A'an Suryana, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
The Army Special Force (Kopassus), a much feared unit within the Indonesian Military (TNI), has a long history of ups and downs.
Kopassus was born when the Indonesian Army was struggling to put an end to a separatist campaign waged by the South Maluku Republic (RMS) in 1950.
Facing a tough enemy, Col (Inf) A.E. Kawilarang, the commander of the antirebel operation, decided to form a special force to quell the separatist movement, which received support from the former colonial power, the Netherlands.
Kawilarang then appointed former Dutch soldier Rokus Bernandus Visser, who had married a Sundanese and changed his name to Muhammad Idjon Djambi, to train and lead the special force.
Visser was a seasoned combatant and trainer, and was part of the Dutch Special Forces during World War II.
He took up the top job in the Special Force Command, which was formally established on April 16, 1952, with the military rank of major. The force remained part of the Siliwangi Military Command until Army Headquarters took it over in 1953 and renamed it the Army Commando Unit.
According to a book written by Robert Lowry titled ""The Armed Forces of Indonesia"", the special force changed names several times. It was known as the Army Paratroop Command Regiment (RPKAD), which served as the vanguard of the military's cleansing operation against communists in 1966. The name was maintained for a decade before it was changed to the Reconnaissance Warfare Command (Kopassandha). The unit was finally named Kopassus in 1986.
Under different names, Kopassus lived up to its billing as an elite force, whose achievements have drawn international plaudits.
Among its more noteworthy missions since playing a pivotal role in foiling the coup attempt blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965, were rescuing passengers of a Garuda aircraft hijacked to Bangkok in 1981 and releasing 26 people abducted by a Papuan separatist group led by Kelly Kwalik in 1996.
With its proven track record, it is no surprise that Kopassus has become the best training ground for future TNI leaders.
Most of the best known and brightest leaders of the Army came from Kopassus, including Lt. Gen. (ret) Prabowo Subianto, Gen. (ret) Benny Murdani, Gen. Tyasno Sudarto and Gen. (ret) Wismoyo Arismunandar.
Kopassus' image quickly became tarnished on the eve of President Soeharto's downfall after the force was involved in an operation to silence opposition groups.
In April 1998, it was revealed that Kopassus took part in the abduction of student activists, who provided the most outspoken opposition demanding Soeharto's resignation. Some Kopassus members in the Mawar Team were later brought to justice.
Kopassus members were also accused of taking part in the mass violence that occurred in East Timor after the historic independence ballot in the former Portuguese colony in September 1999.
Despite the internal reforms to restore the military's image, Kopassus has lately come under public fire again after some of its members were alleged to have been involved in the murder of Papuan independence leader Theys Hiyo Eluay on Nov. 10 last year. Three Kopassus soldiers have been tipped as suspects in the case.
Therefore, as it celebrated its golden anniversary on Tuesday, Kopassus could only look ahead to the formidable task of repairing its image in the eyes of the public and satisfying the growing demands for military professionalism, including respect for human rights.