By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; A08
As President Obama prepares to travel to Indonesia, his administration is seeking to reverse a 12-year-old ban on training an elite unit of the Indonesian military whose members have been convicted of beatings, kidnappings and other abuses.
The administration is floating a plan to test a training program for younger members of the Indonesian Komando Pasukan Khusus, or Kopassus. Four members of the force, including its commanding general, Maj. Gen. Lodewijk Paulus, are in Washington to discuss the proposal, several sources said.
"The details are still being worked out," said a spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy. After a meeting with the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Robert F. Willard, in Jakarta in February, Indonesia's defense minister, Purnomo Yusgiantoro, predicted that collaboration between the United States and Kopassus would resume.
The Obama administration's move reflects a desire to improve ties with Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia as part of efforts to counter China's rise. When Obama attended a summit of Southeast Asian nations in Singapore in November, four heads of state urged the United States not to disengage from Asia and said the area needed an American counterbalance to China. Increasing defense cooperation with Indonesia and other nations in the region is a linchpin of this policy.
"It's a very good sign," Ernie Bower, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the arrival of the Kopassus delegation. "It's amazing that they are here."
Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, is also a key partner in the fight against Islamist extremists. During George W. Bush's administration, Washington and Jakarta tightened intelligence cooperation -- although it was kept low-key because the Indonesian government was concerned that extremists could capitalize on its close ties with the United States to gain followers.
In seeking to strengthen ties with Kopassus, the Obama administration is going further than its predecessor, which attempted to resume training operations with Kopassus but was warned off by a State Department ruling in 2008.
Under a 1997 measure known as the Leahy Law, the United States is banned from training foreign military units with a history of human rights violations unless the government in question is taking effective measures to bring those responsible to justice.
The Obama administration is seeking to thread that needle, sources said, by training and conducting joint exercises only with Kopassus soldiers who, because of their age, could not have been involved in the unit's earlier abuses. (Australian forces currently train Kopassus soldiers, in human rights issues among other things.)
There is some opposition to the new policy, though, from Obama's own party.
"We know there are some who favor resuming aid to Kopassus, but U.S. law requires the government of Indonesia to take effective measures to bring Kopassus members to justice," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the State Department and foreign operations and wrote the Leahy Law.
Speaking about Obama's trip to Indonesia, which is scheduled to start March 20, Leahy said, "It would be a mistake to walk away now from an important principle that has been a consistent element of our policy through several U.S. administrations."
In a Feb. 4 letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said his organization was opposed to the administration's plan because, he contended, Indonesia has not done enough to prosecute human rights violators in its security services.
"Unfortunately, human rights abusers continue to serve and be promoted through the ranks of [the Indonesian armed forces], notably in Kopassus," Adams wrote.
Adams cited the case of Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, who was appointed deputy defense minister on Jan. 6, 2009, despite long-standing allegations of his involvement, as a senior Kopassus officer, in the disappearance in the late 1990s of pro-democracy student activists and in violence by Indonesian troops and militias around the time of East Timor's referendum on independence in 1999. The United States denied Sjamsoeddin entry into the country in September.
Kopassus served as the muscle for Suharto's regime until he was forced to resign in 1998. Led for several years by Suharto's son-in-law, Maj. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, it has been linked to assassinations, the instigation of anti-Chinese riots and disappearances of government critics.
After Suharto's departure, Kopassus's leadership was changed, but apparently no sustained effort was made to prosecute human rights abuses. For example, Adams wrote, in 1997 and 1998, as the Suharto regime fell, 23 student activists were abducted. Nine were released, one was found dead, and 13 remain missing. In 1999, a military court convicted eight Kopassus officers and three noncommissioned officers of kidnapping. Of the 11, seven were serving in the military as of 2007, and all had received promotions, Human Rights Watch said.