By Bill Guerin
JAKARTA - An event in the remote Indonesian province of Papua, thousands of kilometers from Washington, seems certain to result in a much stronger position for Jakarta within the already fast-improving relationship between the two countries.
Twelve men, including a local rebel operational commander wanted by the United States for the murder of two American teachers in a 2002 ambush near the giant US-operated Freeport Grasberg copper and gold mine, have been detained. Americans Edwin Burgon and Ricky Lynn Spier were killed in the attack.
The province is home to a group of poorly armed independence fighters known as the Free Papua Organization (OPM), which seeks an independent state.
Media reports claim that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation had lured the rebels to a hotel in Timika, near the mine, on the promise that they would be taken to the US to tell their side of the story. National Police deputy spokesman Anton Bahrul Alam confirmed that the FBI had assisted with the arrests.
Suspicions were one thing, but local and FBI investigations found no evidence that Indonesian troops were implicated in the 2002 crime. The result of a protracted joint Indonesia-FBI investigation was a US grand jury’s indictment in June 2004 of Antonius Wamang on two counts of murder, eight counts of attempted murder and other related offenses in connection with the killings.
Wamang is one of those detained. Though the 12 have yet to be formally charged over the killings, Alam said a fingerprint taken from the scene of the murders matched Wamang’s. During police interrogation, Wamang is reported to have "confessed to firing the automatic weapon" used in the killings.
Ties between Washington and Jakarta quickly became strained after the killings. But a statement at the time from then-US attorney general John Ashcroft also cleared the Indonesian military (TNI) of any role in the attack.
His announcement came just one day after a US congressional subcommittee renewed a ban on the provision of funds for the Defense Department’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) program for Indonesia, prompting claims that Washington was sacrificing justice for the victims for the sake of resuming bilateral military ties.
The TNI had blamed the OPM for the attack, although Wamang in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp last year claimed that Indonesian troops had provided ammunition for the shootings.
Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller blamed the Papua separatists for the Freeport attack and claimed Wamang’s indictment illustrated "the importance of international cooperation to combat terrorism".
This cut little ice with local and international rights groups who cast doubt on Wamang’s involvement in the ambush, with some saying he worked as a military informer. They suggested the attack was an effort by TNI to discredit the separatist movement or extort money from Freeport.
TNI gets only 30% of its funding from the central government and makes up the shortfall by its widespread involvement in businesses, both legal and illegal. Payments for security services received from multinationals, such as those from Freeport and from ExxonMobil’s natural-gas facilities in Aceh, at the other end of the archipelago, have provided TNI with a significant source of income.
Freeport abruptly stopped these payments shortly before the ambush. To appease investor anger and disgust after the meltdown of Enron and WorldCom, the administration of US President George W Bush had pushed a bill through Congress that demanded greater corporate accountability. The Corporate Fraud Act, implemented on July 26, 2002, required the disclosure of such payments, which accounts for Freeport’s recent admission that it paid out nearly US$20 million to military and police officials in Papua between 1998 and 2004.
Indonesian Attorney General Abdul Rahman Saleh has promised to "look into" Freeport’s allegations before deciding whether to launch a graft probe. The company has denied breaking any laws but the government has said such payments are illegal. If individual soldiers of whatever rank kept any of the money themselves, it would be a criminal offense.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired four-star general who last month ordered the military to play a greater role in the "war against terrorism", is today expected to announce his choice for the next TNI commander-in-chief, a key job in the anti-terror campaign. Kusnanto Anggoro, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, tips air force chief Air Marshal Djoko Suyanto to replace General Endriartono Sutarto, who tendered his resignation to former president Megawati Sukarnoputri in September 2004 but is still serving as TNI commander.
Megawati stirred up controversy when, although only a caretaker leader after losing the presidential election, she approved Sutarto’s resignation and recommended hardliner General Ryamizard as his successor. Yudhoyono annulled Megawati’s decision when he took over in October 2004, a move that angered many lawmakers.
Why now ?
One clue to the answer to the most obvious question - why did police act now, so long after the incident ? - may lie in statements from both governments.
"Seeking justice for this crime remains a priority for the United States, and we are pleased that the Indonesian government also recognizes the importance of this case," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We will continue to follow this case closely."
Commenting on a proposed visit to Jakarta by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirayuda noted a "growing and accepted view in the US to see Indonesia in a much broader context rather than in snapshots of events like human-rights violations ... and military reform".
Rice had reinstated full IMET eligibility for Indonesia, and Wirayuda described her planned visit as one that would "underline the importance of the relationship between Indonesia and the US, and the growing appreciation of Indonesia by the US".
The United States has shown a long-term commitment to post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh, support for Indonesia’s reform agenda and for the country’s efforts to reform its justice system and military.
The arrests may well lead to Jakarta’s closest ever relationship with Washington as partisan differences in both governments gradually dissolve. Aloysius Renwarin, a lawyer representing the 12, said, "They are being sacrificed for the relationship between the US and Indonesia." Yet the arrests alone will not be enough to shore up US support for even deeper ties with the military.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the most vocal opponent of US funding of IMET for Indonesia in Congress, is reported to have called the arrests "a step in the right direction" though noting that "there are so many unanswered questions in this case, including who these people are and what role they may have had in these crimes."
Washington will press for its pound of flesh by demanding that Wamang, at least, be tried by a US court. If convicted he could face the death penalty. Although Indonesia has no extradition treaty with the US it has been the scene of at least one infamous Central Intelligence Agency "rendering", when alleged al-Qaeda operative Omar al Faruq was spirited away to a secret location.
A politically stable and US-friendly Indonesia would help US strategic and economic interests in the region, although the relationship is certain to remain a very different kettle of fish to the two other notable regional relationships the United States has, with its "sheriffs" in Singapore and Sydney.
Bill Guerin, a Jakarta correspondent for Asia Times Online since 2000, has worked in Indonesia for 20 years as a journalist. He has been published by the BBC on East Timor and specializes in business/economic and political analysis in Indonesia.