By Roni Toldanes and Arie Firdaus
The United States is taking steps to resume training with Indonesian special forces unit Kopassus, American officials said, after suspending military ties nearly two decades ago over human rights concerns.
The two governments are working through a process under American law that would allow Washington to re-establish military-to-military contact with Indonesia’s elite army unit, U.S. Defense and State Department officials told BenarNews.
“We are going through the process of what is called ‘remediation,’” Lt. Col. Chris Logan, spokesman for the Pentagon, said during a phone interview when asked to confirm reports that the U.S. military was restoring training with Kopassus.
“[T]hat is the desire in the States. But there are regulations we have to follow to be able to work with them.”
In Jakarta, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy said last month’s visit by Defense Secretary James Mattis had demonstrated that “we are committed to deepening our defense cooperation with Indonesia and are seeking opportunities for further engagement in various areas.”
“All engagement activities are conducted in accordance with U.S. law,” the spokesman told BenarNews via email. “We support Indonesia’s efforts to promote human rights and the rule of law, and we continue to discuss the importance of accountability for past abuses.”
Tying aid to rights
Under the so-called “Leahy Laws,” which the U.S. Congress began to implement in 1998, Washington cut ties with Kopassus the following year over allegations that its forces had killed civilians and committed rights abuses in Indonesian-occupied East Timor as well as the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and West Papua.
The laws attach human rights conditions to congressional appropriations of U.S. military aid to foreign countries.
Under the Leahy Laws, Congress can prohibit U.S. assistance to any security unit of a foreign country, if there is evidence that it committed “a gross violation of human rights.” This can include extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances.
The laws, codified under the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, allow for the Defense and State departments to resume aid to and ties with a blacklisted unit through a “joint policy on remediation.”
According to a State Department fact sheet on these laws, remediation “can occur when the Departments determine that the government of that country has taken, or is taking, effective measures to bring those responsible to justice” through investigations, prosecutions or administrative actions, among other things.
“We will abide by all the regulations in order to be able to work with all the military forces in Indonesia,” said Logan, with the Pentagon.
“[W]hat it comes down to is we have to have a legitimate plan that would allow us to have a military-to-military engagement with them. We will not be able to do that until we have done this process,” he added.
‘No problem’: Indonesian security minister
The interviews with U.S. officials followed recent comments about Kopassus by Wiranto, Indonesia’s security minister and the former chief of its armed forces.
Last week, he told reporters that American restrictions on the unit had been lifted and the U.S. military would soon take part again with Kopassus in training exercises, after a 19-year hiatus.
“Yes, no more [restrictions on Kopassus],” Wiranto said. “It’s been a month when I met a special envoy from the U.S. and we talked about it, there is no problem.”
Wiranto made the remarks a day after a meeting between U.S. Ambassador Joseph R. Donovan and Moeldoko, President Jokowi’s chief of staff.
Donovan said then that the United States was planning to resume a military training program with Kopassus, according to the Moeldoko’s office.
Questions about accountability
However, it remained unclear whether any former Kopassus members, who had been accused of committing rights abuses while serving with the unit, would be brought to justice ahead of any restoration of full military ties.
Wiranto served as chief of the Indonesian military in 1999, when Kopassus was accused of carrying out abuses in East Timor, as people there voted in a U.N.-backed referendum to break free of Jakarta’s rule.
Since the U.S. blacklisted Kopassus that year, some veterans from the unit have risen to prominent roles in Indonesian politics.
These include Prabowo Subianto, a former Kopassus commander whose forces were accused of killing civilians in Dili, the capital of East Timor, in 1983, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). In 2014, Prabowo, the chief of the Gerindra party, lost the presidential election to Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Prabowo is also the former son-in-law of Suharto, Indonesia’s late dictator who ruled for 32 years.
Another ex-Kopassus officer, Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, who served as deputy defense minister from 2010 till 2014, was allegedly involved with the unit in abducting student activists in Jakarta in 1997 and 1998, as well as abuses in East Timor in 1991 and 1999, HRW said.
“Those who are responsible still need to be brought to justice,” Usman Hamid, the director of the Indonesian chapter of Amnesty International, told BenarNews.
Still, the prospect of ties being renewed between the U.S. military and the Indonesian special forces unit could help improve the image of Kopassus, according to a local analyst.
“[T]he resumption of cooperation can provide a good name for Kopassus and the Indonesian government because Kopassus has always been linked to human rights violations,” said Muradi, a military expert based at Padjadjaran University in West Java.