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Obamacopters Give West Papuans Another Reason to Worry

There has been talk of an arms deal between the United States and Indonesia.

An AH-64 Apache attack helicopter hovers before takeoff from Balad Air Base, Iraq, January 3, 2008. (Photo: Master Sgt. John Nimmo, Sr. / US Air Force)

There has been talk of an arms deal between the United States and Indonesia. Reportedly on the table are eight Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters. These are top-of-the-line attack machines, the best in their class.

The exact status of the deal is unclear, but all indications are that both Boeing and Indonesia have pushed things as far as they can and that the ball on whether to move forward with discussions is somewhere in the US government’s court.

For American officials, the presumable cause for concern is the political fallout that could arise from permitting this kind of exchange with Indonesia, as its military is infamous for atrocities committed against the country’s own people.

But the Americans must also be weighing the benefits the deal would bring. Not only would Indonesia upgrade its aging arsenal and Boeing make up for business it is losing as the US cuts defense spending, but President Obama would come that much closer to fulfilling his pledge to double exports by 2015.

For the black Melanesian people of West Papua, too, the deal would seem to matter greatly. The region, Indonesia’s easternmost, is one of the most militarized places in the world[1]. Since the 1960s, Indonesia has maintained a continuous security presence there, ostensibly to counter a low-level separatist insurgency. It has also carried out a number of full-scale military campaigns, for the same reason. Indonesia is a land of incredible natural diversity, with hundreds of ethnic groups and languages spread across thousands of islands, and since it became independent in 1945, a fracturing of the unitary state has been what the country’s nationalist leaders, the vast majority of whom are Javanese, fear most.

Since Indonesia annexed it in 1969, resource-rich West Papua has always been at odds with the central government. The region is unique in that it is the only place in the country subject to a virtual media blackout, with foreign journalists effectively barred from working there[2]. Despite the restrictions, however, reports of human rights abuses by the security forces filter out frequently.

Last winter, the Army and police concluded Operation Annihilate Matoa[3], a massive joint offensive in the remote central highlands. According to reports by West Papua Media, an independent outlet headquartered in Australia that draws from a network of trained West Papuan journalists, Indonesian troops in search of Free Papua Movement (OPM) commander Jhon Yogi forcibly evacuated more than 130 villages, torched countless homes and killed dozens of civilians.

The operation also involved crude helicopter attacks. Using commercial helicopters borrowed from an Australian gold mining company, troops perched in the sky threw tear gas and grenades, poured fuel onto the hamlets below, and strafed them with machine-gun fire.[3a]

Clean Sweep

The Apache deal first came to light in February when Indonesia’s state news agency, Antara, reported that the parties only still needed to hammer out a purchase plan. The article, titled “Indonesia to buy Apache helicopters from US,” sourced the Deputy Defense Minister, Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin[4a]. It gave the impression that the transaction was all but a certainty.

If so, it was only Boeing’s latest Indonesian score. Last November, the plane maker secured the largest deal in its history when Indonesia’s Lion Air, a private carrier, agreed to pay $21.7 billion for 230 Boeing Dreamliner jets. To win the contract, Boeing had fended off Europe’s Airbus, its main rival in the commercial aircraft sector. It was a big victory and not just for Boeing, but also for Obama, who has worked hard to make US firms more competitive internationally in order to boost jobs at home.

And not only did Obama, presiding over the signing ceremony in Bali, beam as executives from Boeing and Lion Air consummated the agreement – “This is an example of how we are going to achieve the long-term goals I set of doubling our exports over the next several years,” he said at the event – he also claimed to have helped broker the sale. “The US administration and the [Export-Import Bank] in particular were critical in facilitating [it],” he said.[4b]

Shortly after Antara broke the Apache story, the nonprofits East Timor Action Network and West Papua Advocacy Team formulated a mass letter to Congress asking it to oppose the sale of the helicopters. Signed by 90 organizations, the letter cited the Indonesian military’s (TNI) “long record of disregard for civilian casualties, corruption, human rights violations and impunity.”[4] The Apaches, it stated, would “substantially augment the TNI’s capacity to prosecute its ‘sweep operations’ in West Papua and thereby almost certainly lead to increased suffering among the civilian populations long victimized by such operations.

