Letter: Indonesian myth

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The Independent Culture
Sir: It is time to dispel a myth about the Indonesian army. Fergal Keane's comment that this army is "amongst the biggest and best equipped in the world" is nonsense ("To save East Timor, we must make life hard for the generals", 11 September).

In terms of size, it is actually remarkably small (280,000 combat troops), given Indonesia's population (210 million). Of these, only two units amount to anything militarily: the 28,000-strong Strategic Army Reserve (Kostrad) and the 6,000 men of the Special Forces (Kopassus). These latter are the ones directing the genocide in East Timor.

Since 1966, when the period of "Confrontation" against Malaysia was brought to an end, Jakarta has never had to confront professional troops. During Suharto's bloody "New Order" regime (1966-98), his army only showed "valour" when it came to murdering unarmed civilians (600,000 died in the anti-communist purges in Java and Bali in 1965-66).

When it came to fighting the tiny Portuguese-trained East Timorese army (3-4,000) it was quite a different story. Years of corruption and inefficiency turned Jakarta's invasion into a military disaster with separate Indonesian units (using different radio frequencies) mowing each other down and more than sixty per cent of mortar and artillery shells being found to be duds (the munitions workers in Jakarta had flogged off the TNT).

As the war progressed, senior officers showed more interest in lining their pockets with trading monopolies in Timorese coffee, sandalwood and marble than in leading their men against battle-hardened guerrillas. No less than16,000 Indonesian troops perished before the territory was finally overrun in 1979.

No, Indonesia is no Vietnam. Its proudest units are little more than torturers in uniform whose commanders will one day stand trial in The Hague. They may fight but they will not prevail against a determined professional force.