Indonesian Security Forces Continue to Struggle for Power

In 1998, Indonesia’s President Suharto fell from power, ushering in an unprecedented period of reformasi, or political reform. But progress in democratization has been met with resistance from many of those accustomed to power, including members of the military.

Historically, there has been tension between the national police and Kopassus, an Indonesian Army special forces group. Kopassus has a record of human rights violations across the country, beginning in the 1960s in Java and extending to East Timor, Aceh, and Papua in the decades since. The well-documented East Timor abuses prompted the U.S. Congress to impose a ban on military contact with the elite forces in 1999.

However, since 2001, American security assistance to Indonesia has steadily expanded as a result of cooperation on counterterrorism and anti-piracy efforts, disaster response, and U.N. peacekeeping. Indonesia successfully reformed Kopassus enough to satisfy the United States, which decided to reengage with the elite force in 2010, when the two nations signed the bilateral Comprehensive Partnership Agreement in November 2010. This signified a renewal of U.S. military relations with Kopassus. Despite this, problems remain within the internal structure of the Indonesian armed forces.

Tensions have since resurfaced following the Ogan Komering Ulu (OKU) tragedy in February, a brutal raid on a police station by soldiers of the second Regional Military Command (Kodam II) Sriwijaya. The station was ransacked then set on fire, several policemen were brutally beaten, and one policeman died of severe burns.

Then on March 23, 2013, four detainees at Cebongan prison in Yogyakarta were murdered in their cell. Eleven members of Kopassus allegedly broke into a jail in central Java and killed Hendrik Angel Sahetapi, Yohanes Juan Manbait, Gameliel Yermianto Rohi Riwu, and Adrianus Candra Galaja. These detainees had been imprisoned for supposedly murdering Kopassus member First Sergeant Santoso.

Military investigators say that the 11 Kopassus suspects, disguised with ski masks and carrying AK-47 assault rifles, forced their way into the prison, beat two guards who subsequently required hospitalization, and executed the four detainees. Investigators said the motive for the murders was revenge for the killing three days earlier of their Kopassus colleague. Santoso and the eleven suspects all served with Kopassus Group II in Kartasura, about a two-hour drive from Yogyakarta.

The military justice system in Indonesia lacks transparency, independence, and impartiality, and has failed to properly investigate and prosecute alleged serious human rights abuses. The military has confirmed Kopassus’ culpability in the prison murders, yet senior military and government officials have publicly defended the suspects and have downplayed the severity of the crime.

On April 4, army investigator Brigadier General Untung Yudhoyono repeatedly described the four slain detainees as “thugs” and said their murders were an expression of Kopassus loyalty. Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro publicly denied that the prison murders were a human rights violation, stating that the killings were “spontaneous [and] unorganized.” Kopassus commander Major General Agus Sutomo insisted on April 16 that the prison raid was an act of mere “insubordination” rather than a human rights abuse.

Haris Azhar, the executive director of the National Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), said that the Cebongan incident and the recent attack on a police station in OKU could be blamed on stagnant internal reforms within the nation’s security apparatus. “Unless internal reform of the TNI and the National Police can be accomplished completely as mandated by the 1945 Constitution and the reform movement, the current conflict between the institutions will continue and the number of violent incidents involving their personnel will increase in the future,” Azhar told The Jakarta Post.

KontraS said that it has recorded 87 clashes between personnel of the TNI and the National Police since the institutions were separated in 1999. The worsening conflict is partly a result of the vague guidelines that distinguish the roles between the military and the police. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in his capacity as supreme commander of the military, could clarify their respective roles, but he has failed to do so.

KontraS has outlined a set of recommendations that the Indonesian government should adopt: a legal inquiry into the murders with a particular focus on the revenge motive, use of combat weapons, and the mobilization of the armed forces; an investigation into the Yogyakarta Regional Police to determine why the detainees were transferred within three days to prison, why there was no security backup at the prison, and whether the police officers stationed were complicit; and an effort by the Ministry of Law and Justice to ensure the health and security of Cebongan Prison officers.

The U.S. should encourage the Indonesian government to heed KontraS’ recommendations by launching a formal inquiry into this incident and pushing for greater oversight and accountability of the armed forces.


Published on May 10, 2013


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