalization offers no answers for some of the key questions that determine a country's political future: who commands the troops and how will they be used?

The Clinton administration knows these time-honored truths. That's why it has been fighting quietly but determinedly in recent days to preserve the ties between the Pentagon and the Indonesian armed forces--links that members of Congress mistakenly believed they had cut off several years ago.

In 1991, Indonesian troops massacred more than 270 civilian protesters at Dili in East Timor. Congress responded by terminating money for Indonesia under a program called International Military Education and Training, through which the United States paid for instruction and travel for other nations' military leaders.

That cutoff, although troublesome to the Pentagon, didn't matter as much as Congress expected. For the Defense Department soon turned to another program to keep up its contacts with the Indonesian army. This other, separate endeavor is called Joint Combined Exchange and Training.

U.S. military units such as the Green Berets have been training the Indonesian special forces known as Kopassus in such activities as urban warfare, advanced sniper techniques, air-drop operations, close-quarters combat and psychological operations.

These continuing Pentagon activities on behalf of the Indonesian military were recently uncovered and publicized by Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.). Evans says the JCET programs are "another way the Pentagon can assist [Indonesian President] Suharto and his soldiers in suppressing their opposition."

To be sure, the administration's sleight of hand over Indonesia is not an instance like Iran-Contra, where the Reagan administration went outside the law to provide aid to the Nicaraguan Contras after it had been banned by Congress.

In Indonesia, Congress' prohibition applied only to the IMET programs. Evans acknowledges that the training for Indonesia under the Pentagon's other programs was legal.

Still, the main question is what these military programs represent and why the Clinton administration has gone to such lengths to keep them going in Indonesia. Why does the U.S. government seem to care so much about a bunch of training programs?

The answer is that the underlying purpose has little to do with training and a lot to do with cultivating the future military leaders of Indonesia--making sure, in the process, that they are friendly to the United States.

"We have seen repeatedly over the years that officers who become friends as captains or majors remain friends when they become senior generals and admirals," Col. John Haseman, a former U.S. defense attache in Indonesia, wrote recently.

Those who defend the Pentagon programs often go on to argue that U.S. military training serves the causes of human rights and democracy in Indonesia.

"The Indonesian military is the only nationwide institution, and it is the institution that will be absolutely necessary for any transition to a more open and democratic society in Indonesia," says Karl Jackson, an Indonesia specialist at Johns Hopkins University and a former Pentagon official.

This is a comforting belief--that with U.S. help, the Indonesian military will some day open the way for political change in the country. The problem is that at the moment, such claims seem out of line with the political reality inside Indonesia, where the army is being used to defend the status quo and to help Suharto stave off political opposition.

Two weeks ago, Indonesia's main opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, wrote to President Clinton to complain about the Pentagon's training programs.

"The U.S. military is providing training in lethal methods of social control at a time when the Indonesian people are trying to build a more democratic system," Megawati wrote. "Military training from the United States directly undermines the democracy movement in Indonesia."

The ultimate question is how the Indonesian armed forces will react if political demonstrations challenge the Suharto regime.

The Philippines is a democracy today largely because military leaders there weren't willing to use force to suppress the 1986 "people power" demonstrations against President Ferdinand E. Marcos. By contrast, China and Myanmar remain authoritarian countries because, in similar situations in 1989, their army leaders were willing to resort to force.

No one can predict what might happen in Indonesia. U.S. officials and outside scholars warn regularly these days that Indonesia shouldn't be equated with the Philippines because it is a different culture, far less subject to American influence.

But if that's true, if we can't say whether the leaders of the Indonesian armed forces will eventually support the cause of democracy or continue to repress dissent, then the Pentagon's training programs amount to a gamble.

We may be cultivating a future democratic leader of Indonesia. But then again, we may be befriending and training Indonesia's next dictator.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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