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Restoring Ties to Kopassus?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
July 27, 2010

Kopassus soldiers sing during a ceremony

Dadang Tri/courtesy Reuters

Reasonable people can disagree, I think, on the value of the White House’s decision, announced this week, to restore U.S. ties with Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces who have been linked to a range of past abuses, including massacres in East Timor. Boosting the U.S.-Indonesia partnership to a higher level is a critical objective of Obama’s Asia policy, and given that the president has canceled trips repeatedly to Jakarta, this is a sign he can offer to the Indonesian government of his seriousness about the relationship. Of course, as groups like Human Rights Watch note, it is unclear whether Kopassus has really reformed itself, and sending this signal could be questionable at a time when many other nations in Southeast Asia are actually  heading backward on democracy. I see the merits to both arguments.

However, one element of the Kopassus debate is extremely worrisome. The US must recognize Kopassus, many argue, because otherwise China will muscle in on the Indonesia relationship, and of course, China has no worries about partnering with alleged human rights abusers. This is a similar argument to why the US needed to re-engage with the Burmese junta and foster closer ties to the regime in Laos, which last time I looked, had held one fewer election in the past two decades than Burma has.

All of these decisions could be justified for other reasons; it is not a bad idea to try to re-engage with the Burmese junta, if simply because a decade of sanctions proved fruitless and there are good reasons to work with the Lao government, not least to help empower it to protect crucial parts of the Mekong River. But to develop a policy based on outmuscling China – especially if that policy depends on a race to the bottom with human rights abusers – is a flawed tactic. For one, you can never “out-China” China; as India learned in dealing with Burma, where it reversed years of advocacy for the democratic opposition and threw in with the government, it will always be easier for Beijing to make deals with oppressive regimes, since there is no real legislature or activist movement to question the Chinese government. Like India, the United States shouldn’t try: Will we invest in Sudan because China does? Will we build ties to Uzbekistan because China does? Obviously, it is a slippery slope.

What’s more, part of the United States’ advantage, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, is that its “brand” can be popular not only with regimes but also with average people, provided that it actually sticks to the brand, a brand that includes standing up for human rights. And if Southeast Asia is to return to the democratic path, with opposition parties eventually winning elections in places like Malaysia, Thailand and, yes, even Burma, that U.S. brand will be valued over China’s.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Howard Lerner

    Lofty goals and pleasing sentiments have their merits. But the road forward may require taking many twists and turns.

  • Posted by William Johnson

    The “U.S. Brand” will need a lot of work if it is to have any cachet at all. The Indonesians are livid at what they see as U.S. arrogance in establishing a full partnership. The U.S. has managed to alienate both sides in Thailand’s domestic political dispute. Our Japanese allies are still smarting at being thrown under the 6-party bus with regard to kidnapped Japanese citizens. The Indians are so fed up that it is difficult for U.S. officials to get visas. The Sri Lankans cannot understand the apparent lack of interest in LTTE’s human rights violations, especially in light of the extreme interest in largely unsubstantiated allegations against Sri Lankan troops. The U.S. brand has never been less in vogue in Asia than it is at present. Virtually all of Asia sees the U.S. as arrogant and willing to bully small countries on human rights, while not daring to take on the Chinese on that, or most other subjects. If returning to the path of demorcracy means being led by the nose by Americans, Asians will doubtless select a different brand.

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