“TNI ‘sweep operations’ involve attacks on villages,” it continued. “Homes are destroyed, along with churches and public buildings. These assaults, purportedly to eliminate the poorly armed Papuan resistance, force innocent villagers from their homes. Papuan civilians either flee the attacks to neighboring villages or into the surrounding forests where many die or face starvation, cut off from access to their gardens, shelter and medical care.”

Nick Chesterfield, WPA’s founding editor, elaborated further. “Sweep operations are anything but benign,” he wrote in an email. “They involve house to house searches, entire villages of people being captured, hogtied and brutally interrogated. It is what [convicted American war criminal] William Calley called a ‘search and contain’ which is usually ‘search and destroy’.”


Could Obama’s people have helped orchestrate the Apache deal, just as he claimed they did with the Dreamliners? Press officials at the US Embassy in Jakarta, at the US Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM) in Huntsville, Alabama, and at Boeing Defense would not comment substantively on the matter[5].

Given what is known about how US policymakers promote American weapons exports, though, it seems not unlikely. On August 2, Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, boasted to military reporters about the government’s role in producing record-high arms sales abroad. “We’ve really upped our game in terms of advocating on behalf of US companies,” he said. “I’ve got the frequent-flyer miles to prove it.”[6]

It was hardly a revelation. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks had already confirmed that, as Fortune magazine put it, “in backdoor dealings with other nations, American officials acted as de facto pitchmen for US-made weapons.” One 2009 wire from Brasilia describes how a US diplomat urged Brazil to buy American jets, noting that “the charge reiterated and deepened advocacy points … calling a decision to select the US bid an accelerator for an already growing US-Brazil military and commercial relationship’.”[7]

With Boeing, furthermore, Obama’s political ties run deep, his interests increasingly parallel. The National Export Initiative is a pillar of Obama’s economic recovery plan; Boeing is America’s largest exporter. Boeing’s CEO and Chairman, James McNerney, chairs the President’s Export Council; Obama appointed him in 2011. Several Boeing lobbyists – Tony Podesta, Oscar Ramirez, Linda Daschle – are close Obama allies. Recently, Obama succeeded in reauthorizing the contentious Ex-Im Bank; the institution, which channels by far the largest portion of its loan guarantees to Boeing’s benefit, is often derided as “Boeing’s Bank.”[8]

Indonesia has been an Obama prerogative, too., the web site his administration set up to help American companies export their products, christened the country a “national priority” for US firms. That goes for military as well as commercial fare: the same site trumpets “the US Pavilion at Indo Defence 2012,” an upcoming trade expo in which American defense companies can “find new opportunities in one of the hottest markets in the world.”

It isn’t just Obama and Boeing that want a piece of Indonesia’s weapons market. In April, British Prime Minister David Cameron made his own trip to Jakarta, a crew of defense company executives in tow. It had been more than a decade since Britain had imposed an arms embargo on Indonesia – a response to allegations that British-built Hawk aircraft had been used to bomb civilians in East Timor – and now he was calling for exports to resume. “We have to be honest and straightforward about the problems in the past,” Cameron told Kompas Daily ahead of his arrival in Jakarta. “But both Britain and Indonesia have made significant changes since then.”[9]


For a long time, the US provided Indonesia with military equipment. This came to a halt after 1991, when Indonesian troops armed with US-made M16 rifles gunned down more than 270 civilians in East Timor[10]. Following that, the US began imposing various restrictions on arms sales with Indonesia. These became most stringent in 1999 as the violence in East Timor reached a peak.

Under the Bush and Obama administrations, those ties were gradually restored. In 2006, Bush lifted all restrictions on military exports to Indonesia, citing the need for its cooperation in the War on Terror. In 2010, Obama removed the last barrier to normal relations when he did away with the ban on assistance to Indonesia’s notorious special forces, Kopassus. The Pentagon press secretary was quoted at the time as saying, “Clearly, [Kopassus] had a very dark past, but they have done a lot to change that.”[11]

Activists begged to differ. Sophie Richardson, a director at Human Rights Watch, said the administration’s stated criteria for resuming interactions with Kopassus were “far from adequate” and that anyway they were not being met. “It’s hard to see the [US] administration’s decision as anything other than a victory for abusive militaries worldwide,” she said[12].

