March 22, 2023

The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) warned President Barack Obama against renewing any U.S. training for Indonesia’s notorious special forces.

“Training Kopassus will set back efforts to achieve accountability for past and recent human rights violations and will do little or nothing to discourage future crimes,” said John M. Miller, National Coordinator of ETAN. “This is a bad idea whose time has not come.”

The Obama administration is considering resuming training of Kopassus and may announce a change in policy when President Obama visits Indonesia later this month.

“It’s impossible to credit Kopassus with human rights reform when it retains active duty soldiers convicted of human rights violations,” said Miller. These include soldiers convicted of killing West Papuan leader Theys Eluay and the kidnapping and disappearances of Indonesian activists in 1997 and 1998.

“For decades, the U.S. military provided training and other assistance to Kopassus, despite the demonstrated failure of international assistance to improve its behavior. Its widely acknowledged abuses and criminal activity simply continued,” he said.

“Restrictions on U.S. military assistance to Indonesia provide leverage to support democracy and human rights in Indonesia. Working with Kopassus, which has a long history of terrorizing civilians, will undermine those fighting for justice and accountability in Indonesia and East Timor,” said Miller.

The initial offer of training is likely to involve Kopassus Unit 81, which focuses on counter-terrorism. Unit 81 was co-founded as Kopassus Group 5 by then-captain Prabowo Subianto, who later admitted his involvement in the kidnapping of student activists in the late 1990s. He recently ran for Vice President of Indonesia.

The U.S. has praised Indonesia’s successes in fighting terrorism, but it is the police – not the military – who have the major role.

“Greater Kopassus involvement in counter-terrorism will undercut police and civilian primacy in this effort, while strengthening the military’s controversial internal territorial role. This will only undermine the reforms that the U.S. claims to support,” he said.

The history of Kopassus human rights violations, its criminality and its unaccountability before Indonesian courts extends back decades and includes human rights and other crimes in Aceh, West Papua, Jakarta, and elsewhere. Kopassus was involved in East Timor from the killings of five Australian-based journalists at Balibo in 1975 prior to Indonesia’s full scale invasion until its destructive withdrawal in 1999.

Kopassus soldiers are alleged to have been involved in the 2002 ambush murder of three teachers (including two from the U.S.) near the Freeport mine in West Papua. The crimes of Kopassus are not only in the past. A Human Rights Watch report published last year documents how Kopassus soldiers “arrest Papuans without legal authority, and beat and mistreat those they take back to their barracks.”

Also according to Human Rights Watch, “The few soldiers who have been convicted by military tribunals for abuses have largely been reinstated into the ranks and promoted, including seven of 11 military personnel convicted of kidnapping student activists in 1997 and 1998. Col. Tri Hartomo, who was supposedly discharged from the military following his conviction in connection with the death of Papuan activist Theys Eluay in 2001, currently holds a senior position in Kopassus.”

In 2005, the Bush administration exercised a national security waiver that allowed for full engagement with the Indonesian military for the first time since the early 1990s. The conditions for U.S. military engagement, which the Bush administration abandoned, included prosecution of those responsible for human rights violations in East Timor and elsewhere and implementation of reforms to enhance civilian control of the Indonesian military. The Bush administration waited until 2008 to propose restarting U.S. training of Kopassus. The State Department’s legal counsel reportedly ruled that the 1997 ban on training of military units with a history of involvement in human rights violations, known as the ‘Leahy law,’ applied to Kopassus as a whole and the training did not go forward.

John M. Miller, National Coordinator

East Timor & Indonesia Action Network

PO Box 21873, Brooklyn, NY 11202-1873 USA

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