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Eben Kirksey

Indonesia's bleak record on rights

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said improving relations with Indonesia will be a priority of the Obama administration. As Indonesians go to the polls Wednesday to choose a president, this is an excellent time for the United States to press for a fuller investigation of an incident that has been a stumbling block for the two countries: the 2002 ambush that killed two U.S. schoolteachers in Indonesia's remote territory of West Papua.

New documents add a surprising twist to public accounts of the killings. Ballistics reports and eyewitness testimony point to an Indonesian military role in the attack. But declassified State Department documents reveal that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the current president of Indonesia who is up for re-election Wednesday, coordinated a coverup. Before Indonesians head to the polls, our elected officials have the opportunity to tell Yudhoyono that the United States is disappointed with his record on transparency and human rights.

The teachers were ambushed about 300 yards from an Indonesian military checkpoint and pinned in their cars during 45 minutes of sporadic gunfire. Two Americans and one Indonesian were murdered and eight other Americans were wounded. The teachers were driving home from a picnic near the gold and copper mine operated by Freeport McMoRan, a U.S. company that employed them to teach at an international school. Police investigators singled out officers in Kopassus, Indonesia's notorious special forces, as the culprits. The motive of these soldiers may well have been a bid for more money. In 2002 Freeport paid the Indonesian military $5.6 million for protection, including $46,000 to a Kopassus soldier placed at the crime scene by witnesses.

After reports of military shooters emerged, Yudhoyono, then political and security minister, took over the inquiry. Initially Yudhoyono blocked an FBI investigation, according to previously secret State Department cables obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents were released online last week. While Yudhoyono stalled, Indonesian military agents intimidated key witnesses and tampered with material evidence.

Despite initial CIA reports linking military shooters to this murder, the Bush administration pushed to renew financing for Indonesia's armed forces. With a population of 240 million, Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country, was seen as a key ally in the global war on terror. With vast mineral resources, natural gas reserves and timber, Indonesia was also regarded as an important U.S. trading partner. Nevertheless, a Republican-controlled Congress stonewalled Bush administration attempts to fund training for Indonesian soldiers until they cooperated with the FBI. Justice in this murder case became the most important issue in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Indonesia.

The trail was cold by the time the FBI was allowed in the country. Yudhoyono began to micromanage the investigation, meeting repeatedly with the low-ranking FBI field agents in charge of the case, according to the declassified State Department documents. Initially the FBI investigators were only allowed to interview witnesses in the presence of Indonesian military agents and were given limited access to material evidence.

The scope of the FBI investigation was also limited by Bush's goals in the war on terror. The special agents found a fall guy but tiptoed around evidence connecting him to the Indonesian military. Antonius Wamang, an ethnic Papuan, was eventually indicted by a U.S. grand jury for his role in the attack. He was apprehended in 2006 by the FBI and sentenced to life in Indonesian prison. But Wamang had extensive ties to the Indonesian military, and these ties were not explored in the Indonesian court system.

The impunity in this case speaks to a broader pattern of abuse by the Indonesian military directed at their own people, especially ethnic minorities. Since Yudhoyono began his first term as president in 2004, scores of indigenous Papuans have been killed by government soldiers. Last month a 13-year-old boy was shot dead. Since April seven young Papuan women have been kidnapped and raped, others killed, and civilian homes burned during a series of police sweeps in West Papua's highlands.

This week Yudhoyono is running in a hotly contested presidential race against other former generals with similarly dismal human rights records. Gen. Wiranto, vice president on the Golkar ticket, has been indicted by the United Nations for crimes against humanity in East Timor. The Democratic Party of Struggle's vice presidential candidate, Gen. Prabowo Subianto, commanded the Kopassus special forces when his subordinates kidnapped and disappeared student activists.

Indonesian voters have bleak options at the ballot box this week. No matter who is elected, the Obama administration should ensure that the masterminds of the 2002 ambush are brought to justice. The FBI investigation into this case is still officially open and Eric Holder's Justice Department should move forward to bring it to a conclusion. Prosecuting the people who were truly responsible for this attack will help protect U.S. and Indonesian citizens alike from further human rights abuses.

Eben Kirksey, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Santa Cruz, is completing a book about the independence movement in West Papua called "Freedom in Entangled Worlds." To view the newly released State Department documents go to

Indonesia's bleak record on rights 07/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 6, 2009 8:30pm]
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