JAKARTA, Indonesia, July 22, 2010 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today for meetings intended to enhance defense ties between the United States and Indonesia.
The secretary’s first order of business here was to inform Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a meeting at the presidential palace that the United States will begin a process of re-engagement with Kopassus, the special forces branch of Indonesia’s army.
“I was pleased to be able to tell the president that as a result of Indonesian military reforms over the past decade, the ongoing professionalization of the [Indonesian armed forces], and recent actions taken by the ministry of defense to address human rights issues,” Gates told reporters after his meeting with Yudhoyono, “the United States will begin a gradual, limited program of security cooperation activities with the Indonesian army special forces.”
Gates said he told Yudhoyono that these initial steps would be taken within the limits of U.S. law, and that they do not signal any lessening of the importance the United States places on human rights and accountability.
“What’s more,” he added, “our ability to expand upon these initial steps will depend upon continued implementation of reforms within Kopassus and the [Indonesian military] as a whole.”
U.S. and Indonesian officials have been working for some time to figure out how, and under what conditions, the United States can re-engage with Kopassus, a senior official told reporters on background. “We certainly want to,” he said, “but it’s important that this is done in accordance with our laws and our values and our interests.”
Congress cut off military training assistance to Indonesia in 1992 after Indonesian security forces shot and killed East Timorese demonstrators in November 1991. The restriction was partially lifted in 1995, but military assistance programs were suspended again after violence and destruction in East Timor following an Aug. 30, 1999, referendum favoring independence from Indonesia. Though normal military relations between the United States and Indonesia have resumed, the issue of providing training for Kopassus remained unresolved until earlier this week, the official said.
“I think everybody can recognize that the transformation that Indonesia has made as a country and that the military has made has been remarkable over the past decade-plus since the fall of [President] Suharto,” the official said. “The military itself has greatly improved its human rights record, and all of that has enabled us to re-engage more.”
The final breakthrough came when in compliance with a U.S. request, Indonesia removed all individuals from Kopassus who had been convicted of human rights crimes associated with the violence around the time of East Timor’s separation from Indonesia, the senior official said. The number was “fewer than a dozen,” he added. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell noted that retirements, attrition and the ongoing professionalization of the Indonesian military have changed Kopassus in the decade since the violence took place and United States broke off engagement with the unit.
“It is a different unit than its reputation suggests,” he said. “Clearly, it had a very dark past, but they have done a lot to change that. There is more to do. We think they’ve made steps that warrant us beginning a process of having contact and working with them once again, but there is more work to do. And we are going to help them out along the way to try and make sure this unit is as professional and respectful of human rights as possible.”
The senior defense official said Indonesia has pledged that any Kopassus member who is credibly accused of a human rights violation will be suspended pending an investigation, will be tried in a civilian court, and will be removed from the unit if convicted.
No operational training is involved, though a plan for how the process will begin has not yet been formulated, given that the re-engagement discussions reached this point only days ago, the official said. At first, he said, staff talks about education and professionalization training may take place, and human rights training, medical engagements or other forms of cooperation may follow.
Congress has been briefed, the official said, and the White House and the State Department are “fully supportive.” State Department officials will conduct vetting for any Kopassus members nominated for training, he added, to ensure Indonesia is honoring the commitments it made that allowed the re-engagement process to begin. That compliance, and continued progress in professionalization, will determine how far and how quickly the level of re-engagement grows, he said.
Re-engagement with Kopassus makes sense, the official said, because its members deploy overseas for peacekeeping operations, they could be called upon to act in extreme emergencies such as hostage rescues. And since many of the Indonesian military’s top leaders come from the unit, re-engagement allows establishment of relationships that will endure when current Kopassus members rise to top positions.
“We think this is an important part to ensuring that we can solidify and really gain better traction on reform and professionalization that we all – U.S. and Indonesian – seek from [the Indonesian armed forces],” he said. “And to ignore an important unit … really actually hurts the process of ensuring that these reform efforts get instituted throughout the armed forces of Indonesia.”
Gates’ meetings with Yudhoyono and Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro come at what the senior defense official called “a really important time for our bilateral relationship.” Yudhoyono and President Barack Obama have talked about establishing a comprehensive partnership, the official explained. The two nations signed a defense framework agreement in June, he noted, and are looking to advance bilateral defense ties “with a focus not really on what we can do for Indonesia, but really a shift in focus to ‘What can we do together to address common and global issues?’”
The senior official said Gates is meeting with Indonesian civilian and defense officials to discuss a broad range of issues, and intends to focus on four specific areas: maritime security, humanitarian and disaster relief operations, peacekeeping missions and defense reform and professionalization.
“We consider this a very significant development in our military-to-military relationship,” Gates said, “and look forward to working even more closely with [Indonesia’s armed forces] in the years to come.”
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