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American Forces Press Service

Disaster Could Mean Closer U.S.-Indonesia Military Ties

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2005 -- U.S. officials are looking at ways to help Indonesia deal with the effects of the Dec. 26 tsunami without violating sanctions imposed on the country over human rights abuses in East Timor from 1999 to 2001.

The United States and other countries imposed economic sanctions and cut military-to-military relations after Indonesian forces backed anti-independence militias in East Timor, which was officially recognized as an independent nation in 2002.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz addressed some of these issues during a visit to Indonesia and other tsunami-damaged countries Jan. 15-16. He said the United States has sent technicians and spare parts to Indonesia to help repair the country's aging fleet of C-130 transport planes. These planes, which can land on relatively short and unimproved runways, are needed to deliver humanitarian aid to the Aceh province, where the damage was most severe.

Only nine of Indonesia's 24 C-130s were in working order before this most recent U.S. assistance, Wolfowitz said.

"I think everybody recognizes that the most important thing right now is to meet the needs of the people of Aceh," he said at a news conference Jan. 16 in Jakarta. "There's been no controversy whatsoever in my country about the fact that we are now providing spare parts to get Indonesian C-130s flying."

In October 2004, Indonesia held its second democratic elections after four decades of authoritarian government. The president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonoa, is a retired general who had attended the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College. Wolfowitz said this is a positive sign because Yudhoyono understands the role of the military in a democracy.

Recent reforms in the country's military and close cooperation since the Dec. 26 tsunami could lead to building military-to-military ties with the United States -- or, as Wolfowitz put it, "Defense Department to Defense Department."

"One of the things we'd like to help with," he said, "is to strengthen the civilian capacity to manage defense and security matters."

After meeting with Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, Wolfowitz said he is impressed with "the importance that this new Indonesian government attaches to military reform."

The deputy secretary said that perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the current status of military-to-military training with Indonesia. "Everybody loses a great deal when a long period of time goes by with severe limitations on the ability of our military -- with deeply imbued democratic values, with a very strong sense of what it means to be a military in a democracy, a very strong sense of what it means to take orders from civilians -- when you cut off their contact with (our) military," Wolfowitz said.

"I think it is not supportive of the very goals that these restrictions are meant to achieve," he continued. "So I think if we were interested in military reform here - and certainly this Indonesian government is and our government is - I think we need to reconsider a bit where we are at this point in history going forward."

Still, Wolfowitz said, any changes in the current framework of relations with Indonesia need to be approved by the U.S. Congress. "The reasons for those restrictions we understand," he said. "It's not-inconsiderable concern about human rights abuses in the past and about the conduct of the Indonesian military in the past."

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