The Bush administration has approved a restoration of limited military contacts with Indonesia, while Australia wants to go a step further by signing a formal security treaty. This is madness, writes Alan Boyd.
Re-engagement only makes sense if one is in a position to genuinely improve the behavior of an undemocratic security force, which history in the region chillingly illustrates is unlikely to be the case.
SYDNEY - Foresight would be a wonderful thing if it were not being viewed through the eyes of myopic government leaders. The sort whose vision falls way short of an intellectual capacity to follow the images through to their natural conclusions.
One of those images flashed up in August 1999, when US troops trained alongside their Indonesian counterparts as the latter were doing their best to destroy East Timorís peace process.
Another came in May 1992, when Thailandís 9th batallion took a couple of days off from exercising with Australian troops so it could put down a pro-democracy march in Bangkok, killing scores in the process.
The Timor events were an extraordinary illustration of how governments can attain the correct level of anticipation, but still push on blindly regardless of the consequences, which in this instance could be classed as criminal neglect.
Lieutenant-Colonel Willem was one of the officers in Indonesiaís TNI armed forces who benefited from the CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training), in its focus on live-fire training and raid logistics. According to East Timorese testimony before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Human Rights 12 months later, the naval strategist afterward went straight to Dili, where he coordinated attacks by the feared Aitarak torture squads.
His intention, as confirmed in documents seized after the subsequent TNI withdrawal, was to disrupt the pending plebiscite on independence in East Timor, which Washington had helped arrange in talks with Indonesia and colonial power Portugal.
Could those events have been foreseen? With the intimate role it has played in the development of the TNI since the 1950s, the Pentagon must have known it was dealing with a rogue force, one that might even be totally out of control. It all came down to a question of perspective. The Pentagon believed it was easier to influence the political-military axis in Jakarta through engagement, even if this meant defying the foreign policies of its own masters in Washington.
Essentially rooted in Cold War dogma, this approach had plenty of precedents, especially during the tumultuous coup of 1965 and Indonesiaís unopposed takeover of East Timor a decade later.
Suhartoís military junta received plenty of encouragement from the United States and Australia when it overthrew the then-president Sukarno, presumably because it made more ideological sense for 2 million people to be slain by the hand of popular revolt than by the encroachment of communism.
But what did the United States learn from the Timor debacle?
Less than a year after the independence vote, the Pentagon was again hauled before Congress for secretly continuing a CET (Joint Combined Exchange Training) program that was providing TNI with urban warfare tactics it could put to good use in Aceh and its other renegade provinces.
Washington had already banned all military exchanges with Jakarta, including CARAT, in September 1999. This prohibition is still in force, with the 2001 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act specifically blocking any restoration of military ties until TNI has accounted for its actions in Timor, returned deported refugees and ended all incursions into East Timor.
So far none of these conditions has been met in full, with Jakarta making only token efforts to censure the officers responsible for the Timor atrocities, who mostly remain in their positions. Willem was even been promoted for his efforts.
Yet now the US and Australia are both pondering a resumption of normal relations with Indonesia, as if the dark events of 1997 - not to mention those of 1965, conducted under the same military institutions - had never happened.
While human rights groups lobby for the former Timor commanders to be put on trial in an international court, the Bush administration has given the green light for a restoration of limited military contacts.
Canberra wants to go a step further, by signing a formal security treaty, based on a pact brokered by the former Keating government in 1995 that calls for each country to be consulted on defense issues. It was withdrawn by Suharto in 1999 in protest at Australiaís leadership of a peacekeeping contingent in Timor.
A similar rationale lies behind both initiatives. Without direct military links, the two key Western powers in the region have a reduced ability to influence the TNIís response to separatist movements and contain the potentially greater threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
US President George W Bush contends that the new relationship would be restricted to exchange visits. However, it would be naive to pretend that weapon sales and training will not follow once a degree of trust has again been established. But re-engagement would only makes sense if one were in a position to genuinely improve the behavior of an undemocratic force. The United States did not resume training with the Thai army after the May incidents until Bangkok committed to internal reforms that would bring its command structure under civilians.
There have been no conciliatory signals from the TNI, which the US State Department acknowledges is probably little better than an armed mafia acting without a government mandate. For Timor, now read Aceh.
The Indonesian Institute of Sciences has described the TNI as a US$8 billion business empire with pervasive interests across the economic spectrum, including the underworld, and a continued capacity for usurping democratic rule.
President Abdurrahman Wahid has been able to keep the generals from meddling by insulating himself with a clique of liberal commanders, but few doubt that they will re-assert themselves if politicians try to rein in their provincial adventures.
On the other hand, the United States has been able to moderate the TNIís behavior by challenging its legitimacy. Significantly, every congressional human rights censure has an impact in nationalist Indonesia, and helps to build a public case for eventual reform.
Isolationism does not always work well with military autocracies, especially those as well-oiled as the TNI. But it doesnít require much foresight to appreciate how bad the alternatives could be. Again.
BD: Military and political aid to Indonesia - A collection of recent reports, articles and news
BD: War Crimes & Crimes Against Humanity - A collection of recent press releases, petitions, articles and news