After 61 years, the Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) remains riddled with allegations of human rights abuses, with the Cebongan incident where its commandos stormed a prison in Sleman, Yogyakarta, and executed four inmates putting the elite forces under the spotlight for another abuse allegation.
As the elite force commemorated its 61st anniversary in Cijantung, East Jakarta, on Tuesday, Kopassus commander Maj. Gen. Agus Sutomo insisted that the raid on Cebongan prison that left four men dead was not a human rights abuse. “It was not a human rights violation. It was insubordination. That is clear,” he said as quoted by Antara.
A number of public figures, including former State Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief AM Hendropriyono and House of Representatives deputy speaker Priyo Budi Santoso, took part in defending Kopassus. “Those who think that [Kopassus members] have abused people’s rights, just take a look at CCTV footage [at Hugo’s café]. A person was beaten to death, then his remains were dragged along the ground. That is a human rights violation,” Hendropriyono said, referring to a former Kopassus soldier whose death triggered the Cebongan raid.
They refuted a preliminary conclusion by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) that the raid violated human rights. The commission has yet to complete its probe into the incident.
Since being founded by Col. Alexander Evert Kawilarang in 1952, Kopassus have been involved in some notable missions, ranging from countering a plane hijack, insurgent attacks and the country’s confrontation with Malaysia in 1965.
In the 1950s, Kopassus took part in the counterinsurgency operation against the Darul Islam/Indonesian Islamic Army (DI/TII) rebellion.
In 1985, the elite force achieved global recognition after it successfully rescued passengers on board Garuda Indonesia’s DC-9 Woyla aircraft, which was hijacked by Komando Jihad, a network of Darul Islam.
In 1996, Kopassus commandos joined an operation to rescue 12 foreign and Indonesian scientists abducted by the Free Papua Movement (OPM) in Papua’s hinterland of Mapenduma. Two Indonesian hostages were killed by the rebels during the rescue operation.
But over the years the forces have also been mired in human rights violations.
In April 1999, 11 Kopassus members were found guilty of abducting nine political activists during the last months of Soeharto’s New Order regime. In 2003, a military tribunal sent seven Kopassus soldiers to jail for slaying Theys Hiyo Eluay, the leader of Papua Presidium Council, in 2002. Some of them were not discharged from the army.
A pile of human rights abuses committed by Kopassus had prompted the United States to impose a ban on military contact with the elite forces. In 2010, the US lifted the ban amid strong criticism.
Critics said it was now the time for Kopassus to evaluate themselves.
Haris Azhar, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) chairman said that the Cebongan case could be the impetus for Kopassus to end their culture of impunity.
“Looking back at previous cases, military tribunals gave soldiers lenient punishments. The public have been disappointed by that. The prison murder will test Kopassus’ commitment to supporting fair and transparent trials for their members,” he said.
Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, a defense analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) said that Kopassus should use the Cebongan case to build the morale of their members.
He added that Kopassus, like many other Indonesian military forces, was facing a challenge to shine in peacetime. “During the era of turmoil, Kopassus played a pivotal role in many security operations. Kopassus also engaged with civil society by deploying its members to coach the Karang Taruna youth groups,” Ikrar said.