U.S. to resume ties with Indonesia's once-harsh special forces

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; 4:12 PM

JAKARTA -- The U.S. military said Thursday that it would resume relations with Indonesia's special forces, an elite group blamed for atrocities and repression during the country's dark years of authoritarianism.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in a visit here, said the United States would end its 12-year prohibition on contacts and assistance to the Indonesian special forces after the Obama administration concluded that the unit had cleaned up its ranks and was sufficiently committed to human rights.

"These initial steps will take place within the limits of U.S. law and do not signal any lessening of the importance we place on human rights and accountability," Gates said after meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. "Our ability to expand upon these initial steps will depend on continued implementation of reforms."

Although the Pentagon has been pressing for years to resume contacts with the Indonesian special forces, human-rights groups and some U.S. lawmakers have resisted, arguing that the unit has stymied efforts to hold current and former military leaders responsible for kidnappings, assassinations and other crimes.

"This decision is a stunning betrayal of the standards the U.S. has," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. She added that it would "have ramifications well beyond Indonesia, in effect telegraphing to abusive militaries worldwide that the Obama administration's human-rights standards are up for negotiation."

U.S. officials described the end of the ban as a key development in their attempts to develop closer ties with Indonesia, a country of 238 million people, most of them moderate Muslims, that has embraced democracy since emerging from decades of dictatorship in 1998.

Hopes that the two countries would build a special alliance soared after the 2008 election of President Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child. But the relationship has taken longer than expected to flourish.

Obama has tried unsuccessfully to visit Jakarta ever since he took office. He has been forced to cancel trips twice at the last moment: once in March so he could push his health-care bill through Congress, and a second time in June so he could respond to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Indonesian special forces, known as Komando Pasukan Khusus, or Kopassus, have about 5,000 members but exert outsized influence on the Indonesian government. The president's brother-in-law is a former member, as are high-ranking members of the Indonesian military.

After months of negotiations with the Indonesians, U.S. defense officials said the White House and State Department had approved of the resumption of contacts with Kopassus just prior to Gates's arrival in Jakarta on Wednesday. The United States resumed regular ties with the remainder of Indonesia's military in 2005.

U.S. defense officials said Indonesia has cleansed Kopassus's ranks of individuals convicted of human-rights violations and has pledged to prosecute any future cases in civilian courts. They also said the special forces have professionalized their ranks over the past decade and that a new generation of officers with untainted reputations is now in charge.

"Clearly they had a dark past," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, adding: "It's a different unit than its reputation suggests."

Pentagon officials said they would seek a gradual escalation of contacts with Kopassus, starting with simple staff talks and officer exchanges, but gave few details. There are no immediate plans, they said, to conduct operational training or deliver cash aid.

Under a 1997 law sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the United States is prohibited from contact with foreign military units that have a pattern of human-rights violations and have resisted efforts to hold abusers accountable, even for crimes committed long ago. The State Department also has a policy of vetting individual officers from foreign militaries before they are allowed to participate in U.S. training programs.

Kopassus served as a brutal arm of the military during long reign of Indonesian dictator Suharto, crushing communist sympathizers and repressing regime opponents in East Timor, Aceh and Papua. Suharto was deposed in 1998.

Indonesia has subsequently convicted about a dozen Kopassus officers for abuses during Suharto's rule. But advocacy groups noted that many have been allowed to return to duty, including some who have taken senior positions in the Indonesian military.

Among them is Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, who as a senior Kopassus officer was blamed for the brutal treatment of pro-democracy protesters in Jakarta the late 1990s and activists in East Timor when the Indonesian territory voted for independence in 1999.

Sjamsoeddin no longer serves in the special forces but was appointed Indonesia's deputy defense minister in January 2009. The Indonesian government has said that he is innocent of wrongdoing. In September, however, the State Department refused to issue a visa to allow him to visit the United States.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company