Labour, Arms and Indonesia: Has Anything Changed?

By Nicholas Gilby ©July 2001

After 18 years of Conservative rule, it was natural that supporters of progressive change should pin great hopes on Labour, hence the great expectations caused by Robin Cook’s declaration of an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy. When Labour took office in 1997, the UK was the largest exporter of arms to Indonesia in the world (from 1994-6 the UK supplied US$725 million out of Indonesia's US$1,260 million of arms imports, according to the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency). At the time, the brutal Suharto regime, in the words of the US State Department, "continued to commit serious human rights abuses", imposed "serious limitations on freedom of speech", "denied citizens the ability to change their government democratically", and "maintained its opposition to alternatives to the Government-sponsored labor movement and to the development of a free trade union movement". The government which carried out these repressive actions was "dominated by an elite comprising President Soeharto..., his close associates, and the military " (emphasis added).

Given the armed forces' (then called ABRI, since renamed TNI) central role in maintaining the repressive regime, many therefore hoped Labour would end UK arms exports to Indonesia, but they have been disappointed. Responding to widespread disillusionment with Cook's policies, Peter Hain, then an FCO Minister, suggested that Labour’s problem was a presentational one: "if there was a mistake made, it was in allowing the policy to be presented as if we could have perfection". Hain was right to suggest that Labour’s commitment to an ethical foreign policy i.e. one properly prioritising human rights and social need abroad ahead of the profits of transnational capital, was subservient to other (unethical) interests.

In the past Labour has pursued policies the results of which can lead Hain to say "We don’t live in an ethical world and we don’t live in a perfect world". Indonesia is a classic example of Labour’s historical contribution to this distressing trend.

The Historical Record

The central event in Indonesian post-war history was the bloody take-over by General Suharto in 1965, establishing one of the century’s most vicious tyrannies. Mark Curtis, a former Research Fellow at Chatham House, has documented how "Britain aided the slaughter of more than half a million people by the Indonesian army in 1965", referring to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which was massacred by Suharto.

Declassified documents show that UK ambassador Sir Andrew Gilchrist advised "we should get word to the generals that we shall not attack them whilst they are chasing the PKI" (Mark Curtis, The Observer, 28. 7. 96), assurances Suharto and company had less than three weeks after the coup. The Foreign Office advised Gilchrist that "while the present confusion continues, we can hardly go wrong by tacitly backing the generals". The Foreign Office Information Research Department manipulated the news to discredit Sukarno and the PKI. The British political adviser to the commander-in-chief in Singapore advised "we should have no hesitation in doing what we can surreptitiously to blacken the PKI in the eyes of the army and the people of Indonesia", and on 9 October reported "arrangements for distribution of certain unattributable material had been made" (The Observer, 28. 7. 96).

In 1975, Labour abetted the holocaust in East Timor following the Indonesian invasion. In July 1975, Sir John Ford, our man in Jakarta, wrote to London, "it is in Britain’s interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible".

On 2 October 1975 the Australian ambassador in London cabled to Canberra "Male (Deputy Under Secretary, FCO) said today, that if Indonesia were to take over Timor by force, the British government would wish to resist the pressures which would inevitably and quickly build up here not only for oral condemnation of Indonesia, but also for practical measures such as cutting off aid". A few days afterwards Indonesian Special Forces murdered five journalists in Balibo (the circumstances of their deaths were covered up by the Australian and UK governments, who claimed they were killed in the East Timorese civil war). In 1978, David Owen, then Foreign Secretary, approved the sale of eight Hawk Mk 53 ground-attack and trainer aircraft to Indonesia, just as US supplies of A-4 Skyhawk aircraft (intended for the same purpose) were, in the words of US Rear Admiral Gene R. La Roque "chang[ing] the entire nature of the war". Owen claimed that "the scale of the fighting ... has been very greatly reduced"; in fact, as Western intelligence knew, the Indonesia offensive intensified from 1977, with appalling consequences.

Such was Labour’s contribution to an imperfect world in Indonesia. Suharto, in return for the enrichment of himself and his associates, permitted countries like the UK (the second largest investor in Indonesia after Japan) access to Indonesia’s vast natural resources, cheap labour and freedom to repatriate profits, without fear of challenge by any popular or democratic movement.


