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Money and arms from the US have bolstered the Indonesian army over the years

26 August 1999

Strange Bedfellows: US Aid for Indonesia

by J.J. Richardson

Despite international condemnation of its violent occupation and administration of East Timor, Indonesia has remained a key US ally and the recipient of billions of dollars in American military and economic aid over several decades.

Despite the UN's repeated calls for Indonesian forces to withdraw from East Timor -- and forceful condemnation of their conduct by human-rights groups -- the Indonesian military has enjoyed both the active and tacit support of the US government throughout its occupation of the tiny half-island. In fact, a declassified memorandum of a July 1975 conversation between President Gerald Ford and then-Indonesian President Suharto demonstrates clearly the extent of US support: Ford asks Suharto bluntly, "How big a Navy do you have and how big a Navy do you need?"

The Ford administration's implicit acceptance of Indonesia's actions in East Timor can be traced to the eve of the province's invasion. On Dec. 6, 1975, Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Suharto in Jakarta; the next day, Indonesian troops flooded into the East Timorese capital of Dili.

That same year, Ford approved the sale of 16 OV-10F Bronco ground-attack aircraft to Indonesia. According to Boeing's Web site, "The Bronco's outstanding capability to find and hit battlefield targets close to friendly troops made this an aircraft effective against ... guerrilla forces." In fact, Constncio Pinto, an East Timorese resistance leader, recalled "almost every inch of East Timor's land" being bombed by airplanes such as the Bronco following Indonesia's invasion of the island. In a 1998 editorial published in The Washington Post, Pinto also recounted Bronco aircraft being used to "napalm the [East Timorese] population into submission."

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's arms transfers project, the 15 years following East Timor's invasion witnessed hundreds of millions of dollars in arms transfers from the US to Indonesia. In fact, in the year after the invasion, the Ford administration more than doubled its military assistance to the country.

Particularly notable is the amount of military and economic aid given to Suharto's regime during the Carter administration. A key component of Carter's foreign policy was his professed concern for human rights abroad. However, while Carter enacted a de facto ban on advanced weaponry sales to Latin America -- reportedly motivated out of concern for human rights and a desire to avoid an arms race in the region -- he increased arms sales to the Indonesian government. According to Lynn Fredriksson of the East Timor Action Network (ETAN), "During [Carter's] administration, some of the most egregious violations in terms of human rights occurred [in Indonesia] .... It is a terrible irony for that supposedly liberal government" to have sold such large amounts of weapons to Suharto's regime.

American presidents from Carter to Clinton repeatedly approved the sale of lethal equipment, from the 12 Northrop Grumman F-5E Tiger 2 fighter/ground-attack dual-use aircraft sold to Indonesia in 1977, to 12 General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcons (now manufactured by Lockheed Martin) -- lightweight fighters specializing in air-to-ground combat -- sold in 1986. In fact, the Clinton administration practically gave Indonesia two Douglas Aircraft TA-4J Skyhawks under the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program, which allows the government to rid itself of military surplus free or at a significant discount. The planes are trainer versions of the A-4 attack model -- and thus are not equipped for combat -- but they could be modified for combat use, according to a Boeing spokesperson. (McDonnell Douglas has since merged with Boeing.) The planes were delivered to the Indonesians at a bargain price of $137,984 for the pair earlier this year.

US foreign policy towards Indonesia began to change following November 1991's massacre in the East Timorese capital of Dili. Indonesian military forces -- using American-supplied M-16 assault rifles -- fired on a crowd of peaceful Timorese demonstrators, killing as many as 271 of them by some estimates. The demonstrators had gathered to mourn an East Timorese pro-independence leader killed by Indonesian soldiers two weeks prior. Two American journalists, Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman, witnessed the massacre; both were severely beaten.

News of the massacre prompted international outrage, and 52 US Senators wrote to then-President George Bush encouraging the US to support the province's right to self-determination. Congressional opposition to the cozy US-Indonesian relationship grew, and in October of 1992 Congress voted to cut Indonesia's military training aid provided under the US' International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. The $50-million-a-year IMET program -- which is a joint project of the Department of Defense, the State Department, and military divisions such as the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) -- trains foreign military officials in the art of conducting warfare. According to ETAN, the vote passed despite opposition from the "State Department, the Pentagon, lobbyists for the Indonesian military, and some US corporations."

Backroom deals During Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, he said that the US approach towards East Timor had been "unconscionable." However, military aid to Indonesia continued under his presidency -- outside the provisions of IMET. In 1993, for example, the Pentagon directly negotiated nearly $30 million worth of proposed arms sales to the country, and Washington approved over $400 million in direct commercial sales. (Of the total amount approved for commercial sale to Indonesia that year, only $4 million in arms were actually delivered.)

US policy remained inconsistent over the next few years. In 1994, the State Department -- responding to continued pressure from Congress and grassroots organizations alike -- banned the sale of small arms, riot gear, and other "crowd control" items to Indonesia. Despite that, the Pentagon directly negotiated over $11 million in arms sales to the country, and Washington approved over $90 million in commercial sales. Moreover, IMET aid to Indonesia was partially reinstated in 1995, under the Expanded IMET (E-IMET) program. E-IMET training, ostensibly, is restricted to classroom instruction in topics such as human rights and civilian control of the armed forces. According to Pentagon Press Officer Bill Darley, these courses are intended "to be fairly benign in terms of [their] application to actual combat" situations.

