Jakarta: The United States said Thursday it would resume ties with Indonesian special forces after a 12-year hiatus as part of efforts by Washington to reach out to the world’s largest Muslim nation.
The announcement, made during a visit by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to Indonesia, comes as Washington seeks to resume training for the Kopassus unit as part of growing military cooperation with Jakarta.
“The United States will begin a gradual, limited programme of security cooperation activities with the Indonesian Army Special Forces,” Gates said referring to the Kopassus unit, with which Washington suspended ties in 1998.
The decision came “as a result of Indonesian military reforms over the past decade… and recent actions taken by the Ministry of Defence to address human rights issues,” he said after talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
“Our ability to expand upon these initial steps will depend upon continued implementation of reforms within Kopassus and TNI (the Indonesian armed forces) as a whole,” he said, describing the move as “a very significant development”.
The announcement is controversial as Kopassus has been implicated in human rights abuses, including in East Timor, and some figures in the US Congress have opposed embracing the force before it accounted for its past.
The United States broke off ties with the Kopassus under a law banning cooperation with foreign troops implicated in rights abuses.
The Indonesian special forces are accused of committing rights violations in East Timor and Aceh under then-dictator Suharto in the 1990s.
A report last year by US-based Human Rights Watch accused the elite unit of ongoing abuses in the restive province of Papua, including unwarranted arrests, beatings and other mistreatment including “brutality against ordinary Papuans”.
A senior US defence official played down fears that senior figures still in the special forces had been implicated in past rights violations.
“Individuals who had been convicted in the past for human rights violations have in the past several months been removed from Kopassus,” he said.
The administration of President Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, sees the country as an increasingly important player in East Asia and a key ally in the Muslim world.
Ernie Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Obama administration needed to handle its relationship with the Indonesian military carefully.
“I think it’s the view of the Indonesian military that without the ability to engage and train Kopassus, the American engagement and normalisation of the military-to-military relationship would be incomplete,” he said.
However, the Pentagon needs to find an acceptable compromise to seal the deal without encountering too many objections in Washington.
“We’ve been working for some time both within the US government and with the government of Indonesia to try to figure out how and under what conditions we can pursue reengagement with Kopassus,” said one senior US defence official.
He noted improvements made by Jakarta since the end of the Suharto regime.
However, leading voices in Washington, such as Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, have opposed a normalisation of military ties until Kopassus commanders face justice for past rights violations.
“I deeply regret that before starting down the road of re-engagement, our country did not obtain and Kopassus did not accept the necessary reforms we have long sought,” said Leahy, a member of Obama’s Democratic Party.
Usman Hamid, a rights activist from the Indonesian Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), said any troops involved in abuses had to face trial.
He acknowledged that some Kopassus officers implicated in the rights abuse cases had been expelled from the military but said the military should apologise for the crimes.