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US Hosts Indonesian Defense Minister, Despite Criticism from Rights Groups

Ronna Nirmala and Ika Inggas
Jakarta and Washington
2020-10-15
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Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo waves as he arrives to attend the second presidential inauguration of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the House of Representatives building in Jakarta, Oct. 20, 2019.
Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo waves as he arrives to attend the second presidential inauguration of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the House of Representatives building in Jakarta, Oct. 20, 2019.
[Reuters]

Updated at 1:30 a.m. ET on 2020-10-16

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto arrived on a landmark U.S. trip Thursday for talks on security cooperation after Washington lifted a nearly two decade travel ban over human rights abuses.

U.S. officials were quick to allay criticism of his five-day visit by human rights groups and lawmakers.

“We consistently advocate for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms with all of our defense partners, including Indonesia,” a State Department spokesperson told BenarNews.

Prabowo arrived in the United States on Thursday and will meet with American counterpart Mark Esper and other U.S. officials on Friday, his spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak confirmed to BenarNews, adding that the minister would be in the country until Monday.

“He will talk about defense cooperation between the United States and Indonesia and continue various collaborations that have been made meet with various parties, especially those related to the defense sector in the United States,” Dahnil said.

Prabowo’s visit to the United States, his first as Indonesia’s defense chief, comes 10 years after the U.S. lifted a ban on the Indonesian Army’s special forces (Kopassus), which he commanded decades ago. This is also his first stateside trip in 20 years after he was reportedly twice denied entry due to concerns over his alleged human rights abuses when he led Kopassus.

“The U.S. Department of Defense plans to host Minister Prabowo at the Pentagon October 16 to further strengthen the U.S.-Indonesia bilateral relationship. Topics to be discussed include regional issues, defense trade, security cooperation, military-to-military activity, and COVID-19 response efforts,” the spokesperson for the State Department said via email.

Late Thursday, a Pentagon official said Secretary Esper looked forward to meeting his Indonesian counterpart after the two met at a gathering of Southeast Asian defense chiefs last November and also spoke by phone on numerous occasions since about opportunities to “further deepen” bilateral military ties and increase cooperation on regional issues.

“The U.S. Government and the Department of Defense place great importance on our partnership with Indonesia, with which we share democratic values, strong economic and people-to-people ties, and a common interest in a rules-based order in Southeast Asia,” Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, said in a statement to BenarNews

“With respect to human rights, the Secretary raises the importance of respect for human rights, and upholding the rule of law and high standards of professionalism, in his conversations with counterparts around the world. These are key principles on which our bilateral defense relationships are built with any partner. Indonesia is no different,” he added.

Meanwhile, an Indonesian lawmaker from the ruling coalition said the U.S. needed Jakarta’s support on the South China Sea issue, amid tensions between Washington and Beijing over the disputed waterway.

On the flip side, Prabowo needs Washington to not interfere in Indonesia’s plans to purchase 11 Russia-made Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, an international relations expert told BenarNews.

Prabowo announced last week that he was scheduled to visit Washington at Secretary of Defense Esper’s invitation. Two days before the announcement, Politico reported that the U.S. State Department had decided to grant a visa to Prabowo, lifting a reported two-decade ban.

“The ban that applied to Minister Prabowo has been lifted, and he will visit the U.S. to discuss cooperation,” The New York Times quoted Irawan Ronodipuro, another spokesman for Prabowo and his Gerindra party, as saying earlier this week.

In 1998, Prabowo was discharged by the army for his alleged role in the kidnapping of political activists, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In 1999, Washington halted all contacts with Kopassus, for alleged rights abuses committed in the Aceh and Papua regions and when Indonesia occupied neighboring East Timor. That ban was lifted in 2010.

Prabowo has denied committing or being party to any human rights violations. In a booklet published during his 2019 presidential campaign, he said if the allegations against him were true, he wouldn’t have been allowed to travel, the Financial Times newspaper reported.

When Washington denied the former Kopassus commander a visa in 2000, officials didn’t explain their reason for the refusal, according to an article by The New York Times in 2014. Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Prabowo told the news agency in 2012 that he was denied a visa even that year.

Invite criticized

U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the author of a law that bans the training of foreign military units believed to have been involved in human rights abuses, criticized Washington’s invitation to Prabowo.

The former Indonesian special forces commander “has been credibly implicated in gross violations of human rights, including kidnapping, torture, and disappearances, and under our law he is ineligible to enter this country,” the senator said in a statement this week.

“The President and Secretary of State have shown once again that for them ‘law and order’ is an empty slogan that ignores the imperative of justice.”

Earlier this week in a joint statement, Amnesty International and several Indonesian human rights groups also expressed “grave concerns” over the decision by the Trump administration to grant a visa to Prabowo, in a letter they sent to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.

“The State Department’s recent decision to lift the ban on Prabowo Subianto is an abrupt, complete reversal of longstanding U.S. foreign policy which has been in place for 20 years,” the groups said in a joint statement.

“The invitation must be rescinded if it purports to provide Prabowo Subianto immunity for the atrocity crimes of which he is accused.”

The State Department could not discuss the issue of a visa for Prabowo because visa records were confidential, its spokesperson said.

“Whenever an individual applies for a U.S. visa, a consular officer reviews the facts of the case and determines whether the applicant is eligible for that visa based on U.S. law,” the spokesperson told BenarNews.

When asked to comment on the rights’ groups’ criticism of the U.S. invitation, the Indonesian minister’s spokesman, Dahnil, said Prabowo was accustomed to being criticized.

“I think Mr. Prabowo is used to such criticism and accusations, both as a serviceman and a politician,” Dahnil said.

“We respect criticism. What is clear is that Pak [Mister] Prabowo is in the United States to fulfil the invitation of the United States government and strengthen defense cooperation between Indonesia and the United States.”

‘Bargaining power’

Prabowo’s visit would benefit both Washington and Jakarta, Syaifullah Tamliha, a legislator from the United Development Party, a member of the ruling coalition in Indonesia, said in a statement on Thursday.

The U.S. needs Indonesia on its side on the South China Sea issue, he said.

As tensions have escalated between China and the U.S. in recent months, Washington has made concerted efforts to court Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries for their support in denying Beijing’s claims to the waterway.

“I believe that the U.S. needs Indonesia, especially in anticipating Chinese maneuvers in the South China Sea,” Syaifullah said.

“Indonesia has strong bargaining power in the South China Sea issue, because the Philippines and Australia as U.S. allies could be under threat.”

Six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Russian warplanes

For its part, Indonesia may lobby the U.S. against potential sanctions for buying Russian fighter jets to modernize its military, Teuku Rezasyah, an international relations lecturer at Padjajaran University told BenarNews.

Indonesia inked a U.S. $1.14 billion deal with Russia in 2018 to buy the Sukhoi Su-35s.

In recent months, Indonesian officials have expressed concern that the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), an American law signed by President Donald Trump in August 2017, could potentially hinder the purchase of the warplanes from Russia.

The act targets Russia, Iran and North Korea for sanctions and stipulates that the U.S. can impose sanctions on governments or entities that purchase weapons or military hardware and parts from Russia.

In March, Deputy Defense Minister Sakti Wahyu Trenggono told BenarNews that the Indonesian government was considering buying F-35 fighter jets from the United States instead, citing unspecified obstacles in going ahead with the Russian deal.

“This [visit] could be an opportunity for Prabowo to lobby the U.S., saying that Indonesia has the right to buy defense equipment from any country because we adhere to an independent and active foreign policy,” Rezasyah, the international relations expert, told BenarNews.

This updated version adds comments from an official at the Pentagon.

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