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Country Profile

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world and, until the summer of 1997, had one of the world's fastest growing economies (a yearly average growth of 7.5% for the previous ten years). Since then, however, the nation has been wracked by economic crises and political turmoil that has seen the value of Indonesia's currency collapse. Rising unemployment and food shortages have led to public demonstrations and riots. The government responded forcefully with the police and army to break up the crowds and maintain stability. Despite the IMF and World Bank's  economic rescue packages, hard times are continuing for Indonesians.

The size and location of Indonesia make it a major actor in Asian diplomacy and politics, and for this reason the United States maintains a strong bilateral relationship with Indonesia and has been the lead sponsor of the recent international economic assistance. However, Indonesia until recently was an undemocratic country, with a poor human rights record. In addition, Indonesia invaded and illegally annexed East Timor in 1975. For these reasons, many citizens and members of Congress have opposed the United States’ role as a leading source of weapons and military training as well as millions of dollars in economic aid during the current crisis for the Jakarta regime.

Political progress has been made since the fall of Suharto, Indonesia's long-time authoritarian dictator.  Suharto's successor, Habibie, handed control of the government to a popularly elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, in October 1999.  Yet Indonesia still has a long ways to go; according to the State Department's 1999 human rights report, its judiciary "remains subordinated to the executive and suffers from pervasive corruption."  Indonesia's armed forces traditionally wield significant power throughout Indonesian politics and society, but have recently being separated from the national police and are technically no longer responsible for internal security.  However, the military still "retain[s] broad nonmilitary powers and an internal security role, and [is] not fully accountable to civilian authority. Both the TNI and the police committed numerous serious human rights abuses throughout the year." In addition to the atrocities committed in Aceh and East Timor (described below), these abuses included " numerous instances of indiscriminate shooting of civilians, torture, rape, beatings and other abuse, and arbitrary detention in Jakarta, Irian Jaya, Maluku, and elsewhere in the country."

Historically, the United States has been a leading supporter of the Indonesian military.  The United States has sold $1.25 billion dollars worth of weaponry to Indonesia since 1975.  The U.S. has also provided some for of security assistance virtually every year since 1950, including $388 million in grants and loans to pay for U.S. arms.  

The U.S. government also provided training under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program from 1950 to 1992, when Congress prohibited this aid in reaction to severe human rights abuses in East Timor. In that 42-year period, over 7,300 Indonesian military personnel received IMET training, demonstrating the close ties between the U.S. and Indonesian militaries. Indonesia was later reauthorized to receive "E-IMET," which provides classroom courses in human rights and civil-military relations. 

After regular IMET training was suspended, Indonesian troops continued to receive combat training from U.S. soldiers under the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program (see chart below). The units trained included the infamous Kopassus special operations forces, known by the U.S. to engage in torture, "disappearances," and other atrocities across Indonesia. Training courses included sniper techniques, air operations, and close quarters combat. Whether the U.S.-trained units were present in East Timor during the pre- and post-referendum violence is unclear, but the tactics and techniques used by security forces were strikingly similar to techniques taught in JCET and other U.S. military training courses. 

East Timor

Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, illegally annexing it the following year. At the time, 90% of the  Indonesian military's arms were made in America, and provided, along with President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger's nod of approval, U.S. support for the takeover.  Amnesty International and other human rights groups have estimated that more than 100,000 Timorese out of a population of only 700,000 were killed in the first five years. Since 1980 another 100,000 are thought to have been killed or to have died of hunger and disease.

In November 1991, using U.S.-supplied M-16 assault rifles, the Indonesian army opened fire on peaceful Timorese demonstrators. The soldiers killed 50-150 demonstrators who were proceeding to a cemetery in Dili, the capitol of Timor, in a memorial for a man previously killed by the military.

The 1996 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, East Timor's Roman Catholic Bishop, and to Jose Ramos-Horta, who has long advocated a referendum by the Timorese public on the question of independence. Click here to read a 23 July 1997 Washinton Times op-ed by Ramos-Horta explaining his support for the U.S. and international Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers.

In 1992, because of the massacre in Dili in the preceding November, the Congress cut off further military training for Indonesia. Responding to Congressional and citizen pressure, in 1994 the U.S. State Department banned the sale to Indonesia of small arms, riot gear, and other "crowd control" technologies which could be used to commit human rights abuses. But U.S. policy still permitted the sale of larger, more expensive weapons, such as F-16 fighter/bomber jets. The administration claims that F-16s are not likely to be used to commit human rights abuses, and during 1996-97 it advocated the sale of nine of the aircraft to Indonesia. On 6 June of this year, citing criticism from the U.S. Congress, Indonesia canceled its order for the jets. Click here for more information about the saga of the F-16 deal.

In January 1999, then-President Habibie agreed to allow the East Timorese to vote on whether they wished to remain part of Indonesia or become independent.  The election was postponed several times, and soldiers and associated militias were dispatched by the Indonesian government to intimidate the population into staying with Indonesia.  The U.S. State Department described the climate surrounding the elections:

Human rights violations in East Timor by security forces and military-backed militias against pro-independence supporters included: Summary executions, massacres, massive deportation, attacks on women and children, houses and buildings besieged and destroyed, attacks and burnings of property belonging to international organizations and to the Catholic Church, and an attack on the only functioning medical clinic in Dili. More than 250 bodies were found in Dili and other areas. 

Despite these conditions, 98 percent of registered East Timorese voters cast ballots, and an overwhelming 78.5 percent chose independence.   

President Clinton finally decided to cut off all arms sales and other military ties to Indonesia two weeks after the August 30, 1999 referendum in East Timor and associated violence; this and other international pressure on Jakarta led to acceptance of international peacekeepers. The action was a welcome, but long overdue, response to the violence in Indonesia. As Ramos-Horta noted at a congressional briefing in September 1999, the tragedy in East Timor might have been averted altogether had the U.S. used this influence earlier. 

Scarcely half a year since cutting off military relations, the United States has again begun training members of the Indonesian military ("U.S. Resumes Training Plan for Officers of Indonesia," Washington Post and International Herald Tribune, February 19, 2000).  

Background Information 

Last Updated:  March 2002

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