MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Indonesia, where he pledged to help reform the country's military. Indonesia was subject to a U.S. military embargo for 13 years over its human rights violations. That ban was lifted in 2005, after Indonesia emerged from decades of autocratic rule.
As NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz reports from Jakarta, Gates has been received with enthusiasm there, unlike the previous Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
GUY RAZ: The absence of military rule is a relatively new concept in Indonesia. The current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is a retired general, but he's been at the forefront of kicking the military out of Indonesian politics. As a young military officer, Yudhoyono spent time at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He says it's an experience that taught him the importance of civilian control over the military.
But in 1991, the U.S. Congress ended America's military relationship with Indonesia after its troops killed up to 400 East Timorese protesters in the town of Dili. Now, four years since reform-minded president Yudhoyono was elected, the Pentagon is hoping to reestablish bilateral military ties - a goal announced by Secretary Gates.
BLOCK: We are ready to help you continue the process of defense reform.
RAZ: But Indonesia's past record still means that Washington is approaching the relationship with caution, a message Gates made clear.
BLOCK: In addition to the importance of civilian control of the military, there cannot even be a taint of corruption or a hint of tolerance for human rights abuses.
RAZ: Indonesia is home to the largest Islamic population in the world, and its 17,000 islands sit along one of the most important strategic waterways in the world - a series of straits through which two-thirds of the world's energy supplies pass.
BLOCK: We regard the development of the Indonesian armed forces as both a key component of our relationship going forward, and a vital aspect of Indonesia's emergence as a prosperous and stable democracy with global reach.
RAZ: And while the Bush administration is still viewed with deep skepticism among Indonesia's population, the country's government is keen to revive its long-dormant relationship with Washington. Two years ago, when Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited, Indonesian defense minister Juwono Sudarsono blasted the United States and what he termed its unilateral policies in the region.
But today, standing next to Secretary Gates, Sudarsono praised his American counterpart. He said he now puts a lot of effort into arguing that Washington has started to change its approach to this region.
BLOCK: We are explaining to people across this country, including and mostly among young, poor Muslims, that United States is a benign country. It's a benign power.
RAZ: It's not an easy task. Just recently, the country's health minister published a conspiracy-laden book that charges America deliberately sent the avian bird flu virus to Indonesia. Local journalists here peppered Gates with questions about the allegations. Visibly irritated, the secretary simply said, quote, "That's the nuttiest thing I ever heard."
Guy Raz, NPR News, Jakarta.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.