US and Kopassus Training: Strategic And Legal Aspects


Chloe Choquier

Kopassus commander Major General Lodewijk Paulus and several high-ranking Indonesian officers recently visited Washington DC to discuss lifting the ban on US training for the elite army special forces – the Komando Pasukan Khusus, known as Kopassus. Since the 1970s, Kopassus has been notorious for its brutal tactics in East Timor, Aceh, Papua and Java and is accused of murder, torture and kidnapping, among other humanitarian law violations. As international and Indonesian human rights advocacy groups argue that the unit continues to commit abuses in Papua and persecute former Aceh rebels, Indonesia sees the training as a foundation of the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership to be signed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Barack Obama during his visit to Jakarta, rescheduled in June 2010. What would this re-engagement mean for US external policy? Can Washington push for an improvement of the state of human rights in the archipelago?

During the Cold War, Washington largely supported the Suharto regime’s military policies and the Ford administration fully backed Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975. But the US cut off International Military Education and Training assistance to Indonesia after the November 1991 Dili massacre in which 273 people were murdered by the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI) – Indonesian military. The 1997 Leahy Law then banned the provision of training to any foreign military unit in case of ‘credible evidence’ that it has committed ‘gross violations of human rights’. This influence of humanitarian ideals on US foreign policy was later surrendered with the 2005 State Department’s waiver of the Congress Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act 2006 restricting military assistance to Indonesia. Three years later, the Bush Administration proposed restarting U.S. training of Kopassus. The growing terrorist threat and the importance of regional stability for US trade were the cornerstone of this policy turnaround. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2002 Bali bombings, Washington had released funds for training a limited number of TNI officers but the ban on Kopassus remained effective. The recklessness of Australia, which resumed counter-terrorism training with Kopassus in 2006, offered a new argument in favor of US re-engagement.

Proponents of this new cooperation promote the opportunity to teach Indonesian military a lesson about respect for human rights. But the 2005 national security waiver had unsurprisingly resulted in a pause in the reforms within TNI. The contact with rights-respecting foreign forces has actually never proved relevant to improve Kopassus behavior. “Many of these crimes occurred while the US was most deeply engaged with the Indonesian military, providing the bulk of its weapons and training,” said John M Miller, national coordinator of the East Timor Action Network to the Asia Times in March. Moreover, the US’ questionable human rights record gives Indonesians the bitter feeling of a double standard being applied in US foreign policy.
What can Washington ask from Jakarta at this point? Since none of the previous requirements have been achieved, a re-engagement would mark the official comeback of Realpolitik to the detriment of human rights promotion in US foreign policy. Until now, US preconditions were firstly based on accountability for past abuses. According to Human Rights Watch’s recommendations, any military personnel previously convicted for human-rights violations should be discharged. First, a tribunal to investigate the disappearance of two dozen student activists in 1997 and 1998 should also be established, as Indonesia’s House of Representatives recommended to the Ministry of Defence in September 2009. The absence of such mechanisms allows the existence of ambiguous situations, such as the nomination of Kopassus-trained Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, who was the Military Commander at the time of the 1997/98 disappearances, as deputy Minister of Defence. Second, Washington had required from Indonesia the implementation of structural reforms to enhance civilian control of the military. As of now, Indonesia’s military justice system has exclusive jurisdiction over military personnel implicated in criminal offenses against civilians. Third, the re-engagement of the US would also be limited to nonlethal counter-terrorism training through Kopassus’ counter-terror force, known as Unit 81, and only include younger officers who were not part of the unit at the time of major human rights abuses. But the much-praised counter-terrorism efforts of Indonesia in recent years were almost entirely the work of the police forces, especially the already US-funded counter-terrorism police unit, Detachment 88. If US funding to the military would improve this already successful police initiative, remains an unanswered question.

Washington does not have much leeway anyway, as the Chinese non-interference policy represents a severe competitor on the subject. The likelihood of ‘playing the Chinese card’ is more and more plausible since Sino-Indonesia military-security ties were initiated in 2005, as the US limitation on arms sales already pushed Indonesia towards Beijing. Indonesia’s “behavior in the coming months and years will function as an indicator of the relative strength of the United States and China in the region,” recently affirmed Matthew Omolesky in the American Spectator. In a nutshell, as Indonesians are not eager to compromise and Washington still pushes for reforms, an agreement, if reached in June, would be for Indonesians, East Timorese and Americans, a no-win situation.

Chloe Choquier is a Research Intern for IPCS and may be reached at: [email protected]. This article was published by IPCS.


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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