How U.S. foreign policy influences the human rights situation in Indonesia

1. Introduction
Indonesian military was and still is used by the government of Indonesia directly or indirectly by the influence of U.S administration which results in violation of human rights in Indonesia. Military has been implied to fight against separatist movement, ethnical conflicts and terrorism. In this paper, I will analyze how U.S. foreign policy influences human rights situation in Indonesia. The Indonesian military could be beneficiary of the new domination given by the Bush administration to its war against terrorism, the same military suppressed East Timor and continued human rights abuses in West Papua, Aceh, and other conflicted area in Indonesia. This paper seeks how the decade long influence of U.S administration on Indonesian government depleted human rights values in Indonesia. This trend of violation of human rights is continued till date through the counter terrorism activities as post September 11 phenomenon. The paper therefore, an effort to critically investigate why U.S. foreign policies do not have any significant role in improving human rights values in Indonesia.

Democracy is not yet matured in Indonesia. Long term authoritarian rules have paralyzed the human rights practices. Even though respect for human rights is ‘western concept’[i] imported in to Asia, it is significant to find out the root causes for ignorance of human rights in Indonesia.
The country is stepping towards democracy from the long term authoritarian states. During the last couple of decades military had played a dominant role in Indonesian government and suppressed separatists’ movements at several provinces that cost loss of lives and violation of human rights. U.S. had supported the authoritarian Indonesia because Suharto agreed to have military ties between the two countries and it was important for U.S. to have a strong relation with Indonesia during cold war era. Indonesia is strategically important geographical location for U.S. to fight against terrorism as well as to keep control over this region. In addition, U.S. Indonesia military ties will ensure US’s military superiority in South East Asia. Human rights values have been slaughtered in Indonesia as a result of the U.S. foreign policy from Suharto to Megawati.

2. Evidences of degradation of human rights and the separatist movement
I will show some evidences that will agree with my claim of degradation of human rights in Indonesia. Firstly, Human Rights violations multiplied in Indonesia in 1965 when coup was committed by the communist party that removed President Sukarno. Suharto became President. 250,000 members and supporters of communist party were detained and equal numbers of persons were killed between 1965 and 1967 (Jetschke 1999: 140).Why U.S. government did not deny or refuse Suharto government as authoritarian ruler because U.S. policy that undermined human rights and emphasized economic and political benefits in this region.

Secondly, Indonesian military have killed a large number of people in East Timor, Aceh and Irian Jaya (recently renamed West Papua). In 1975 it invaded East Timor, a former Portuguese colony. In 1999 Indonesian army has stormed East Timor and killed thousands of civilian and destroyed the infrastructure of the country. The Indonesian army and its militia allies systematically destroyed the country, killing at least 2,000 people and forcing 250,000 more into concentration camps in West Timor. According to the United Nations, Indonesia’s 24 years of occupation resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 Timorese.[ii] Logic of dictator ruler behind these killings and destruction is to keep territorial integrity. Military hardware was supplied by U.S. and Indonesian army used it to suppress the independence movement in East Timor. Two other independence movements are going on in Aceh and Irian Jaya. Neither U.S. governments took strong position against Indonesian government or influenced to stop killing people in these provinces. A wave of extrajudicial killings of petty criminals resulted in between 3,000 and 5,000 victims between 1983 and 1985; approximately 2,000 alleged members of a separatist movement in the Indonesian province of Aceh were killed during counter insurgency campaigns between 1989 and 1991 (Jetschke 1999: 139). If U.S. foreign policies have had initiatives to improve human rights situation in Aceh, it would not have kept silence.

Thirdly, Clinton Administration had imposed ban on military aid to Jakarta following the invasion in East Timor. Bush administration now realizes that those bad days have gone and Indonesian army needs their help to combat against terrorism. Why counter terrorism policy of U.S. does not have clear indication to avoid human rights violation, the reason is, it would be a barrier to reach their goal. Therefore, these two countries have agreed to expand modest between their militaries to support Indonesia’s efforts at military reform and professionalism.

Fourthly, Conn Hallinan (June 12, 2002) in his article published in “Foreign Policy in Focus”[iii] has mentioned one statement from Magawati’s December 29, 2001 speech to military cadets, where she speaks towards the cadet: “You can do your duty without being worried about human rights,” which is an assurance from leader of the nation for the military cadets to ignore human rights values. Magawati being a representative of a newly born democratic government how relies on military to suppress self-determination movements. Either national sovereignty motivated her make such statement or territorial integrity urged her to humiliate human rights.

