JAKARTA, Indonesia — It might seem odd in a democracy for the nation's military and police to have 38 guaranteed seats in parliament. Or for the armed forces to raise much of their funding by operating their own businesses.
But this is Indonesia, where the military helped run the country for more than three decades under former dictator Suharto and played a pivotal role last week in ousting President Abdurrahman Wahid.
With the swearing-in of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the armed forces have regained much of their former influence and are in a stronger political position than at any time since 1999, when military-sponsored killings and mayhem devastated East Timor.
Long criticized for its brutal human rights abuses, the Indonesian military is now in the unusual position of winning accolades as a defender of democracy. Last week, the military delegates to parliament twice received standing ovations from other legislators for defying Wahid's order to disband parliament.
The Bush administration, looking favorably on the military's recent conduct, wants to restore ties with the armed forces and resume the sale of military equipment.
Congress and the Clinton administration cut off aid in 1999 because of outrage over the armed forces' role in the East Timor carnage. Two years ago this month, militias backed by the military launched a wave of terror after East Timor voted to secede from Indonesia. At least 600 people were killed and more than 250,000 were forced from their homes.
"I am anxious to reestablish the military-military relationship with Indonesia," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week during a trip to Australia. "We have some congressional limitations at the moment, which I would hope we will be able to work through over the coming period."
Human rights activists, however, question how much the military has really changed.
In recent months, the military and police have been accused of widespread brutality, including the slayings of civilians and human rights activists in Aceh province, where troops are battling the separatist Free Aceh Movement.
The fighting has escalated in the last two months as the military and police attempt to crack down on the rebels. The death toll has reached 1,000 this year, and there are almost daily reports of killings, kidnappings and the discovery of bodies.
In June, the relatives of victims filed suit in the U.S. against Exxon Mobil Corp. for complicity in the killing, rape and torture of villagers by security forces protecting the company's huge natural gas facility in Aceh. The lawsuit charges that the oil giant provided barracks where the military tortured prisoners and heavy equipment used to dig mass graves. The company denies the charges.
Two weeks ago, members of the notorious police mobile brigade arrested six negotiators for the Free Aceh Movement at a hotel in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, where they had been meeting with government representatives. Their safety had been guaranteed by the government.
"The military is against the process of democracy for the solution of the Aceh conflict," said an Acehnese human rights activist who has fled the province out of fear for his life. "The people in Aceh are very frightened about the possibility of Megawati using the military to resolve the problem."
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the rehabilitation of the armed forces is the failure of Indonesia to prosecute any top military officers for the destruction of East Timor.
Indonesian and U.N. investigations concluded that top military officers were responsible, but none of them have been put on trial despite international pressure. Some of those named by investigators have been promoted.
The U.S. Congress adopted legislation prohibiting military assistance and the sale of military equipment to Indonesia until officers responsible for the East Timor rampage are prosecuted.
Now that Megawati is president, human rights activists fear that there is even less likelihood that any trials will proceed. Like her father, founding Indonesian President Sukarno, she is an ardent nationalist. She was strongly opposed to independence for East Timor, and some say she saw the anti-independence forces as heroes.
"In her heart, it was very hard for her to accept that East Timor had left the republic," said retired Gen. Hasnan Habib, a former ambassador to the United States. "She thought those who defended Indonesia--the militias--were patriots."
One of the most notorious militia leaders, Eurico Guterres, reportedly served as a youth leader of Megawati's party, the Indonesian Democratic Party in Struggle, after the anti-independence gangs laid waste to East Timor.
If no trials are held, as now appears likely, it is unclear how the Bush administration hopes to get around the congressional ban on military relations.