Dutch Defence minister has 'no morals' in tank deal with Indonesia

This week an Indonesian delegation, led by Army chief of staff general Edhie Widowo, is visiting the Netherlands to have a closer look at Dutch Leopard tanks, for sale since last year's austerity measures. When we first discussed the potential deal in November just a few details had emerged. Two months later the whole affair has become a major controversy, in both Indonesia and the Netherlands. At stake is an estimated 215 million euro deal for 100 Leopard 2A6 tanks (some sources quote an unrealistically high 600 million USD value.

When Dutch MP's heard about Jakarta's interest they raised the issue with Defence minister Hans Hillen, who confirmed ongoing talks but refused to discuss the issue. He notably refused to discuss the Indonesian army's problematic human rights track record and ongoing abuses in Papua. „As minister of Defence I look at the sale of material that we dispose from the idea that I want to see money, and therefore I don't have morals". Ethical questions are the exclusive responsibiliby of the ministers of Economic and Foreign Affairs, he argues. Technically speaking he is correct, as these two ministers check any arms export against the criteria of the EU common position on arms exports. But it is clear that the three minsters work closely together when it comes to negotiating any deal of surplus military material.

In December 2011, a large majority supported a parliamentary resolution urging the government not to sell Leopard tanks to Indonesia because of the risk they might be used against Indonesian people. The Dutch government already had a bad experience with previous exports of surplus armoured vehicles to Bahrain and Egypt that have been used in the popular uprisings of the past year. Meanwhile in Indonesia, parliamentarians started opposing the deal as well, citing a range of objections. "Why, lawmakers demand to know, does the army want a 62-tonne behemoth unsuited to an archipelago with no identifiable land threats and a poor network of roads and bridges, which will be a daunting obstacle to its effective deployment, particularly on populous Java?", reads a Jakarta Globe commentary. The general impression is that the Army has gone shopping because they have received a major budget boost and wants state-of-the-art weaponry to mirror neighbouring countries' inventories. "Just imagine, all this time, our cavalry units never owned a heavy tank," quipped army chief Wibowo, who is also president Yudhoyono’s brother-in-law. Currently Indonesia has some 80 lightweight Scorpion tanks manufactured in the 1980s in Britain and 125 14-tonne, French-made AMX-13 light tanks from the mid-1960s.

The heavy weight of the Leopards would make them useless to operate in Indonesia due to infrastructural problems, counter Indonesian MPs Another MP claims that state arms manufacturer Pindad was preparing a battle tank prototype that deserved the first look from the military. And: “If imports are necessary, the government should look for countries that do not tend to dictate to us too much on arms purchases,” representative Syahfan said. Apparently the former coloniser should refrain from expressing human rights concerns.

Most importantly: against what threat would Indonesian tanks be a likely military answer? Not against an invasion by China. And locating them in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) would likely upset Malaysia and force them to move their tanks over from the western peninsula to Sarawak (the Malaysian part of Borneo).

Additionally, lawmakers have questioned the procurement plans, saying that they revealed that military planners gave little attention to the Navy or Air Force [however, in recent years Indonesia has spent considerable money on both new Dutch corvettes, as well as Russian Sukhoi fighter jets]. House member Susaningtyas Kertapati argued that the Defence ministry should have prioritised the procurement of patrol ships to guard the country’s maritime borders as Indonesia had far greater sea than land massSo if not against external treats, what use can be seen for the tanks? Keeping protesters away from the streets of major cities? Other internal treats? The outcome of the Indonesian visit will be reported upon return, the Jakarta Post quotes army spokesman Brig. Gen. Wiryantoro.

In the Dutch context the government quite uniquely needs parliamentary approval for any surplus sales - which appears unlikely in this specific case, unless one of the parties previously against the deal will switch sides. With such strong resistance in both the Indonesian and Dutch parliaments against the transfer of Leopard tanks, why would either democratic government continue negotiating a deal that lacks necessary support?

FS 31/01/2012