In 1996, the US proposed selling nine Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter/bomber jets to Indonesia. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the State Department argued at the time that the sale "would not conflict with US policies on human rights because it is unlikely that Indonesia would be able to use the aircraft to suppress legitimate dissent." The Clinton administration continued to support the sale even while Congress examined questions of illegal campaign contributions made to the Democratic party by Indonesian nationals. However, in June of 1997 the Indonesian government withdrew not only from the planned fighter purchase, but also from its E-IMET participation. A letter sent to President Clinton from Indonesian President Suharto explained his withdrawal in anger over "wholly unjustified criticisms in the United States Congress against Indonesia." Some of those "criticisms" may have focused on the violent Indonesian parliamentary election the month before, during which almost 300 people were killed countrywide.

What Congress did not know was that after losing IMET funding, the Pentagon continued to secretly train Indonesian military (ABRI) forces -- including the elite and ruthless Kopassus unit -- in military techniques under its Joint Combined Exchange and Training (JCET) program. That program is smaller and more specialized than IMET. In Indonesia's JCET exercises, US Special Forces were used to train military officers in "advanced sniper techniques," "military operations in urban terrain," "psychological operations," and "air assault" techniques. According to the Center for International Policy, the Pentagon spent nearly $1 million in JCET funds to train Indonesian armed forces in 1997 alone. In fact, US Green Berets, Marines, and Air Force commandos participated in some 41 exercises between 1992 and 1997.

In March of 1998, the JCET training was exposed by The Nation and the East Timor Action Network, provoking outrage from many in Congress and the international community alike. On May 8, 1998, the Defense Department announced the suspension of JCET exercises for ABRI forces. However, the JCET program was not legally banned, and the Pentagon could resume exercises at any point, even without Congressional approval. Legislation now in Congress would prevent that scenario: Last March, Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced the International Military Training Transparency and Accountability Act to the House. The act would specifically prohibit the "provision of defense services and training" -- such as JCET -- to foreign countries such as Indonesia that are "ineligible for IMET assistance or other military assistance or arms transfers."

The money equation Military aid is only one way the Clinton administration supports the Indonesian government. Indonesia's economy was nearly devastated by the Asian financial crisis; it suffered a 13-percent contraction in 1998. Skyrocketing interest rates, hyperinflation, and widespread unemployment left roughly half of the country's 200 million people living below the poverty line. The Clinton administration has responded generously: The Senate version of the FY 2000 Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Appropriations Act -- which was passed by the Senate on June 30 -- allows for a minimum of $70 million in economic assistance to the country. It is worth noting that Section 565 of the Act states that "lethal equipment" sold or given to Indonesia is not to be used in East Timor.

Furthermore, the Western-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- which receives almost 18 percent of its general funding from the US -- has disbursed over $9 billion to the country since 1997, out of a total commitment of $12.3 billion. However, financial restructuring mandated by the Fund has actually exacerbated the effects of the crisis on average Indonesians, says journalist Allan Nairn, who has written extensively about Indonesia. Such "restructuring" has included a high interest rate policy and the elimination of the country's fuel subsidy for the poor; the government is reportedly under pressure to reduce its food subsidy and lay off large numbers of workers as well. According to Nairn, "[The IMF conditions] took a very painful economic crisis and made it deadly."

During his 31-year rule of Indonesia, President Suharto concentrated huge amounts of power and wealth in the hands of his friends and family. In fact, it has been estimated that the Suharto family and their cronies own 40 percent of the land in East Timor. The economic transition presently underway is likely to transfer power and wealth from the Suharto family -- but to whom? "[The IMF is] essentially pressuring the country to move from an economy dominated by the Suharto family to one dominated by foreign investors and the world market," says Nairn. Until recently, for example, foreign investors could not own a majority share in Indonesian banks. Under the new IMF policy, that changed. Likewise, restrictions on foreign ownership of Indonesian land and retail companies are being eliminated. Due to the collapse of the Indonesian rupiah, foreign investors and multinational companies are able to, as Nairn puts it, "at bargain-basement prices, start buying the country up."

Why Indonesia? The United States has its own reasons for its loyal support of the Indonesian government. The importance of maintaining Indonesia as an ally was articulated clearly by none other than former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who explained in an undated, declassified memo obtained by the MoJo Wire that the country "[is] the fifth most populous nation in the world, [and has] about half the region's total population." The memo went on to note that Indonesia's "geographic location and resources are of major strategic importance" to US interests in the region. Indonesia controls several pivotal sea lanes connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans; maintaining friendly access to these routes is vital for American commercial and military interests.

Indonesia has also pleased the US by playing regional policeman; according to the State Department, the US has "welcomed Indonesia's contributions to regional security, especially in its leading role in helping restore democracy in Cambodia and in mediating ... territorial claimants in the South China Sea." Additionally, the country was strategically important to the US as an anti-communist bulwark during the Cold War.

Indonesia is important for economic reasons as well. There are large quantities of oil and gas in the region, and US companies have substantial investments in these sectors. American financial investment in Indonesia is not a recent development: By the 1970s, the US was investing more in Indonesia than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. By 1997, Indonesia was exporting more than $9 billion in clothing, petroleum, natural rubber, and other goods to the US. Despite the Asian financial crisis, the country imported more than $2 billion in American goods in 1998, supporting more than 30,000 American jobs along the way.

Foundation for National Progress .

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