WASHINGTON — Indonesia's military is largely moving in the right direction on human rights despite the videotaped torture of civilians in restive Papua, a senior US defense official said Tuesday.
Robert Scher, the top Pentagon official handling Southeast Asia, reiterated US concerns that the 10-month sentences handed last month to three soldiers over the abuse in Papua were too lenient.
But Scher added: "We do see that there was progress in the fact that this was a trial that was conducted quickly" and was "open and transparent."
"This is not something that one could imagine happening just a few years ago," Scher, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, said at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank.
"I think there is still work to be done and clearly, as noted, we are concerned by the sentences," he said, adding that the United States was raising the case with Indonesia.
President Barack Obama's administration has put a priority on developing relations with Indonesia, believing the world's largest Muslim-majority nation can offer a model due to its commitment to democracy and moderation.
"We're in a pretty good position with Indonesia. Indonesia's a critically important country for us," Scher said, calling the archipelago an "emerging global player."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in Jakarta in July that the United States would lift a 12-year suspension of contacts with Kopassus, the elite special unit accused of widespread abuse, mostly under military strongman Suharto's rule which ended in 1998.
In last year's video posted on YouTube, the soldiers were seen inflicting a burning stick on the genitals of an unarmed man and threatening another with a knife as they interrogated them about the location of a weapons cache.
Papua, the ethnic Melanesian-majority western half of New Guinea island, has witnessed a low-intensity conflict for decades since a controversial vote by select tribal leaders to incorporate into Indonesia.