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Secretary Mattis seeks ties with once-brutal Indonesia special forces unit, with an eye on China

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis walks with Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu in Jakarta on Jan. 23. (Alex Horton/The Washington Post)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is pushing to reestablish contact with Indonesia’s premier counterterror force, he said Tuesday, decades after it was barred from working closely with U.S. forces because of human-rights abuses.

Mattis told reporters a major component of discussion with Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu is broadening education and training with counterterror units in the country, including the special operations group known as Kopassus.

“We’re going to go down and let ourselves be guided by the facts on the ground,” Mattis said, referring to the State Department process known as “Leahy vetting” that clears foreign troops and units receiving U.S. assistance like training and equipment.

The regulation bars contact with those found to commit human-rights violations including rape, torture and murder, and it must be shown that action was taken against offending troops and units such as disciplining personnel or reassigning commanders.

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“One of the sanctions is clearly that they are not allowed to go to America. They can’t do training together, and he will reopen this,” Ryacudu said after his talk with Mattis.

Mattis said he believes Kopassus has turned a corner and cleansed abusers among the unit that produced brutal crackdowns under Indonesian dictator Suharto, crushing communist sympathizers and repressing regime opponents in East Timor, Aceh and Papua.

Suharto was deposed in 1998, and the ban was implemented the following year. Members of Kopassus have received training in Australia, where there are fewer restrictions over human rights, U.S. officials said.

Human-rights advocates have said Indonesia allowed alleged abusers to return to duty, including Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, a former member of Kopassus who served as deputy defense minister for four years and left his post in 2010. The Obama administration lifted some restrictions on Kopassus that year, though training with U.S. counterparts is still forbidden.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Indonesia has progressed since Suharto used the Kopassus as a “criminal enterprise” but it is unclear whether a complete transformation has taken place.

“United States aid conveys legitimacy, and it assumes a common respect for justice and human rights,” said Leahy, who was the primary sponsor of the so-called Leahy Law.

“The question Secretary Mattis needs to answer is whether the Indonesian government has punished the Kopassus officers who ordered and covered up those horrific crimes, and whether members of Kopassus today are accountable to the rule of law,” he said.

Mattis arrived Sunday in Indonesia on his first overseas trip since debuting a strategy to refocus defense efforts on big-power militaries, calling on the military to keep pace with resurgent Russia and China by building relationships in key regions like Southeast Asia.

“No single nation resolves security challenges alone in this world,” Mattis said alongside Ryacudu, citing the worldwide threat posed by the Islamic State. A faction of the organization was dislodged from Marawi in the Philippines after a bloody five-month siege in 2017, sparking concern they might regroup in Indonesia.

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Indonesia has also increasingly asserted itself against Chinese expansion, appearing to align with U.S. efforts to curb its military reach.

“What we’re looking for is a world where we solve problems and we don’t shred trust, we don’t militarize features in the middle of international waters, we don’t invade other countries, in Russia’s case,” Mattis said Sunday.

China has laid claim to a number of islands in the South China Sea, building airbases on tiny spits of land while installing radar and missile launchers. (Video: Jason Aldag, Julie Vitkovskaya/The Washington Post / Satellite photos courtesy of CSIS)

China has claimed nearly all the South China Sea, where it has chiseled military outposts and runways from rock and claimed dominion over islands and waterways where $3 trillion in trade flow every year, triggering condemnation from an international tribunal ignored by Beijing. China rebuked the United States on Monday after a guided missile destroyer sailed near territory it seized from the Philippines.

Indonesia has built up a military presence on the Natuna Islands, its northernmost exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea right outside Chinese territorial claims. Indonesia renamed the fish- and gas-rich area the North Natuna Sea in 2017 following multiple excursions of Chinese fishing vessels in the area.

The name change drew rebuke in Beijing. Mattis repeated the name on Tuesday alongside Ryacudu, a signal the U.S. intends to stand by Indonesian efforts to repel Chinese excursions into its waters.

The vast archipelago of 16,000 islands, positioned as a fulcrum between the Indian and Pacific Ocean, has emerged as a key military partner, taking part in numerous annual joint exercises and arms sales with the United States.

Joseph Felter, the top Pentagon official for the region, sought to characterize the U.S. commitment as a bet against China, though he acknowledged a lack of specifics about how to do so.

“They’ve got a long-term strategy in the region, and we need to develop one to demonstrate our sincerity in being a credible partner and to give countries options,” he said.

Mattis, who also met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Wednesday, will visit Vietnam next to hold similar talks.

Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.