David Owen’s action in allowing the first Hawk sale to go ahead was to have important ramifications for the next Labour government 18 years later. British Aerospace (BAe) had followed up its 1978 success and had sold its improved Hawk 109 and 209 models throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1997, Labour entered government a few months after the Conservatives had licensed the sale of 16 Hawk 209s to Indonesia. In 1978, Robin Cook had described the Hawk sale as "particularly disturbing", and in 1994 said Hawks had been "observed on bombing runs in East Timor in most years since 1984". The new Labour government had the option of revoking the licence for the 1996 sale (worth £350 million to BAe, where Labour grandee Lord Hollick had been a director 1992-7). It refused to, with Derek Fatchett claiming in Parliament in July 1997 that it was not "realistic or practical". Legally the government was entitled to revoke licences without fear of financial liability but, in the words of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee "would be obliged to demonstrate that its policy towards that country had indeed changed in such a way as to require the revocation". As government policy had not changed, the effect of which was to support a brutally repressive regime, the vital pillar of which was the military, the sales had to proceed.

Most commentators assumed that the government would have revoked the licences if they could but were forced by circumstances outside their control not to (the impression Labour successfully created). Of course, had Labour been willing to implement a more "ethical" policy towards Indonesia, they could have revoked them at no cost to themselves.

Therefore the assumption of good intentions on Labour’s part is unjustified. Indonesia has continued to use Hawks for internal repression: in July 1999, Hawk aircraft flew low over Dili in East Timor, as part of the TNI campaign to intimidate the population ahead of the referendum on independence from Indonesia. In late September last year, Hawk 209 aircraft were used in a similar fashion over Wamena, West Papua. In retrospect it can be seen as the intimidatory precursor to the Wamena tragedy, where TNI deliberately provoked unrest by acting against Papuan flag-raising.

In the incident, the Indonesian human rights NGO TAPOL reports, 37 civilians were killed, 89 were injured and detainees were severely tortured (slashed with razors, beaten with rifle butts and canes, and forced to drink the urine of police officers). The Foreign Office claims the Hawks over Papua were used for training. At the end of 1999, Labour had issued 44 licences for aircraft and aircraft equipment to Indonesia (ML10) since coming to power, many of which must have been for Hawk aircraft.

The Foreign Office say that "this administration has not licensed any Hawk aircraft themselves, only spares for those aircraft licensed by the previous administration".

In the first ten months of 2000, the government issued five licences for spares for Hawk aircraft. The Hawks are kept operational by a steady flow of spares to the Indonesians, licensed by Labour.

The government makes great play of its new criteria on arms sales (not issuing export licences if "there is a clearly identifiable risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression"). In light of the historical record, one wonders what would constitute a “clearly identifiable risk” that Hawk aircraft "might" be used for internal repression?

Armoured Vehicles

A similar situation prevails in regard to armoured vehicles. In 1996 the Conservatives licensed the sale of 50 Scorpion light tanks and associated equipment (Stormer armoured personnel carriers) to Indonesia, supplied by Alvis. Like the Hawks, the government refused to revoke the licence for the sale.

In April 1996, as the FCO has admitted, Scorpion vehicles were used against students in South Sulawesi (3 were killed and many injured). After Labour took office, Scorpions were used in May and November 1998 in Jakarta in incidents where protesters were killed. In December 1999 and July 2000, Saladins (Alvis-made armoured cars exported in the 1960s) were used in Ambon in incidents where civilians were killed.

Saladins are very dated vehicles which need regular supplies of spares to function (Labour admits it licensed spares for Saladins in 1998). The Foreign Office says available footage taken in July 2000 "does not show Saladin being used by Indonesian soldiers or extremists to oppress the Christians".

No one (not even the FCO) doubts that Alvis equipment was used in the five incidents above, or that extra-judicial killings occurred, yet according to Labour, because no one can prove that UK equipment actually killed people, there is apparently no risk that Alvis equipment might be used for internal repression!

Has Labour made a difference?

Labour has made a great play that it will not licence equipment that might be used for internal repression or international aggression (which in fact, is only a very slight change from the criteria applied by the Conservatives).

