US Democrats' focus on rights threatens to mar Jakarta ties

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am

Ties between Jakarta and Washington could be harmed by the Democrat-controlled Congress' inclination to shift focus slightly away from the 'war on terror' and back to human rights.

The recent call by several Democratic senators to withhold US$2 million of the US$8 million budgeted for the Indonesian Army (TNI) for next year has incensed some politicians in Jakarta, who accuse Washington of inconsistency.

The US lawmakers say the TNI is too slow to reform and demand prosecution of senior officers allegedly involved in human rights abuses.

Democratic Party of Struggle legislator Permadi said 'enough is enough' and urged his country to look elsewhere for military aid.

'As former president Sukarno once said: 'I tell America to go to hell with its aid',' said the legislator, a member of the powerful House Commission I, which deals with military and foreign relations issues. 'If the US cuts its aid or doesn't want to sell weapons to us any more, I say we look to Russia, China or other countries.'

But others stressed the need for the TNI to reform.

Security expert Alexius Jemadu said criticism from what was Indonesia's main ally could not be disregarded.

'What we must do is to push for meaningful internal reforms that would also benefit our country in the long term,' he said.

TNI began to reform in 1998 after the fall of the Suharto regime, but has lately slowed to a near standstill. The need for change was tragically highlighted by a recent incident in which soldiers killed four civilians over a land dispute.

The stance of the US Congress is out of tune with the US administration, which earlier said it would give Indonesia US$15.7 million in military aid for 2008.

Foreign Secretary Condoleezza Rice has already spoken out against the move by Congress, which still has several congressional rounds left before becoming law by September.

President George W. Bush sees Indonesia as a key ally in the 'war on terror' and, in the past two years Washington has rewarded Jakarta's commitment by lifting an embargo on military aid, military-to-military co-operation and sales of non-lethal weapons.

The sanctions were imposed after Jakarta's 1999 withdrawal from East Timor, when thousands died at the hands of TNI-trained militia. Only one civilian has been imprisoned for the crimes. The US Congress wants former TNI chief Wiranto to be held accountable.

But some analysts argue that a souring relationship with Jakarta would be detrimental to Washington's so-called 'indirect foreign policy'.

Indonesia enjoys good diplomatic relations with various countries with which the US does not have diplomatic relations. Under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jakarta has shown interest in playing a useful mediating role in attempts to resolve situations in Myanmar, Iran, North Korea and the Middle East.

Money talks

Indonesia is a key US ally in the 'war on terror'. The US administration has budgeted to give the Jakarta military in US dollars in 2008 $8m