US funding for Indonesian troops hinges on murders


Thu, Jul 24, 2003 - Page 6

US lawmakers have demanded new tight restrictions on military aid for Indonesia until it prosecutes soldiers suspected in the shooting deaths of two Americans -- a move that is straining ties with the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Washington is now walking a fine line as it seeks Indonesian cooperation in the war on terror without forsaking human rights.

For a dozen years the US has banned most forms of military assistance to Indonesia, where the armed forces stand accused of widespread rights abuses, most blatantly during East Timor's bloody break from rule by Jakarta in 1999.

Things changed, though, after Sept. 1. The Bush administration reassessed the military's role of maintaining stability across the sprawling country where democracy has a shaky hold following the 1998 fall of the dictator Suharto.

Once out of favor, Indonesia's generals are now viewed as crucial to the fight against Islamic militancy that has spawned a network of al-Qaeda-linked terror cells -- including a group accused of last year's Bali bombing, which killed 202 people.

In an initial, largely symbolic gesture, Washington re-established Indonesia's participation in its International Military Education and Training program for officers.

But that's been clouded by the slayings of two Americans, and an Indonesian man in an ambush on a vehicle convoy that had been carrying school teachers to the massive US-owned Freeport gold and copper mine in Indonesia's eastern Papua province.

An Indonesian police investigation has implicated Indonesian soldiers in the August 2002. ambush. But almost a year after the slayings, no charges have been filed.

Amid pressure from victims' families, the US House of Representatives last week voted through an amendment that, if enacted, would restrict the newly restored military training funds to Indonesia unless it prosecutes those responsible.

The amount of money in question -- about US$400,000 -- is not large, and US officials stress that the House amendment has still not been approved by the Senate nor signed by President George W. Bush.

The US$400,000 earmarked for International Military Education and Training has already been disbursed for this year's budget. The House's proposed restriction would apply from next year to 2005.

Still, Indonesians who had been hoping for a full restoration of military ties -- cut off after human rights abuses during East Timor's independence struggle four years ago -- are taking the House's move seriously.

"Such a dramatic step taken by the US House of Representatives could damage our bilateral relations," senior security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired four-star army general, said.