Mon, 06 Mar 2000

Debate marks Kostrad's anniversary

JAKARTA (JP): In a rare candid debate with human rights campaigner Bambang W. Suharto, soldiers from the Army's Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) explained why the public often accused them, and the Indonesian Military as a whole, of being serial human rights abusers.

"Why does public opinion always perceive there are human rights abuses in every military operation?," cried out someone from a sea of 100 battle-fatigued Kostrad soldiers.

A series of questions were directed at Bambang, inquiring why most people outside the military were prejudiced toward soldiers who were merely carrying out their duty.

While many of Bambang's responses were diplomatic, not containing any hint of cynicism toward his audience, the interaction displayed the divergence between the frequently voiced public opinion and the views of the very soldiers often prejudged to be rights abusers.

It was also a revealing glimpse of the soldiers' lack of comprehension of the fears ingrained in society.

Bambang himself craftily remarked on the soldiers' own infamous reputation.

"I feel honored to be invited before Kostrad troops who all this while have been regarded as one of the main human rights abusers in the country," he said.

"But this is what the public thinks, not me" he quickly quipped to, oddly, resounding applause.

The dialog on Saturday was part of a series of events to mark Kostrad's 39th anniversary which falls on Monday.

"I believe a good understanding of human rights issues should be gradually introduced to soldiers to help eliminate their (bad) image," Bambang remarked during the dialog in Mandala hall at the Kostrad Headquarters, Central Jakarta.

The audience was a challenge for Bambang, the deputy chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM).

It was clear he needed to win them over on the validity of a concept usually accepted as self-evident in other public forums.

One soldier asked why human rights abuses buried in the past should be dug up again.

"It seems that the work of Komnas HAM is just opening up old wounds. Will they still be responsible for patching up these wounds once they are open?"

Bambang replied that the intention was not to merely aggravate old wounds. "What we do is listen to pleas of the people, the victims, to find out who are the masterminds behind all this," he said.

"We should actually be thankful because we have an opportunity to correct past mistakes. The core reason is so such incidents will not reoccur."

One of the most contentious issues to be brought up was the accusations that the commission and its various committees investigating rights abuses from East Timor to Maluku had displayed bias against the military.

No less than former military chief Gen. Wiranto and other top brass have challenged the objectivity of the commission, which has repeatedly accused the military of being responsible for numerous offenses.

In the words of one soldier: Why does Komnas HAM always "attack (TNI) and one-sidedly accuse (it) of violating human rights?"

Bambang retorted that Komnas HAM was merely an "instrument" to carry out the general's public aspirations. He contended that the commission never purposely set out to besmirch TNI.

"It's crystal clear that the government has a strong will to accommodate public demands and I think this nation should abide by the international human rights convention as soon as we will ratify it," he said.


One middle-ranking officer questioned whether the TNI as an institution could be held responsible for rights abuses since soldiers accused of such violations in many cases were merely carrying out orders.

"Even generals and troops only carry out their duty. All operations are part of TNI's official duties."

Bambang skirted his question saying that by nature TNI was not a human rights abuser, but those holding the authority of command should be aware of the risks and excesses of military operations.

"Don't lose your esteem because of the numerous accusations of rights abuses. We're only after the masterminds. TNI as an institution would not commit such a crime but those inside it should be cautious of the operations they design," Bambang remarked.

During the three-hour discussion outgoing Kostrad chief Lt. Gen. Djadja Suparman remain glued to his front row seat.

The three-star general, who has expressed some degree of resentment at being replaced after just three months in command, closed the dialog with the hope that it had shown that Kostrad was not inattentive to human rights issues.

But while he was all smiles during the official proceedings, later with journalists Djadja again sounded bitter at the prospect of leaving the strategic command.

"My wife, my parents and the 30,000 Kostrad personnel are hurt by this decision. I've tried to calm them down," he said.

In what could be perceived as a veiled threat, Djadja even warned that such resentment could spillover.

"It's dangerous, very dangerous if (Kostrad) soldiers get mad as now they are deployed in every corner of the country. In Ambon and everywhere," he claimed.

When asked on how he controlled the thousands of reportedly disappointed Kostrad personnel, Djadja said: "I just told them not to get offended (by my replacement)." (emf)