From the evidence of the above cases we can conclude the government's stance is the following: it is acceptable to licence spares (which by their nature are designed to ensure the equipment can continue to function) for equipment used in internal repression; past use by TNI of UK or foreign equipment for internal repression has no bearing on licence decisions; and that the historic UK policy (Labour and Conservative) of arming the Indonesian military has not changed. The 125 outstanding licences granted by the Conservatives were not revoked, and Labour issued a further 144 licences up to December 2000 (the latest date for which figures are available). From when Labour came into power up to December 2000 the value for arms exported to Indonesia was £383. 19 million. Labour say that they are not responsible for these as the licences were issued by the Conservatives, yet as Labour had the power to revoke them, they are just as responsible for permitting the deals to be completed.

Labour refuses to let human rights considerations influence licensing decisions for arms to Indonesia. Given the belated imposition of an arms embargo on Indonesia in the wake of the slaughter in East Timor, which the West both in 1999 and historically had done nothing to prevent, one wonders if even this limited gesture would have been made had there not been vigorous protest from civil society. Clearly, consideration of previous use of UK- or foreign-supplied military equipment in internal repression does not play a part in licensing decisions. Nor does the possible future use of equipment by a vicious military. Nor does human rights.

Corporate Interests - The Real Policy

Why then, does Labour continue its dreadful historical record, and supply the Indonesian military and government with the instruments of coercion over its own people?There is the obvious interest of the UK military-industrial complex (had Labour changed its policy and revoked the licences, c£250 million of deals licensed by the Tories would have been lost). TNI are the guarantor (in a very unstable country) of substantial transnational corporate investment. Rio Tinto, the London based mining giant, owns a 16. 3% stake in the Freeport mine in West Papua, one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines.

Under a 1998 agreement, Rio Tinto is also entitled to 40% of additional material mined from any expansion of the facilities at the Grasberg mine. TNI were paid US$35 million by Freeport up-front, and are paid an additional US$11 million per year to protect Freeport from "disgruntled employees, locals who accuse the company of environmental damage, exploitation (even pillaging) of resources, and cultural insensitivity", according to Centre for Defence Studies Research Associate Lesley McCulloch. UK-based BP is also looking for opportunities in West Papua. It wants to develop Tangguh, a gasfield in West Papua, reputed to contain 18 trillion cubic feet of reserves.

A recent paper by the US-ASEAN Business Council described TNI as "the principal backstop of stability" in Indonesia. The Council represents 150 transnational companies including ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Nike, IBM, Goldman Sachs, and Freeport, and is calling for for the US to lift its military embargo on military equipment and training and re-establish direct military-to-military contacts with TNI. The Council's "backstop of stability" has recently outlawed (with Presidential support) the Aceh independence movement GAM as "separatist" and "an enemy of the state" (TNI Lieutenant-General Ryacudu), clearing the way for TNI to carry out a major military operation against the "rebels", with predictable consequences – in the month since mid-March 229 civilians and "separatists" have been killed and 155 injured. TNI has already guaranteed to provide protection in Aceh to US corporation ExxonMobil, which owns 35% of PT Arun NGL, a major exporter of liquefied natural gas to Japan and South Korea, by deploying 1,500 troops to defend its installations. The Wall Street Journal reports that ExxonMobil's net income from its Aceh operations is US$300-500 million annually.

TNI's operation in Aceh already has the blessing of Robert Gelbard, the US ambassador to Indonesia, who said "we hope that Indonesia will support us, too (in respect of ExxonMobil)", and the military operation is "entirely for the Indonesian government to decide", although "we oppose separatism. . we've made that very clear to the GAM and the GAM has no support internationally". According to the Jakarta Post, on a recent visit to Singapore UK Defence Minister Geoff Hoon believed that the Indonesian government should "respond appropriately to separatist movements". When TNI operations kill thousands of civilians in Aceh (as in the previous decades), there was no complaint by the West. Now that a Western corporation’s operations are threatened (after a fearsome escalation of violence and human rights abuses by TNI) the West feels obliged to speak out - but not in favour of dialogue or peace, (consistent with the historical pattern), and in the full knowledge that TNI will commit hideous human rights abuses during the operations. It is an eloquent expression of Western values – one might almost say "traditional values in a modern setting". TNI, as it has been since 1965, is seen as the force in Indonesian society which guarantees foreign investors’ security (in return for a piece of the action) by preventing the emergence of any nationalist, democratic forces and this is why it commands the West’s support, regardless of the body count.

Let us now examine the arguments put forward by the Labour party's TNI apologists and armourers.

