A Tricky Balancing Act for U.S. in Indonesia

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East Timor has strained the traditional U.S.-Indonesia alliance, although you wouldn't think so to hear Indonesian leaders talk about it. Defense Secretary Cohen on Thursday sternly warned the Indonesian military to clean up its act during a meeting in Jakarta with armed forces chief General Wiranto. But while Cohen’s statement after the talks accused the Indonesian military of abetting violence in East Timor and warned it to mend its ways, the official Indonesian account of the meeting claimed that the U.S. Defense Secretary had expressed "appreciation for the army’s commitment to human rights and democracy."

Cohen insisted that disarming the anti-independence militia in East Timor was the price for restoring military ties between the U.S. and Indonesia. Earlier, he had announced that U.S. helicopters and a further 130 communications experts would join the 260 non-combatant U.S. personnel in the Australian-led East Timor peacekeeping force. But pro-Indonesia militiamen are continuing to threaten the peacekeepers, and Australian troops on Tuesday arrested 15 "militiamen" who turned out to be members of the Indonesian military’s Kopassus special forces. "Everybody thought all along that the militia were being run by Kopassus units loyal to the former dictator, Suharto," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "The question now is whether they’ll try to fight on against the Australians, because that would require the support of at least elements of the Indonesian government." A rising nationalist backlash in Indonesia over the East Timor debacle won’t help the prospects for peace in East Timor. And the disconnect between the statements issued by Cohen and Wiranto after Thursday’s meeting could spell trouble.