Timika Arrests Show Growing Respect and Strength in Indo-U.S. Relations

Report Asia

Timika Arrests Show Growing Respect and Strength in Indo-U.S. Relations

January 26, 2006 3 min read
Dana Dillon
Policy Analyst

On January 11, near the town of Timika in the Papua province, Indonesian police from the American-trained Special Detachment 88 and working in close cooperation with the U.S. FBI arrested 12 Indonesians who are suspected in the murder of two American teachers. The capture of these fugitives is an enormous boost to U.S.-Indonesian relations and reflects growing cooperation in law enforcement between the two democracies.


In August 2002, a group of men in military uniform ambushed ten American schoolteachers and a six-year-old, all living in Papua, and their Indonesian escort as they returned from a picnic. The assailants fired almost 200 rounds of M16 ammunition into the teachers' vehicles, killing Ricky Lynn Spier, Edwin Burgon, and Bambang Riwanto and wounding the remaining seven, including Ricky's wife Patsy.


The Indonesian military (known by its Indonesian acronym, TNI) quickly declared the ambush a terrorist attack by the Papuan Independence Organization (known by its acronym, OPM). Police investigators said that the evidence indicated possible TNI involvement, but they were unable to complete the investigation because Indonesian law does not provide for police jurisdiction over TNI. When the FBI tried to investigate, TNI refused to cooperate, spurring Congress to cut off military engagement with Indonesia.


Following congressional sanctions and Indonesia's successful transition to democracy, TNI began to cooperate with the FBI. In June 2004, the Justice Department issued an indictment against Anthonius Wamang, an Indonesian citizen known to have contacts with both OPM and TNI. Despite Wamang's possible TNI affiliation, the FBI stated that there was no evidence of TNI complicity in the ambush.


Because of the mafia-like nature of TNI internal security operations prior to Indonesia's transition to democracy, Wamang's trial could be a public relations problem for TNI. Already the controversy surrounding the Timika massacre has forced TNI generals to reveal once-secret sources of income, including $20 million from Freeport Mines in Papua-where the murdered American teachers worked-for protection. What is remarkable and encouraging about Wamang's arrest is that the trial may reveal even more skeletons in TNI's closet, and TNI officials are powerless to block the legal process.


Since the fall of President Suharto, a kleptocratic former general, in 1998, TNI has had to accept escalating reforms, such as a civilian Minister of Defense and surrender of the military's appointed seats in the national legislature. In another humbling experience, just this month President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono selected the first Air Force general to lead the Indonesian military. This post had been the army's exclusively.


While Indonesia's new democratic leaders were reforming the military, they also transformed the police, with substantial American assistance. The police formally separated from the military in 2001 and since then have assumed responsibility for internal security and counterterrorism. The United States has provided significant training and equipment to professionalize the force.


The most prominent U.S.-Indonesian success story is Special Detachment 88. This elite police unit was formed in 2003, shortly after the October 2002 Bali bombing. The U.S. contributed an initial $12 million to train and equip the unit, with millions more pledged to maintain the unit's readiness. The personnel of Detachment 88 are specially selected by the government for their physical and mental capabilities and are vetted by the U.S. Embassy for their respect for human rights.


Since its inception, the unit has captured or killed more than 200 suspected Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members, among them Azahari Bin Husin, once the most wanted terrorist in Asia. Husin, responsible for both Bali bombings, the Marriot bombing, and an attack on the Australian Embassy, died in a gun battle in November of last year when Detachment 88 cornered him. The International Crisis Group speculates that police pressure and deteriorating popular support has split JI and only a tiny fraction of the once pervasive group now actively participates in terrorist activities.


Indonesia's successes in the war on terrorism are a byproduct of the growing competence of the police. At the same time, the relationship between U.S. and Indonesian law enforcement has blossomed. For example, David Nusa Wijaya, an Indonesian fugitive in the United States convicted of embezzling $139 million from an Indonesian bank, was finally captured and repatriated this month.


The arrest of Anthonius Wamang is an important step in the right direction, but the trial will likely raise new questions about the role and behavior of Indonesia's security forces prior to 2004. While past transgressions need to be exposed, they should not overshadow the tremendous progress now being made by Indonesia's democratic government to reform the police and TNI.


Dana R. Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst for Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst