Obama in the Company of Killers
If a volcano kills civilians in Indonesia, it’s news. When the government does the killing, sadly, it’s just business as usual, especially if an American president tacitly endorses the killing, as President Barack Obama just did with his visit to Indonesia.
As the people around Mount Merapi dig out of the ash following a series of eruptions that have left more than 150 dead, a darker cloud now hangs over Indonesia in the form of renewed U.S. support for the country’s notorious Kopassus, the military’s special forces commando group. Journalist Allan Nairn released several secret Kopassus documents as the Obamas landed in Jakarta, showing the level of violent political repression administered by the Kopassus—now, for the first time in more than a decade, with United States support.
Last March, Nairn revealed details of a Kopassus assassination program in the Indonesian province of Aceh. These new Kopassus documents shed remarkable detail on the province of West Papua. As Nairn wrote in his piece accompanying the documents, West Papua is “where tens of thousands of civilians have been murdered and where Kopassus is most active. ... When the U.S. restored Kopassus aid last July the rationale was fighting terrorism, but the documents show that Kopassus in fact systematically targets civilians.” In the Kopassus’ own words, the civilians are “much more dangerous than any armed opposition.”
One document names 15 leaders of the Papuan civil society, all “civilians, starting with the head of the Baptist Synod of Papua. The others include evangelical ministers, activists, traditional leaders, legislators, students and intellectuals as well as local establishment figures and the head of the Papua Muslim Youth organization.”
President Obama lived in Indonesia from the ages of 6 through 10, after his mother married an Indonesian man. Obama said in Jakarta this week: “[M]uch has been made of the fact that this marks my return to where I lived as a young boy. ... But today, as president, I’m here to focus not on the past, but on the future—the Comprehensive Partnership that we’re building between the United States and Indonesia.” Part of that relationship involves the renewed support of Kopassus, which has been denied since the armed forces burned then-Indonesian-occupied East Timor to the ground in 1999, killing more than 1,400 Timorese.
A series of cell-phone videos have come out of Papua showing torture being inflicted on men there at the hands of what appear to be members of the military. In one video that surfaced just two weeks ago, soldiers burn a man’s genitals with a burning stick, cover his head with a plastic bag to suffocate him, and threaten him with a rifle. Another video shows a Papuan man slowly dying from a gunshot wound as the soldier with the cell-phone camera taunts him, calling him a savage.
I spoke with Suciwati Munir, the widow of the renowned Indonesian human-rights activist Munir Said Thalib, at the Bonn, Germany, reunion of Right Livelihood Award laureates. Her husband, an unflinching critic of the Indonesian military, received the award shortly before his death. In 2004, as he traveled to the Netherlands for a law fellowship, on board the Indonesian national airline Garuda, he was given an upgrade to business class. There, he was served tea laced with arsenic. He was dead before the plane landed. Suciwati has a message for Obama:
“If Obama has a commitment to human rights in the world ... he has to pay attention to the human-rights situation in Indonesia. And the first thing that he should ask to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is to resolve the Munir case.” I asked her if she wanted to meet President Obama when he came to Indonesia. She replied: “Maybe yes, because I want to remind him about the human-rights situation in Indonesia. Maybe not, because of his wrong decision, he has perpetuated the impunity in Indonesia.”
This was the third attempt by President Obama to visit Indonesia. His first delay was to allow him to push through health-care reform. The second was canceled in the wake of the BP oil disaster. This time he made it, although the Mount Merapi eruption forced him to leave a few hours early. Speaking from Jakarta, journalist Nairn reflected: “It’s nice to be able to go back to where you grew up, but you shouldn’t bring weapons as a gift. You shouldn’t bring training for the people who are torturing your old neighbors.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 800 stations in North America. She is the author of “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.