HRW has similarly condemned the Apache sale. Elaine Pearson, another HRW director, said the TNI had shown “complete intransigence” over calls for accountability. “These are lethal killing machines. I am very concerned,” she said in an interview, referring to the Apaches. “Indonesia hasn’t lived up to its human rights commitments. If you have soldiers captured on video and they are not prosecuted, [a sale like this] sends exactly the wrong message.”

Pearson was referring to one of the more high-profile TNI abuse stories of late: a video depicting Indonesian soldiers torturing a Papuan man as they question him over the whereabouts of a stash of weapons. After the “graphic and distressing footage,” to quote an anchor from Britain’s Channel 4 news, went viral in 2010, the incident made headlines across the world. “The Indonesian government has worked hard to clean up the image of its military since the excesses of the war in East Timor,” Channel 4 reporter Kylie Morris said during the segment. “But these images tell a different story.” At one point in the video, you can hear the man scream as the soldiers torch his genitals with a burning stick.[13]

The incident was only one among the latest wave of savage acts by the security forces in the region. Last October, six bodies were found after military and police cracked down with their guns on the Third Papuan People’s Congress, in which local leaders and tribal representatives declared West Papua’s independence[14]. In June, more Papuans were killed after soldiers from TNI Battalion 756 rampaged through Honai Lama village, in retaliation for an earlier attack by an angry mob on a pair of soldiers who, while riding a motorcycle, had allegedly hit a small child.

William Hartung, director of the Arms Resource Center at the World Policy Institute, said the Apache sale should be stopped. “Given the Indonesian government’s record of attacks on civilians in West Papua, there is a significant possibility that the helicopters would be used for this purpose,” Hartung wrote in an email. “Selling offensive weapons to a country that may use them in systematic human rights abuses violates the spirit of U.S. law. More importantly, it is immoral. It is unacceptable for a democracy to act in this fashion.”

Others questioned Indonesia’s need for Apache helicopters. “I don’t know why Indonesia really needs these things,” said Jeff Abramson, a director at Control Arms. Pearson suggested one reason Indonesia might want them was because its neighbors Singapore and Malaysia had them. But those countries aren’t known for the types of abuses Indonesia is, she said. “Why Apaches?” she asked. “There is a whole lot of other military assistance the US could give them. Australia is providing Hercules [transport] aircraft, for example.”

The Apache’s night vision capacity would be of particular use in sweep operations, said Edmund McWilliams, former Charge d’Affairs” (Chief of Mission) to Tajikstan, who now works with ETAN. Chesterfield agreed. “The Apaches are designed for night operations and deep penetration of forest areas through remote sensing and are designed to find human beings in hostile environments – fast,” he wrote. “They are able to go into an area that traditional ground troops, even special forces – would have a hard time getting to.”

The TNI now commands eight Russian-built Hind attack helicopters, but in nearly every respect the Apaches are much more powerful machines, Chesterfield said. “They more manoeuvrable than Hinds, can turn on smaller footprints, are quieter and are equipped with less rigid cannon which can pivot in any direction. They can deliver a wide variety of munitions, much wider than the Hind,” he wrote, adding: “The Apaches would be a whole new ballgame.”

Bad Memories

During the NATO summit in May, anti-war demonstrators marched on Chicago-based Boeing’s corporate headquarters. Calling Boeing a “war machine that produces war machines,” the crowd held a “die-in” outside its office, then took the protest to Obama’s campaign headquarters.

In response, Boeing spokesman John Dern said the company takes pride in its work. “We wish and hope that people understand what we do,” Dern told CBS News. “We understand that they are upset with us for whatever reason. Having said that, to the extent that we have a role in protecting our troops – protecting the people who are protecting all of us – that’s something we’re proud of and our employees are proud of.”

In a recent issue of Boeing Frontiers, the company’s monthly magazine, a worker at Boeing’s Mesa site, where Apaches are produced, expressed a similar sentiment. “Just to hear those things fly above … It gives you a sense of accomplishment and pride to know you had a hand in something that was worthwhile,” said Ramon Pena Jr., an electrical engineer and mechanical assembler who has spent 26 years working on the Apache.

Asked how he felt about the Apaches, the Papuan exile and independence activist Benny Wenda also recalled military aircraft flying overhead, although in a starkly different light. In 1977, when Wenda was a small child, the Indonesian armed forces undertook aerial bombing raids over the central highlands and most of his family was killed.

