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Military Contacts Decline as Cohen Urges Indonesian

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Aug. 10, 1998 – Political and economic turmoil here have limited U.S. military contacts with the Indonesian military, but the Asian nation's march toward democracy could expand its military relations and revive its economy, Defense Secretary William Cohen said.

Cohen became the first senior U.S. leader to meet with Indonesian President B.J. Habibie during his visit here Aug. 1. On the fifth day of his trip to Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines, Cohen held talks with the island nation's third president and with defense leaders. He called the talks open and candid and said they touched a variety of subjects of interest to the United States. Of particular interest, he said, were regional security and stability and the establishment of democratic reforms.

This was Cohen's second visit to Indonesia as defense secretary. He met in January with then-President Suharto, who resigned the presidency in May following a long economic decline and a civil uprising against him. Cohen said the purpose of his visit was to reaffirm U.S. friendship with Indonesia, noting that "we are friends in both good times and bad."

The second most-populated Asian nation after China, Indonesia has been nearly toppled by economic chaos that is at the core of an economic free fall affecting all of Asia and stock markets around the world.

"Indonesia is currently experiencing a number of difficulties as it is making its transition to a democracy," Cohen said in a shaded alcove outside the defense ministry. As sweating reporters fanned themselves with notebooks to stave off the heat and humidity raging beyond the whitewashed walls of the imposing complex, the secretary coolly outlined American objectives.

"We are encouraged by what we see taking place, by the commitment of your president to implementing democratic reforms, to striving to rebuild the economy," the secretary said. "We are eager to be of assistance in any form that we can."

While Indonesia struggles toward democratic freedoms -- the first sign of which has been a freer, more questioning press -- Cohen said U.S. humanitarian aid will continue. In the face of massive food shortages here, the United States recently distributed more than a million tons of wheat to Indonesia.

"We intend to add whatever moral support we can," Cohen said, "as Indonesia is really rebuilding itself and building a democracy, which will benefit all the people of Indonesia."

Although some military assistance programs -- training, for example -- have been reduced while democracy forms, Cohen said he's optimistic that normal military-to-military contacts will resume within months.

"I would hope we could build upon a military relationship in the future," he earlier told U.S. reporters traveling with him. "For the time being, we are going to keep our military programs at the humanitarian and medical level."

"We have a pretty good idea of where Indonesia has been and where it wants to go," said a senior Western diplomat involved in U.S. negotiations with Indonesia. "It's more difficult to determine how to get them there."

National elections are scheduled next year. At issue are how the country will apportion voting districts and to what extent the military will retain political power. What doesn't now exist and what's needed for democracy to work here, the diplomat said, is a system of checks and balances so that no one entity wields overwhelming influence.

He said a foreboding backdrop is the wavering value of Indonesian currency, so that the country is now poised on a keen knife edge and could fall either way. He's optimistic, however, that Indonesia will recover economically and politically with the advent of a more representative government and an end to human rights abuses.

En route from Sydney, Cohen said he urges the Indonesian military to exercise restraint in dealing with civilian unrest. Under Suharto, the military did and does continue to wield political power that has extended to policing the civilian population and now involves alleged abuses of power.

In May, the military reacted to student-led riots with force. A small, rogue special forces cadre since has been accused of kidnapping and raping Indonesian citizens. Cohen urged a full investigation of these and other reported human rights violations.

Of his meeting with Habibie, Cohen said he encouraged the president to keep his pledge to hold elections next June and find ways to stabilize the economy.

"We [also] talked about the need for putting a very high premium on observance of human rights and to investigations of alleged misconduct, in a professional, thorough, open and honest fashion," he said.

The Indonesian government currently has a number of investigations under way to prevent abuses of human rights. "It's important that such an investigation be carried out openly, honestly, with integrity," Cohen said. "If that is done, [the Indonesian government] will enjoy the support of the Indonesian people and the accommodations of the world community."

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