Invitation from the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff in hand, Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) chief Gen Gatot Nurmantyo and his wife had checked in and made it all the way to the VIP lounge at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport before an airline staffer gave him the bad news: the Department of Homeland Security had barred him from entry.

Last week’s embarrassing incident has caused a diplomatic tiff between Indonesia and the US, the more so because no-one on the American side, least of all the US embassy in Jakarta, could offer an immediate explanation.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi made it clear that while the Americans may have apologized and quickly had the travel ban lifted with their deepest regrets, she won’t be satisfied until someone finds a better reason for the apparent snafu.

US officials later said the issue had been resolved through belated coordination between US government agencies, but although the general was subsequently re-booked on another flight he decided to call off the trip altogether on the advice of President Joko Widodo.

“We remain committed to our strategic partnership with Indonesia as a way to deliver security and prosperity to both our nations and peoples,” the US embassy said in a statement, reaffirming its readiness to facilitate the general’s travel.

Nurmantyo, who normally has never needed an invitation to vent his spleen, was strangely calm about the slight, no doubt mindful of several run-ins he has had with Widodo over the past few months that came close to earning him early retirement.

That left Indonesians, the world’s leading conspiracy theorists, to speculate about whether it was a case of mistaken identity – always a possibility with lower-level bureaucrats – or whether Homeland Security knows something they are not telling.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the main component of Homeland Security, is normally required to review all the passengers on an inbound aircraft’s manifest, looking for any suspicious names that may be on their no-fly list.

“It was either a stupid mistake or a royal screw-up because of a lack of communications. Either way, not a good moment for the US”

The fact that Nurmantyo was cleared so quickly suggests to people familiar with the procedures that there was an administrative delay, although it is not clear why it only applied to the TNI chief and not to anyone else on the October 21 Emirates flight. 

The Pentagon and the State Department would have coordinated on issuing Nurmantyo with a visa in the first place, but that would not have precluded the regular vetting by the CBP, which wouldn’t necessarily have known who the guest was anyway. 

“It was either a stupid mistake or a royal screw-up because of a lack of communications,” says one former senior US defense official. “Either way, not a good moment for the US.”

It was a perfect storm for the embassy as well. US Ambassador Joe Donavan, who has been at his post since last November, was reportedly away in the far-off Banda islands, and his No 2 had returned to the US for family reasons.

Nurmantyo, who visited the US in early 2016, does not have a human rights blemish on his record. He appears to have spent little time in East Timor, always a red flag, but did serve two tours on the remote southeast coast of troubled Papua earlier in his career. 

The general had been invited to Washington by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen Joseph Dunford to a conference on violent extremism, something the TNI chief knows a little about because of his past ties to the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and US Vice-President Mike Pence shake hands at a joint press conference in Jakarta in April. Photo: Reuters / Bay Ismoyo
Indonesian President Joko Widodo and US Vice-President Mike Pence shake hands at a joint press conference in Jakarta in April. Photo: Reuters / Bay Ismoyo

Indeed, although he is due to retire next March, Nurmantyo’s relationship with the wider conservative Muslim alliance that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama has put Widodo on edge as he prepares to mount his own re-election campaign in early 2019.

Nurmantyo is on a list of possible presidential running mates being considered by opposition leader Prabowo Subianto, a retired special forces general who remains on the US blacklist after taking responsibility for the abduction and mistreatment of pro-democracy activists in the final years of president Suharto’s rule.

Now head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Prabowo ran against Widodo in the 2014 presidential elections and looks to be his main rival again with this week’s announcement that he will be his party’s candidate for 2019.

Washington is still believed to have a string of Indonesian generals on its no-go list. Few have been officially informed of their status, the State Department only passing the word that to avoid embarrassment it would be better if they didn’t apply for a visa.    

Nurmantyo’s relationship with the wider conservative Muslim alliance that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama has put Widodo on edge as he prepares to mount his own re-election campaign in early 2019

Other prominent generals known to be blacklisted include Coordinating Minister Wiranto, a former armed forces chief, and ex-army intelligence director Zacky Anwar Makarim, who disappeared into obscurity after his retirement in 2006.

Although they were never brought to trial, both were indicted by a UN tribunal for crimes against humanity in the bloodshed that followed East Timor’s vote for independence in 1999, which left more than 1,500 people dead and the former Indonesian province in ruins.

Defence Ministry Secretary-General Syafrie Syamsuddin and army chief Gen Pramono Edhie Wibowo, president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s brother-in-law, also had their visa applications turned down in October 2009 without explanation.

As with the more shadowy Makarim, both had spent their careers in the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus), which was widely blamed for human rights abuses not only in East Timor, but also in the rebellious provinces of Aceh and Papua.

In fact, Wibowo was never indicted and as Kopassus commander he was credited with cleaning up the unit’s image, tackling the difficult task of bringing to account eight brother officers who either resigned their commissions or were dishonorably discharged for human rights abuses.

Ironically, given the Nurmantyo case, Wibowo was on his way to Washington to make the case with defense and congressional leaders that Kopassus has reformed and should be allowed to resume combat training with the US Special Forces. That has still not happened.