Kopassus- Indonesian Special Forces (photo : Media Indonesia)
JAKARTA, Indonesia - The U.S. said July 22 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 U.S. Defense 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 program 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 Defense 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 move is controversial as the Kopassus unit has been implicated in human rights abuses, including in East Timor, and some figures in the U.S. Congress have opposed embracing the force before it has 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 Soeharto in the 1990s.
A report last year by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch accused the elite unit of ongoing abuses in the restive province of Papua.
A senior U.S. defense 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 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 normalization of the military-to-military relationship would be incomplete," he said.
"If you don't have the relationship with the Indonesian military normalised, you can't really participate and be the leading partner in this architecture," he added. "Gates needs to get it right with Indonesia."
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 U.S. government and with the government of Indonesia to try to figure out how and under what conditions we can pursue re-engagement with Kopassus," said one senior U.S. defense official.
He noted improvements made by Jakarta since the end of the Soeharto regime.
However, leading voices in Washington, such as Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, as well as human rights groups have opposed a normalization of military ties until Kopassus commanders have faced justice for past rights violations.
"Before resuming military cooperation with the Kopassus, Robert Gates must make sure that there's no senior military officers implicated in the past abuse who hold a structural position in the military," said activist Usman Hamid.
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.
"We deeply regretted the decision as we have previously reminded the U.S. government it is important that a concrete precondition be imposed on Kopassus and Indonesian military before restoring the ties," he said.
He acknowledged that some Kopassus officers implicated in the rights abuse cases had been expelled from the military but said the military should apologies for the crimes.