US aid to Indonesian military under threat

Democrats lobby to link funding to human rights violations.

THE Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) has once again come under a cloud as the Democrat-controlled Congress in the US puts renewed emphasis on human rights. Lawmakers are now considering restricting the amount of aid disbursed to the TNI, a move that could dampen bilateral relations.

The House Appropriations Sub-committee on Foreign Operations debated the matter on Tuesday. Details of their deliberations have yet to be made public but it is already causing great concern in the Bush administration and in Jakarta.

“If restrictions are tagged on to a new congressional Bill, then the United States is sending the wrong signals to Indonesia,” a senior Indonesian Foreign Ministry official told The Straits Times.

“We have been working well with the US for the last two years and then they throw a spanner in the works. Many will ask what is wrong with these Americans.”

Indeed, Jakarta has been cagey in recent weeks following efforts by Democrat Congresswoman Nita Lowey, head of the powerful Appropriations Sub-committee, to block military funding to the TNI.

Observers noted that Ms Lowey has traditionally held a hostile view of the Indonesian military, influenced by human rights proponents, who are intent on linking aid to the issue.

Their main complaint is the lack of progress in prosecuting senior TNI officers such as former military chief, General Wiranto, for his alleged complicity in the violence that followed the 1999 independence referendum in East Timor.

The activists have kept a close watch on human rights abuses since then, especially in other Indonesian trouble spots such as Aceh and Papua.

Concerns were further heightened after an independent government watchdog in Jakarta found that Indonesian marines had fired directly at protesters in clashes last week which left four people dead.

Ms Lowey, a New York lawmaker, is one of a handful of Democrats championing democracy and human rights.

Jakarta is also avidly watching Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Sub-committee for Foreign Operations and the author of the legislation tying military to human rights violations in East Timor.

Senator Russel Feingold, who worked with Mr Leahy to tighten the screws on the Indonesian generals in the late 1990s, and Mr Eni Faleomavaega, a Samoan and staunch supporter of Papuan independence, are among the other Democrats deemed unfriendly to the Indonesian military.

Fears of congressional action forced Indonesia to register publicly the deepening military ties between both countries and, more importantly, that the TNI was undertaking reforms.

At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, administration sources revealed that Jakarta took the lead in crafting a joint statement when US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met his Indonesian counterpart Juwono Sudarsono.

In particular, it “stressed the importance of encouraging ongoing reforms undertaken by Indonesia’s military, a crucial and inseparable part of democratic reforms”.

It also said that Mr Gates and Dr Juwono agreed that “the two countries’ security and military-to-military ties need to be continuously monitored, managed and nurtured within the framework of Indonesia’s ongoing democratic transformation”.

But Tuesday’s deliberations indicate that the statement appears to have had little effect on Capitol Hill.

At various times since the early 1990s, Washington has curtailed or completely cut off military training to Indonesia. The ties were scaled back further after the East Timor imbroglio with the US imposing a ban on weapons sales and aid to the TNI.

That ban was lifted in 2005 after intense lobbying by the Bush administration, which regarded Indonesia as a key ally in the war on terror.

Administration officials fear that tabling new restrictions – which still has several congressional rounds before becoming law by September – could damage cooperation between the two countries.

A Pentagon official told The Straits Times: “If there are restrictions and they do become law, it will seriously hurt our relations. It will show that America is inconsistent especially when the TNI has shown some improvement and strengthen the hand of those opposed to the US.”

“We have been working well with the US for the last two years and then they throw a spanner in the works. Many will ask what is wrong with these Americans.”

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