Did not the value of contracts entered into drop massively, thus showing the new criteria are biting (only £2 million of contracts were entered into in 1998)?
Yes, but ability to purchase is affected by ability to pay, which Indonesia has not had since the financial crisis. Indonesia has not bought any major weapons systems from the UK since Labour entered power due to the financial crisis, although it has continued to purchase a steady stream of spares (which are inexpensive) to ensure its current repressive machinery can remain operational.
Didn’t the government receive assurances from the Indonesian military that UK equipment will not be used against civilians in violation of their rights?
Yes, but of course that is in no way a guarantee – the local commanders controlling the equipment do not give the assurances, and information on deployment and use is difficult to come by except for the Foreign Office (which has a considerable vested interest in avoiding publicity on the issue, as do the arms companies). The trustworthiness of TNI can reasonably be questioned!Ahead of the referendum on East Timorese independence in 1999, TNI gave assurances that they would provide security and allow the referendum and associated campaigning to take place without intimidation. However, they proceeded to organise violence by proxy against pro-independence supporters in the months up to the referendum, leaving hundreds dead, and following the vote for independence co-ordinated and participated in the massacre of 2,000 people. According to a recent report by the UN investigator James Dunn, senior TNI officers "not only sponsored the setting up of the militia, providing training, arms, money and in some cases drugs, they also encouraged its campaign of violence, and organised the wave of destruction and deportation", conclusions shared by the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission and the International Commission of Inquiry. The idea that assurances on the use of weapons can seriously be taken from such people is patently absurd, and the idea that Labour take them seriously should be seen as a propaganda device used to fool the ignorant and the gullible. As Alan Clark once put it "a guarantee is worthless from any government ... but it might look good in the formula".
Did not the embargo prove that the UK would refuse to licence arms exports where gross human rights violations were taking place?
Leaving aside the fact that the embargo did not come into force (16 September 2000) until TNI had largely finished its campaign of slaughter in East Timor, the human rights situation in Indonesia during Labour’s term in office has not improved; arguably it has been getting worse. The situation in East Timor, abysmal when Labour entered office, deteriorated during the last months of (illegal) Indonesian rule, culminating in a massacre comparable in scale to those carried out by Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo. In Aceh, the ending of the province’s ten-year status (in 1998) as a military zone of operations (DOM – in which c6,000 people were killed by the military or their proxies), has resulted in an horrific escalation of TNI violence. In 1999, 278 civilians were killed; in 2000 the toll rose to 676 (including over 100 in one weekend in November) the Aceh Human Rights Care Forum reported. From the beginning of this year to mid-June more than 600 people have been killed "and the daily death tolls are rising", creating a situation where "the daily lives of civilians in the area worst affected by the fighting are lived in a state of constant insecurity where there is no guarantee of being able to earn a living wage and a constant risk of being caught in crossfire or harassed by the security forces," according to the International Crisis Group (ICG Asia Report, 27. 6. 01)In West Papua, the violence of the Suharto era, with extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions and torture by TNI, continues unabated. The US State Department’s assessment of Indonesia for last year was "the Government’s human rights record was poor, and the overall human rights situation worsened during the year". If human rights considerations were really the motivating force behind the 1999 arms embargo, why was there not an arms embargo before, and why not since?
Has not the military been reforming since Wahid became President after Indonesia's first democratic elections in 1999?
Their practice of violence, torture and destruction continues unabated as noted above, and a few weeks ago even the US State Department described them as "not fully accountable to civilian authority" and an "obstacle. . to democratic development".

UK arms exports to Indonesia (which the government control through export control legislation) should be seen in their proper political and historical context. The Labour government's determination to permit arms sales to Indonesia is not simply the desire to please big and powerful arms manufacturers (significant though this is). Historically, the UK has supported the Indonesian military by equipping them in order to support a regime which safeguarded UK interests in Indonesia, a policy still followed today in the post-Suharto era. TNI, as it does for the Americans and other Western powers, guarantees UK interests in Indonesia, by repressing with brutal force those trying to bring about progressive social and political change in Aceh, West Papua and (previously) East Timor. It is therefore supported and armed by Labour.

As has been amply demonstrated, the previous or future use of UK-supplied weapons (or those of other powers indeed), or human rights considerations have no bearing on the policy or the policy-makers. The policy is defended with the spurious cant most have come to associate with New Labour. The human consequences of the policy of Labour and the West, though, are quite terrifying for those they affect, but the prospects for change are, more disturbingly, quite lacking.