US aid to Indonesian military clears House hurdle

However, the Bush administration has to submit progress report on the TNI.

UNITED States lawmakers appear to have backed off from attempts to block aid to the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) following stiff opposition by the Bush administration.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice personally intervened, insisting that any reference to tie aid to human rights issues in pending legislation was unacceptable.

But in an effort to appease lawmakers, she agreed to submit a progress report on the TNI once the Bill became law.

“This administration is very serious about maintaining its relations with Indonesia, something that certain members of Congress did not realise,” a Pentagon official told The Straits Times.

Indeed, senior officials from both the Pentagon and State Department have in recent weeks been lobbying legislators who disburse foreign funds on the value of close cooperation with Jakarta. But their efforts were futile.

Ms Nita Lowey, the Democratic chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Sub-committee on Foreign Operations, tabled limited restrictions in a draft Bill last week. It entailed a 25-per-cent cut in military aid to Indonesia.

Some believe the trigger of renewed scrutiny of the TNI was a picture of the Indonesian Special Forces commander, Major General Rasyid Qurnuen Aquari, bowing to former president Suharto’s youngest son Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra when he greeted him at a shooting competition, in Solo, in April.

Tommy Suharto won an early release from jail last October after serving just four years for murdering a judge.

His release, for critics, underscored the continuing close ties between the military and the Suharto family.

Maj-Gen Rasyid, a former member of the presidential guard, had described his gesture as a matter of personal courtesy.

“Talk of a picture that speaks a thousand words,” a senior Indonesian official lamented.

“The NGO community in the US and Australia jumped on it and accused TNI of not doing enough on military reform. We have to live in the world of constant media manipulation.”

But there were other reasons for concern.

Lawmakers like Ms Lowey, who is known to be close to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, point to the lack of progress in prosecuting senior TNI officers for their alleged complicity in the violence in East Timor in 1999.

That imbroglio saw the US imposing a ban on weapons sales and aid to the military.

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

Dr Rice led efforts then – as she does today – to foster closer links with Jakarta.

In a compromise that was worked out on Monday, Ms Lowey dropped conditional language from the Congressional Bill.

The TNI will get US$8 million (S$12.3 million) in aid – half of what Washington expected it would receive. But the Senate is expected to raise this figure.

The Bush Administration, in return, would be required to give a report – possibly after 90 days after the legislation becomes law – mainly on the measures taken by Jakarta to prosecute those involved in East Timor and other human rights cases.

“Common sense has finally prevailed,” noted Mr Alphonse La Porta, a former senior State Department official who heads the US-Indonesia Society, a non-profit organisation that promotes bilateral ties.

Expressing what he described as a personal view, Mr La Porta said that “the broader national interests has taken precedence over narrow points of view”.

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