In announcing this week that the United States would lift a 12-year-long ban on providing military assistance and training to Indonesia’s special forces unit, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke about the Indonesian military’s reforms and said it is prepared to ensure accountability for any human rights abuses by its soldiers. My experience with Indonesia’s special forces and its justice system lead me to think President Obama is making a dangerous mistake.
My husband, the late Munir Said Thalib, was one of Indonesia’s most prominent human rights leaders. He was close in age to and had much in common with President Obama. Munir, too, worked as a community organizer, helping the weak, the poor and victims of political repression. Both men spoke the language of human rights, and both received international recognition for their contributions to humanity: Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize; Munir won Sweden’s prestigious Right Livelihood Award in 2000. Obama’s boyhood home in Jakarta’s Menteng neighborhood is a short distance from the office of Kontras, the human rights organization where my husband worked.
Like the Obamas, my husband and I had two beautiful children, now ages 11 and 7. Unlike Malia and Sasha, my children have lost their father.
In September 2004, my husband was fatally poisoned on a flight from Indonesia to the Netherlands. Nearly six years later, no one has been held accountable for ordering his murder.
Indonesian courts have found three people guilty of directly causing Munir’s death: two employees of the airline and an off-duty Garuda pilot who was also an intelligence agent. These individuals had no personal motive to kill my husband. All indications are that they did not act on their own initiative. Yet authorities have not determined whether other members of the security or intelligence services ordered Munir’s death. In December 2008, a senior intelligence official, Maj. Gen. Muchdi Purwopranjono, was acquitted of ordering the murder in a trial that our National Commission on Human Rights has called seriously flawed. Indonesian police and the Office of the Attorney General have taken no further steps to resolve the case.
Years earlier, Muchdi Purwopranjono lost his job in Kopassus, the special forces, after my husband revealed the general’s involvement in the abduction and torture of pro-reform student activists in the late 1990s. I helped Munir investigate the disappearances. Munir also brought to light allegations of Kopassus’s involvement in other serious human rights abuses in East Timor and Papua, and he strongly opposed the brutal practices of the Indonesian military — including Kopassus — in the province of Aceh.
The United States rightly refused to support Kopassus because of its members’ involvement in these and other incidents of abuse. But the Obama administration, seeking to improve ties with Indonesia, has agreed to allow training to resume if the government will ensure that those convicted of abuse would be moved out of Kopassus.
Promises to shift abusers out of Kopassus and into other military units are simply not enough. Members of Kopassus have no fear that they will be prosecuted for serious wrongdoing. The special forces protect members who are implicated in such abuses. Even the few who have been convicted by military courts are largely still serving. This will not change until members of the security service who have committed abuses are brought to justice.
The U.S. decision also undercuts the work of civil society groups. In March four prominent Indonesian non-governmental human rights organizations suggested strict conditions for any U.S. reengagement with Kopassus, noting that “nothing has been done to restore the rights of the victims or punish those who were responsible.”
The Obama administration opted for a lower standard for reengagement than what we in Indonesian civil society have asked for, even as the Pentagon points to meetings with people like me as evidence of Indonesia’s transition to a rights-respecting democracy.
Indonesia has made much progress on the road to democracy and stability, but enhancing the reach of a powerful military force that lacks respect for the rule of law jeopardizes those hard-fought gains. Obama is rewarding Kopassus without requiring accountability. I fear that the Indonesian security services will again get away with murder.
The people of Indonesia have faith in Obama’s humanitarian values, particularly his power to encourage positive change in our country. The next steps for his administration are clear: Reverse the decision to train Kopassus in the absence of such change and persuade President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to honor Indonesia’s international obligations for justice. Help me give my children an answer about their father’s murder.
The writer was married to Indonesian human rights activist Munir Thalib, who was killed in 2004.