Terrifying Indonesian Army Unit Tries To Remake Its Image
The Christian Science Monitor [US]
Instead of disbanding, a rogue Army unit is trying to remake its image.
By Dan Murphy Special to The Christian Science Monitor
When a rash of explosions rocks
Every authoritarian regime seems to have them, a cross between Praetorian Guards and playground bullies. The Shah of pre-revolutionary
Though it's virtually impossible for the unit to be guilty of all that the average Indonesian believes, Kopassus remains
Instead, Kopassus has quietly begun to rehabilitate its reputation. While debate rages over whether soldiers should be tried for human rights abuses, the unit is winning back authority and respect.
"Their method was terror, and it was being employed in the service of Suharto," says Munir, a lawyer who runs the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence. "But efforts to find justice are running up against the tradition of military impunity."
The apparent success of Kopassus in putting its dark past behind it is a symbol of how little has changed within the Indonesian armed forces - and a measure of the challenges ahead.
It's a problem that plagues countries trying to make the transition from authoritarianism to democracy - and one that foreign powers like the
Mugiyanto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, understands the danger first hand. In March 1998, he was an unknown democracy activist. Then he was picked up by Kopassus, taken blindfolded to an interrogation center, and strapped to a table. Over two days, he was beaten and given electric shocks while being interrogated about his political beliefs and the whereabouts of his friends.
After Suharto's fall, 11 Kopassus operatives were found guilty of kidnapping and torturing Mugiyanto and eight other activists - and then sentenced to 22 months in jail. Their commanding officer, Prabowo Subianto, a son-in-law of Suharto's who admitted he ordered the abductions, was honorably discharged. He's now brokering oil-for-food deals in
Mugiyanto was one of the lucky ones. Human rights activists say the unit helped kidnap and kill 15 democracy activists in Suharto's final days. Munir believes that 900 more - mostly East Timorese and Acehnese independence activists - disappeared into Kopassus interrogation centers never to be seen again, "But the law makes it very difficult to prosecute unless we can produce a body."
Kopassus, for its part, doesn't dispute its past, but insists that it is gearing up for
Not only did Kopassus spy on civilians, but it also infiltrated other branches of the military. It operated as a sort of "army within the Army" that could short-circuit the chain of command and set up so-called "black operations" in places like
With President Wahid complaining that elements of the armed forces are trying to foment instability to create an authoritarian backlash, Kopassus operatives are seen by the average citizen as the natural perpetrators.
Over the past six months, the capital has been rocked by mysterious bomb blasts - the most recent being last week. From the day the blasts began, suspicion fell on Kopassus, which grew when the police picked up a Kopassus private in connection with the deadly bombing of the Jakarta Stock Exchange in September. But Herindra says the soldier had deserted his unit and was "acting alone."
The best chance for accountability rests with the promised prosecution of senior officers for crimes against humanity in
Attorney General Marzuki Darusman says 22 officers implicated in abuses in
TAPOL Bulletin 154/5 - November 1999