3. Economic interest and military ties
Here, I argue economic benefit of both countries is good reason for military ties. U.S. backed Suharto’s invasion of the former Portuguese territory. There is a reason why this continued through the Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton eras, when U.S. policy focused on supporting Suharto’s military and burnishing his image to the world. Clinton imposed ban on military aid to Indonesia because he realized that U.S. – Indonesia military ties might have been responsible for the severe violation of human rights in East Timor. Bush administration has welded the ties to fight against terrorism. Hence the relation is regained, which will secure U.S. business and economic interests. If military ties between two countries is important to balance power with China in South East Asia, economic profitability of American transnational companies is equally significant. Leading U.S. businesses including Texaco, Exxon-Mobil, Freeport McMoRan, Unocal, Elpaso Energy International, Halliburton, Anadarco and Conoco have considerable investments in Indonesia. For example the U.S. mining company Freeport McMoRan has built the world’s largest gold mine in West Papua and also began exploiting its plentiful copper resources.[iv] Mutual military ties are required for functioning billion dollar U.S. companies by proving security against terrorist, separatist and fanatic Islamic activists. The colonial British, Dutch and Portuguese during nineteenth and twentieth century have had more straight forward attitude for collecting mineral and resources, doing trade and businesses, and commercializing agriculture than today’s U.S., the economic imperial of twenty first century’s global market. Here, my intention is to link U.S. economic interest with U.S.-Indonesia military ties. As a result of strong ties, U.S. closes eyes when the Indonesia army violates human rights in separatist provinces coloring guerrillas or freedom fighters as member of terrorist groups under the anti terrorism program.

U.S. government has already realized the growing threat that is emerging from the fundamentalist Islamic groups in Indonesia. Therefore, after September 11, U.S. administration has taken initiatives to strengthen relationship with Indonesian government. During their meeting, Bush promised the visiting President Megawati a restoration of military aid and a total of US$ 657.4 million in financial aid.[v] Reason why large amount of money is allocated for the defence and security issues while low amount is assigned for the social welfare could simplify the equation of U.S. interest on Indonesia’s defence. The interest behind providing huge amount of fund is to ensure security for the American transnational corporations working in Indonesia. Here, in addition, I like to focus on Bush administration’s target to upgrade capacity of Indonesian defence and security system that would be utilized to fight against terrorism but there is a doubt of misusing military and police administration of Indonesia against innocent people, journalists, intellectuals, political activists and the separatists who are not engaged in terrorist activities. Hence U.S. government has planted the seeds, which will result in human rights violation.

4. Counter Terrorism: a controversial act
The main focus here is to analyze the adverse affect of counter terrorism measures in Indonesia. Megawati is caught between international pressure to aggressively crack down on terrorism, and domestic nationalist and religious forces that resent what they see as foreign interference. U.S. foreign policy in Palestine and Iraq has already generated unfaithfulness on U.S. government among the Muslims in Indonesia as well as across the world. It is necessary to keep it in consideration that working closely with US to fight against terrorism has created anti-Muslim image of President Megawati Sukarnoputri among Indonesians. The Muslims in Indonesia have not welcomed American foreign policy in Indonesia to work against terrorism and eventually have distrusted hypocritical US Middle East policy in Palestine and Iraq that undermines Muslim world. Indonesia being largest Muslim population in the world has brotherhood sentiment with the Muslim majority countries. Consequently Indonesian Muslims have already criticized the U.S. invasion in Iraq. Thus, it is important for U.S. government to have a close relation with government of Indonesia to protect any possible terrorist threat with the help of counter terrorism acts that may come out from the angry Muslims. As a part of the war on terrorism Bush administration wants to develop military to military relation between two countries even though Indonesian military have left evidences in the country’s history for the gross violation of human rights. Phasuk (2003:4) has explained how blindly Indonesian government has accused guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) for their involvement in a series of bombings in Jakarta and North Sumatran city of Medan. Nevertheless in Aceh human rights defenders are in danger and journalists have faced serious interrogations and threats. The government also claims that GAM is linked to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) where JI is suspected as a terrorist organization, though JI has long evidence as an Islamic political party. Phasuk (2003: 4) says, “In the context of the US-led war on terrorism, the Indonesian government is waging campaign aimed at the international community to have the GAM declared a terrorist organization.” Under the banner of US-led anti terrorism program Indonesian government resists separatists’ movements at the conflict porn provinces.

Despite frequent bombings and attacks in Christian areas by Islamic groups, Bali bombing, Marriot hotel incident have reminded once again the strong presence of terrorist activities inside Indonesia. Growing Australian and American pressure to fight against terrorism has placed President Megawati in trouble. U.S. government is suspected that Islamist groups have connection with Al-Queda. On the other hand leaders of the Islamic groups in Indonesia are biased by the conspiracy theory of Bush administration. Din Syamsuddin, the vice chairman of Indonesia’s second largest Muslim group, Muhammadiyah, believes the United States is working against Islam.[vi] Like Syamsuddin his followers and many other Muslims in Indonesia believes that U.S. is against Islam. Timo Kivimaki[vii] (2003:15) has pointed out that, “wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have confirmed in the minds of Indonesians that this unfairness can not be fought by using nonviolent or conventional military means.” Which indicates the frustration, anger and anguishes of angry Muslims and they will choose the violent way to exert their hatred against U.S. administration. When situation in Indonesia is such a complex after September 11, President Megawati is standing between nationalism and Muslim belief in her country and allies of US-led counter terrorism program. Megawati is loosing her popularity among the Islamic political parties as well as their supporters due to her ties with U.S. administration on war against terrorism. The controversial counter terrorism act may increase arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, disappearance, and torture in prison. I think, War against terrorism can take the shape of war against separatist at the back end and Violation of human rights would be absolute byproduct at the end.

