A bad idea, again

As part of the war on terrorism, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently called for rebuilding military relations with the Indonesian army. In a joint May 13 press conference with his Indonesian counterpart, Matori Abdul Djalil, Rumsfeld said the Bush administration intended to work with Congress, “to reestablish the kind of military-to-military relations which we believe are appropriate.”

This is hardly a new development. Shortly after Sept. 11, the White House, led by Deputy Secretary of State and former ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Wolfowitz, began maneuvering to loosen restrictions on military aid to Jakarta, which had been cut off during the Indonesian army’s 1999 rampage in East Timor.

Administration officials argue that the Indonesian army has reformed since the bad old days of two years ago and needs our help in its struggle against terrorism. U.S. intelligence says Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are active with extremist groups in Java. But if we aren’t careful, the U.S. is likely to find itself in the middle of several very nasty civil wars, which have little to do with jihad, but quite a lot to do with very worldly things like gold, copper and oil.

The Indonesian army is currently engaged in suppressing two independence movements, one of which is in Irian Jaya. The army has been jailing pro-independence supporters and firing on demonstrators. In November, an army unit invited one of Irian Jaya’s independence leaders to a dinner. He ended up strangled to death on the side of the road.

While Jakarta says its civil wars are about terrorism, what’s really at stake are billions of dollars in raw materials. The seizure of East Timor allowed Indonesia to claim part of the Timor Gap, a channel estimated to contain anywhere from 1 to 6 billion barrels of oil. While the Indonesians have left East Timor, they are hanging onto a section of the Gap. In Irian Jaya, the army is deeply involved in the logging industry, as well as protecting the investments of the U.S.-operated Freeport-McMoran gold and copper mine and the Atlantic Richfield oil company.

The independence movements were peaceful until army repression sparked a violent response. As Sidney Jones, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, put it, “the brutality of the army created the mass base for separatist movements.” In the name of fighting terrorism, the Bush administration is about to reestablish ties with a particularly brutal bunch of military thugs. Bad idea the first time around, bad idea the second, and will only inflame rather than douse the separatist fires raging in Indonesia.

Conn Hallinan is the provost at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The above article is excerpted from a Foreign Policy in Focus Global Affairs Commentary (www.fpif.org). The author can be reached at connm@cats.ucsc.edu