Things haven’t changed much, he said.

“I’m worried Indonesia will misuse [the Apaches],” he said by phone from Britain. “They are killing their own people. There is no threat. Who do they want to invade? Papua New Guinea? Australia? They are paranoid in this situation. I hope they don’t send this.”

[1] In 2009, James Page, Syafuan Rozi Soebhan and Jeremy Peterman wrote, “It has been suggested that the region is now the most militarized area in the world, with one security person for every 100 citizens, compared to the situation in Iraq, with one security person for every 140 citizens.” See also a recent Jakarta Post editorial: “There is no official data available on the number of security personnel in Papua, but it is estimated that some 16,000 Indonesian Military (TNI) troops are stationed in Papua. If combined with the police, roughly at the same staffing levels as the TNI, there are over 30,000 security personnel on duty in the province. The figure excludes hundreds of intelligence officers deployed there.”

[2] Foreign journalists cannot enter West Papua, unless pre-approved by a slow, bureaucratic process from the Media of Information. Even after approval, journalists are always accompanied by a government minder. Only three foreign journalists were allowed access to West Papua in 2011. See Perrottet, A. and Robie, D. (2011). “Pacific media freedom 2011: A status report.” Pacific Journalism Review.

[3] Matoa stands for the sweet fruit one finds in West Papua, a symbol of the region, p.208.

[3a] See here and here.

[4] “Groups Urge US Not to Sell Attack Helicopters to Indonesia.”

[4a] See here.

[4b] See here.

[5]Hal Klopper, head of international communications at Boeing Defense, Space & Security, wrote in an email: “I can tell you that Boeing is aware of Indonesia’s interest in the Apache and would support the US Army if it chooses to move forward with discussions. Since this would be handled as a Foreign Military Sale, all questions should directed to the US Army for comment.” The contact he provided, AMCOM press specialist Sophia Bledsoe, however, declined to comment: “I checked with our International Apache folks and they said that we’re not in a position to discuss any detail in this potential case and don’t have the proper approvals related,” she wrote in an email. So did Philip Roskamp, assistant press attaché at the US Embassy in Jakarta: “At this time, the Embassy has no comment,” he wrote.

[6] According to Shapiro, US arms sales as of July 27 had already surpassed $50 billion in fiscal 2012, a jump of at least two-thirds over last year’s total of $30 billion. The biggest contributor to the increase has been a record $29.4 billion sale to Saudi Arabia of up to 84 advanced Boeing Co F-15 fighter jets. Among the deals still at play were a potential $1.4 billion sale of Apache helicopters to India. There was also Brazil, where Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet is competing with the Rafale fighter built by France’s Dassault for a multibillion-dollar defense contract. With regards to the latter, Shapiro said, “We’re eager to make the best possible case for the Boeing aircraft and we’re hopeful that it will be selected.” “US government advocacy said boosting foreign arms sales” July 27 andrea Shalal-Esa.

[7] See here.

[8] “In fiscal 2009, Ex-Im guaranteed $8.4 billion of loans to benefit Boeing, an astounding 90 percent of all of its loan guarantees. This past fiscal year, according to a recent annual report, Boeing won $6.4 billion in Ex-Im loan guarantees, 63 percent of the total.””Boeing lives by big government, dies by big government,” Washington Examiner, 24 April 2011, Timothy Carney.

[9] “David Cameron calls for U.K. arms sales to Indonesia,” Nicholas Watt, The Guardian UK, 11 April 2012.

[10] “The Santa Cruz Massacre sparked the international solidarity movement for East Timor, including the founding of the East Timor Action Network and was the catalyst for Congressional action to stem the flow of US weapons and other military assistance for Indonesia’s brutal security forces. Ali Alatas, former foreign minister of Indonesia, called the massacre a “turning point,” which set in motion the events leading to East Timor’s coming independence.”

[11] “US Lifts Ban on Indonesian Special Forces Unit,” 22 July 2010, Elisabeth Bumiller and Norimitsu Onishi.

[12] See here.

[13] See here.

[14] Octovianus Pogau, a prominent West Papuan blogger, provides a firsthand account of the crackdown.

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