5. Indonesia – U.S. military relation is more important than human rights values
From Suharto’s new order to Megawati’ democracy era Indonesia remains as more or less an authoritarian state. The question is arised why human rights standards and practices have not been improved during this passage of time. The reason behind why human rights are not much emphasized by Indonesian government could be the contents of human rights are new in Asia and concept is western. Eldridge (2002:13) argues, “…many Asian leaders reject the basic idea of universality with regard to both meaning and application.” There is a debate about universality of human rights. Cultural relativity is accountable for the weak presence of western human rights values in South East Asia. In Indonesia Islam, nationalism and Asian values are key dominant elements, which act as barrier for the promotion of human rights. Jetschke (1999: 148) has mentioned how Suharto government mobilized nationalist sentiments against foreign intervention in Indonesia. He took benefit out of nationalist feeling. Nationalist sentiment is strong enough to be partial and do not hesitate to violate human rights of the separatists. NGOS, INGOs and transnational human rights groups have been working since long in Indonesia for establishing human rights values. National Commission on Human Rights was result of these efforts but the will of sovereign State is more important than a commission of human rights for improving respect for human rights. Eldridge (2002: 16) stated:

“The notion of universal human rights poses a fundamental challenge to the rationale underlying state sovereignty, by which states are autonomous both in exercising jurisdiction within their territorial boundaries and pursuing their national interest in conducting external affairs.”

Thus, conflict is clearly visible between sovereign state and universal human rights. Indonesia is not the exception where military dictatorship backed by U.S. support amplified the challenge of human rights to protect violations of rights, which are considered as internal issues of sovereign state.

During cold war it was more essential for U.S. to have military relation rather than to have respect for human rights values in Indonesia. Now war on terrorism is the first priority for U.S. government than to improve human rights and social welfare in Indonesia. Nonetheless, military relation can secure U.S. transnational companies and large scale investments in Indonesia. Economic and geopolitical interest of U.S. has lot more interests in Indonesia than human rights saga. On the other hand, national integrity instead of slaughtering freedom fighters and economic support from U.S. for the reformation of Indonesian military are more important than to develop human rights standards.


Boone, Bruce (December 2001) ‘Indonesia after S11: Anti-Terrorism, Geopolitics and Counter-Revolution’, (, site visited on December 11, 2003.

Eldridge, Philip J. (2002) ‘International Human Rights; Theory and Practice’, The Politics of Human Rights in South East Asia, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 12-31.

Hallinan, Conn (June 12, 2002) ‘Supporting Indonesia’s Military Bad Idea Second Time Around’, Foreign Policy in Focus. (, site visited on December 11, 2003.

Jetschke, Anja (1999) ‘Linking the Unlinkable? International Norms and Nationalism in Indonesia and the Philippines’, in Thomas Risse, Stephen C. Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink (eds) The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 134-71.
Kivimaki, Timo (2003), ‘Terrorism in Indonesia’, Terrorism in South East Asia, NIASnytt, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies: pp. 15-18.

Phasuk, Sunai (2003), ‘A Sketch of Human Rights Situation in Southeast Asia’, The paper was presented on October 14, 2003 at Human Rights Department, Mahidol University.

Ressa, Maria (2003), ‘Radical Islam recruits on U.S. distrust’, Monday, September 8, 2003 Posted: 0503 GMT, ( site visited on December 11, 2003.

End Notes

[i] Universalist theories of human rights derive from western concepts of natural law originating from the Roman Empire, evolving in face of many challenges through the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods into the contemporary industrial and post-industrial age. (Vincent 1986: 19-36), quoted by Eldridge (2002: 1)
[ii] The information were picked up from Conn Hallinan’s “Supporting Indonesia’s Military Bad Idea Second Time Around”, June 12, 2002, published in Foreign Policy in Focus. For more details see
(, site visited on December 11, 2003.

[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Bruce Boone (December 2001) has explained about corporate takeover and the huge investment of American companies in Indonesia. For detail see: Indonesia after S11: Anti-Terrorism, Geopolitics and Counter-Revolution (, site visited on December 11, 2003.

[v] Ibid
[vi] Maria Ressa, Jakarta Bureau Chief of CNN, has discussed about rise of radical Islamic groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Laskar Jihad and their hatred and anti-Americanism message through terrorist activities in Bali that killed 200 people and loss of lives by fueling Muslim-Christian violence. For details see: (, visited on December 11, 2003

[vii] Timo Kivimaki (2003: 18), Senior Researcher of Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, mentioned in his article “terrorism in Indonesia” that violent Indonesian Jihad could be targeted against financial institutions, international investments, companies, individuals and tourists.


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