Where will we stand on Indo-Timor human rights?

A special relationship is likely between the Obama Administration and Indonesia, where the new President spent four formative years. But new ties must surmount lingering human rights abuse issues, particularly by elements of the military, in the recent and distant past. Where will Obama stand on these issues…and what will Australia’s stance be?

Unfinished Business:  The Indonesian Connection

Obama, Ourselves and Human Rights

By James Dunn* AM, CLA member

In the past few months human rights issues have become more visible in Australia, in part thanks to an upgrading by the Rudd Government, in fairness a development accepted by the Opposition. The same applies to the United States where human rights is higher on the Administration’s agenda than it was when George Bush was president.

One question on my mind is how these shifts will shape our relationship with Indonesia, where there is a growing awareness of the importance of international humanitarian standards.

Australian and US policies towards Indonesia have long been quite close, both countries supporting the Suharto dictatorship during Cold War years, including its illegal seizure of East Timor. Both governments helped shield the Suharto regime from allegations of TNI war crimes.

However, many Americans, including Congressmen (mostly Democrats), have long condemned this support, and they are now pressing Obama to shift away from the traditional US close relationship with the Indonesian military. 

Barak Obama comes to the presidency, however, with unusual links with Indonesia, where he spent his early childhood on the outskirts of Jakarta, between 1967 and 1971 when his mother moved there following the breakdown of her first marriage. As a child Barak romped the streets of Jakarta with other Indonesian children before being moved to Hawaii to live with his grandmother. Though a critic of the Suharto dictatorship, Obama clearly has a soft spot for Indonesia and supports SBY and the shift to democracy. His victory excited Indonesians, where he now has an active fan club in Jakarta.

Indonesia does have a special meaning to him, though from his book, he is clearly aware of the oppressive nature of the Suharto regime, and the rough tactics of the TNI (although his step-father served as a TNI lieutenant). As the most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia could play a lead role in Obama’s plans to improve Washington’s relations with the Islamic world. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Jakarta is among the capitals to be visited by Hillary Clinton on her first Asian tour in a few days time.

She will no doubt be warmly welcomed, but the Indonesian relationship is not without some political problems. Many US congressmen and leading human rights organisations, who strongly supported Obama’s presidential campaign, want something done about the military link. For one they would like some action in relation to those TNI generals responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor and West Papua, including those indicted by the UN mission in East Timor. How can American rejoice at the execution of Saddam Hussein and his cronies, they say, while TNI officers responsible, in some cases, for hundred of summary killings, are enjoying an utterly unjustified immunity? As one involved in past investigations, I share such sentiments.

These officers, many of them now in comfortable retirement, continue to enjoy an immunity that has been tacitly endorsed by our governments, who decided that too much pressure on the Indonesian generals would destabilise the fledgling democracy. However, this is really the wrong way to look at this problem, if we want to see a functioning democracy emerge from the ashes of the Suharto dictatorship.  Ignoring those past crimes is tantamount to condoning the brutal culture that developed in the TNI under Suharto, especially in the elite Kopassus, the Special Forces command which saw itself as defender of Suharto’s Orde Baru.

Of course, as officials often point out, East Timorese leaders themselves now want to discard the new nation’s cruel past. They have abandoned demands for an international tribunal but, with the exception of Xanana, largely because they knew the Howard and Bush governments would not support it.  An attempt to get UN support would fail, leaving East Timor to face a hostile neighbour. This view did not take account of the fact that many of the Indonesian democratic movement also wanted a serious investigation into the past in order to achieve a comprehensive reform of the TNI.

I have often raised this issue, to the irritation of our officials. I must admit that it is something that burns within me, because I am one of those who investigated hundreds of cases of torture and cases of mass killing of innocent people and their children. It is as if I witnessed a brutal crime which officials do not want to hear about. But it is a tragedy we all need to take note of, because this country itself has a dark past in relation to these atrocities. We should bear in mind that when cruel behaviour by a military becomes systemic, it is not only an expression of the ethos of a regime; somewhere in the background is tacit understanding that it is tolerated by the nation’s most important international partners.

For all our claims to be an advanced democracy with high ethical standards, the governments we elected became accomplices to very serious crimes against humanity, in that they discouraged international human rights investigations into situations where they knew crimes were being committed. In international forums Australia’s representatives supported the lies that came from the likes of Ali Alatas (later given an Order of Australia) when the Timor situation came up for debate in the UN.

Our lapse was not confined to Timor. We let down the Indonesian people when our political leaders of the time failed to express any concern when, after 1965, more than half a million so-called Communists, with their wives and children, were killed, and tens of thousands of others incarcerated in prison camps not because of their subversive intentions, but because of their political beliefs.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will face an election in July. He is a retired general, but at least he is from Kostrad rather than Kopassus, the KGB of Suharto’s Orde Baru.

His victory is far from assured. Megawati will again be a candidate, which would please the TNI generals. In 2002 she reluctantly attended East Timor’s independence celebrations for fear of offending the military. While she was in office an abortive enquiry into events in East Timor was held, one that totally exonerated the very military commanders responsible for mass killings and destruction in East Timor. 

Also a likely candidate for office is retired General Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra party, son-in-law of President Suharto, who is attracting support from former military officers.  This former Kopassus commander should be asked to explain his role in a massacre in East Timor that cost over 1,000, a virtual reprisal killing. The fact that he feels free to stand for election could be testament to our dismal failure to procure a just outcome for the most troubling part of the East Timor settlement.

Prabowo is one of some two dozen TNI officers who occupied command posts in situations where serious crimes against humanity were committed. Though some time has elapse since those incidents, as in the case of former Nazi war criminals it is never too late to bring them to justice, a move that would do a lot to stabilise East Timor. Just to expose what transpired in those 24 years of Indonesian occupation would act as a stimulant to the democratic process in Indonesia.

Will Obama take a stand on a question that has troubled many of his former senior Democrat colleagues? And where will we in Australia stand this time on our near-neighbours’ human rights?

This article first appeared, in February 2009, in the Illawarra Mercury, where James Dunn has a regular column.  * He is a former Australian diplomat, UN human rights expert and a member of CLA.

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