(CNSNews.com) - Describing Indonesia as "a voice of moderation in the Islamic world," the U.S. government plans to resume aid to the Southeast Asian country's armed forces.
The move was immediately denounced by activists who believe it's too soon to restore assistance suspended because of serious human rights abuses by the Indonesian military, known as the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI).
In the latest in a series of steps to restore full military-to-military relations, the State Department said the U.S. was ready to "provide assistance for specific military programs and units that will help modernize the Indonesian military."
Last February the U.S. restarted International Military Education and Training (IMET) with Jakarta, and three months later resumed the sale of non-lethal military supplies to mark the first visit by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to the White House.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the latest move would help boost counter terrorism, maritime security and disaster relief.
Encouraged by the U.S. and neighboring Australia, Indonesia under Yudhoyono has pressed ahead with a campaign against Islamist terrorists launched cautiously - critics say half-heartedly - by his predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Indonesia is also jointly responsible, together with Malaysia and Singapore, for security in the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest, but least secure, shipping lanes. Piracy is widespread there, and security experts worry about the huge financial implications of a terrorist attack in the narrow channel.
Resumed U.S. assistance to the TNI would also enhance its capacity to respond to natural disasters like last December's tsunami, which killed hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia and several other Indian Ocean countries.
McCormack's statement praised Indonesia, noting it was the world's most populous Muslim nation, the "third largest democracy," and a leading member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"Indonesia has made significant progress in advancing its democratic institutions and practices in a relatively short time."
The decision to restore aid was "in the national security interests" of the U.S., he said.
Washington would, however, press for accountability for past human rights abuses, and "assistance will continue to be guided by Indonesia's progress on democratic reform."
Restrictions on ties were put in place in 1991 and tightened in 1999 over military abuses in East Timor, a predominantly Catholic territory then occupied by Jakarta and now an independent nation.
The 9/11 terror attacks and subsequent emergence of a significant al-Qaeda-linked terrorist threat in Southeast Asia, coupled with democratic advances in Indonesia, fueled a drive in Washington to normalize the relations.
The move took a hit when two American schoolteachers were killed in an August 2002 ambush in the far-eastern Papua province. Human rights investigators and the Indonesian police suspected the TNI was behind the attack, and the army's failure to cooperate with an FBI investigation prompted Congress to delay efforts to restore links.
The State Department said last February, however, that Jakarta had cooperated in the investigation. A Papuan separatist rebel has been indicted for his alleged role in the ambush, although suspicions of TNI involvement persist.
The New York-based East Timor and Indonesia Action Network criticized Tuesday's decision, calling it a betrayal of the victims of the TNI, "an unreformed military which remains above the law."
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