The Rising East


Sunday, August 19, 2001

Military contact with
Indonesian army serves
wider U.S. purpose

Within the next few weeks, Adm. Dennis Blair, who commands U.S. forces in the Pacific from his headquarters here, plans to embark on a journey to Indonesia to resume United States contacts with the military leaders of that troubled nation.

The timing should be right, as the new president of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, has just reprimanded the Indonesian army for its notorious atrocities of recent years. "We need to pay more attention to human rights," she said in an address last week. "We need a security force that is effective, highly disciplined and under the control of the government."

Implicit in her words was a demand for reform. The United States, in renewing contacts with the Indonesian army, will seek to influence that reform, even if subtly. U.S. contacts with the Indonesian army, or TNI, were broken off about five years ago in response to the TNI's brutalities in East Timor.

The new contacts will be what an official called "measured," intended to encourage Indonesian soldiers to treat fellow citizens with respect, to refrain from political interference, and to make the officer corps more professional -- but not to sell weaponry.

U.S. strategic interests in Indonesia have been slow to appear on Washington's radar. Now, however, officials there seem to be newly aware that the archipelago stretches across sea lanes through which pass nearly half of the world's shipping. Indonesia has ceased to be a leader of Southeast Asia, is experiencing economic decline, suffers from separatist struggles, is the world's leading source of maritime piracy and is open to Chinese subversion.

In this turbulence, the army is the nation's most cohesive institution. When army leaders decided that the former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, should be driven from office for incompetence, he left. So long as Megawati retains the confidence of the army, she will serve out her term to 2004.

Please note the word "army," not armed forces. Throughout Asia, it is the army, not the entire armed force, that is critical in most nations and its political power and role in internal security differs markedly from that the United States and other Western democracies.

The relative authority of an Asian army runs along a spectrum. In China, political leaders govern only with the sufferance of the People's Liberation Army, which pledges its allegiance to the Communist Party, not to the nation. Much the same is true in North Korea and Vietnam and, on the right, in Burma and Pakistan.

At the other end, the political clout of the army has been nil in Japan since World War II and has faded into the background in South Korea and Taiwan after decades of supporting authoritarian rulers. Armies have receded in Thailand and the Philippines but still hover at the edge of the political arena. So too in Indonesia.

American objectives differ with each army. In Indonesia, the United States will do what is acceptable in helping to stabilize a nation wracked with problems. A possible friend will be a retired general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who attended the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., 10 years ago.

Yudhoyono is the senior minister coordinating security policies, including foreign affairs and defense, and is considered to be a leader in reforming the TNI. His public statements appear to reflect his education at Fort Leavenworth, making him an example of what the United States is trying to achieve in educating foreign officers.

The mission of the United States with an ally such as South Korea is to help deter a North Korean attack or, if it comes, to help crush it. With a potential adversary such as China, the primary objective is to educate Chinese leaders on U.S. military capabilities and intentions so that they do not miscalculate.

Even with the differences, however, the connecting thread is to prevent hostilities. About 25 years ago, during a rare exchange between North Koreans and South Koreans, a retired South Korean general watched as his North Korean guests partook of a lavish reception in the Kyongbok Pavilion.

In a darkened corner, he marveled that, having fought the North Koreans for three years in the Korean War, he never thought he would one day be entertaining them in Seoul. He was quiet for a minute, then sighed: "Well, I guess it's better than bullets."

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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