WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has embraced Indonesia as a crucial U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, but rights groups and critics in Congress say the administration is too eager to trumpet Jakarta as a democratic success story.
Ahead of Obama's trip later this year to Indonesia, the second of his presidency, they want the U.S. to press Indonesia harder over its weak response to recent sectarian attacks by Islamic hard-liners and abuses by the military in remote West Papua.
Those demands clash, however, with U.S. strategic interests in the moderate Muslim nation of 240 million people that has assumed growing importance for Washington as it deepens its engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. In November, Indonesia will host a summit of East Asian leaders, the first attended by a U.S. president.
"It seems now the administration's policy is to be nice to Indonesia for fear it would come under the umbrella of China. ... That's the sense of where we are headed," said Eni Faleomavaega, ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Asia-Pacific subcommittee.
The Samoan delegate is a longtime advocate for Papuan rights.
Indonesia, where Obama lived four years as a child, has come a long way since the 1998 overthrow of longtime dictator Suharto and the bloody military crackdown in East Timor in 1999 that led the U.S. to sever military ties for several years. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has consolidated a decade of democratic reform while other countries in the region, like Thailand, have suffered political instability.
Indonesia's international standing has climbed, as a counterterrorism partner and regional leader.
Under Indonesia's chairmanship this year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has mediated in a violent Thai-Cambodia border dispute and advanced efforts for a code of conduct in the volatile South China Sea.
Still, Yudhoyono has a patchy record on religious freedom, failing to prevent attacks on the minority Muslim Ahmadiyah sect that have worsened since a 2008 government decree that the sect's practitioners can face up to five years in prison. A victim of a recent mob attack received a stiffer sentence than some of his assailants.
Also, Indonesian troops have received only monthslong sentences for torture and murder in Papua, where the military retains a heavy presence because of a long-running separatist movement.
"If they were serious about accountability, these kinds of crimes would be severely punished," said Tim Rieser, senior policy adviser to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. Legislation that Leahy sponsored bars the U.S. from providing training and other assistance to foreign military units that have committed human rights violations and not been brought to justice.
Rieser said evidence and witnesses have been ignored, charges reduced to the level of misdemeanors, and short sentences handed down that are an insult to the victims. In fact, few in the military have been punished for atrocities dating back to the early 1990s, he said.
Despite that, the United States last year lifted the remaining Defense Department restrictions on military ties, resuming cooperation with Indonesian army special forces after Jakarta committed to military reforms.
U.S. officials say the fact that there is a judicial process to try soldiers for the recent abuses is a sign of progress, and they emphasize the democratic advances Indonesia has made in the past decade.
"The steps we have seen from Indonesia are far beyond what anybody imagined a few years ago," said Robert Scher, deputy assistant defense secretary for South and Southeast Asia.
The U.S. was disappointed, however, by the sentences against soldiers tried for abuses in Papua, he said. "We will make clear to the government of Indonesia that how they deal with these soldiers will be a reflection of how they deal with these issues (of military reform)," Scher said.
"Tut-tutting only gets you so far in this world," responds Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Across most fronts in the bilateral relationship, Indonesia continues to get what they want regardless of how some actors have behaved."
Edmund McWilliams, former political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta and now a rights activist, contends Kopassus special forces in Papua remain unaccountable and act against civilians in ways "unacceptable in any democratic society."
He pointed to the recent release of purported Indonesian military documents, publicized by Human Rights Watch. Dating from 2006 to 2009, they detail not just the ragtag Papuan insurgency, with its meager arsenal of 131 guns and four grenades, but military surveillance of peaceful activists, politicians and clergy, and the region's few foreign visitors. Another document from 2011 indicates the surveillance continues.
Indonesia presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said the government cannot be blamed for past rights abuses and has taken firm action on its watch, dismissing from the military those involved in abuses in Papua. If sentences handed down appear lenient, it is not the government's fault, as the judiciary is independent, he said.
"We've changed," Faizasyah said. If there are cases of abuse, it's not based on policy or instruction from above."