JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia is confident Washington will overturn a ban on military training for its special forces, put in place over rights abuses blamed on elite troops, the defence minister said on Thursday.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child and is due to visit this month, is keen to cultivate relations with the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The training ban is one of the last impediments in military ties.
Washington has gradually lifted military aid and sales restrictions imposed over rights abuses in recent years, often linked to the notorious special forces unit known as Kopassus.
“The armed forces here now have changed after 10 years. Yes, there was abuse of power in the past, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, but there has been reform,” Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro told Reuters in an interview.
The military’s influence in politics and other areas has been greatly curbed since autocratic former president Suharto stood down in 1998, although allegations of abuses and a continuing role in businesses such as illegal logging persist.
Stressing that U.S. military ties had already been expanding fast in the past five years, he said 2,800 members of the Indonesian military were now being trained in the United States.
The issue of some senior Indonesian military officers not being allowed to travel to the United States over allegations of rights abuses would not be brought up during Obama’s March 20-22 visit, the minister said.
“The Indonesian government considers those high-ranking officials, especially the deputy defence minister, have no legal problems in terms of past assignments,” the minister said in a written answer ahead of the interview.
Rights groups have criticised the appointment of Lieutenant General Sjafrie Sjamsuddin as deputy defence minister because of allegations of rights abuses against him.
Sjamsuddin was prevented from going to the United States with an Indonesian delegation attending a G20 meeting last year, according to media reports.
Yusgiantoro, a former energy minister, said he was confident the training ban on Kopassus would be lifted. “This is a mutual benefit between the U.S. and us, because if you look Indonesia has a very pivotal role in the region,” he said.
Rights groups have urged that the ban, imposed over military abuses in places like East Timor as well as the kidnapping of activists, should not be lifted too hastily.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in an open letter to Obama ahead of his trip that Indonesia had still not ensured enough accountability over its military.
Indonesia’s military has also been criticised by rights groups for failing to dismantle the sprawling business network set up during the Suharto era.
The minister said the process of extracting the military as an institution from businesses was progressing, although he said there could still be individual cases.
Yusgiantoro, 58, said Indonesia had learned it was important not to rely on one country for its military needs.
Russia has been supplying Indonesia with Sukhoi fighters, while it is also buying missiles from China and naval vessels from the Netherlands and South Korea.
Yusgiantoro said he hoped the military’s defence budget could rise to $10 billion by 2014 if economic growth holds up.
The defence budget for the sprawling nation of 230 million people increased this year but was still only 42 trillion rupiah ($4.53 billion), around of half of tiny Singapore’s $8.2 billion.
Indonesia’s military has suffered a series of deadly plane and helicopter crashes in recent years, partly linked to poor maintenance in the cash-strapped forces.
Yusgiantoro said a new anti-terrorism agency would be established “very soon” to co-ordinate policies to fight militants in the country, which has suffered a number of deadly attacks in recent years. It would include representatives from the military and the police, as well as bodies such as the intelligence agency and the religious ministry, he said.
Editing by Paul Tait