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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Michael McDevitt, "EAST TIMOR AND TEACHING LESSONS", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 15, 1999, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/east-timor-and-teaching-lessons/

September 15, 1999

This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles on the crisis in East 
Timor.  This article is by Admiral Michael McDevitt, a Senior Fellow at 
CAN Corporation in Washington.

A guide to all NAPSNet East Timor Special Reports is available online at:


Michael McDevitt
Senior Fellow CNA Corporation

The chaos in the aftermath of the vote by the East Timorese for 
independence appears to be waning.  Press commentary and informed 
speculation correctly place much of the blame for the violence and 
destruction of Dili on the Indonesian Army-- TNI (formerly known as 
ABRI)-- backed militia.  Why would the Army allow itself to be so 
publicly and openly linked with activity that was certainly going to 
create an international hue and cry?  Having permitted the people of 
Timor to vote for either continued association with Indonesia or for 
independence, there appears no question that Jakarta's interests were 
best served by ensuring the transition be as peaceful and stable as 
possible.  The last thing a country that desperately needs foreign 
investment and investor confidence needs is international headlines 
describing violence and chaos, near ultimatums from the United States, 
the UN and Australia, and televised news that contradicts the 
pronouncements of the top leadership.  

Why have TNI's attempts to restore order been so apparently feeble and 
half-hearted?  Has the Army leadership (GeneralWiranto) lost control?  
Or, is it simply a matter of TNI being inept and unable to control the 
militias they did so much to create and support?  Or, was the Army 
leadership been more worried about the impact that East Timor's 
apparently successful bid for independence will have for the rest of 
Indonesia?  I tend to believe that this is the primary reason why East 
Timor was allowed to suffer for so long.

When the "case study" of East Timor is accomplished it will almost 
certainly identify a number of contributing factors to the current 
tragedy.  Certainly poor control is probably a reality.  Territorial 
troops in any military culture are suspect when ordered to act against 
what they understand as their own best interests.  The fact that the 
ethnic East Timorese units of TNI in East Timor will be losers in an 
independent East Timor is a factor.  The relatively low level of military 
proficiency of much of TNI is also true.  So too is the frustration of 
TNI over having essentially failed in East Timor.  After over twenty-
years they have been unable to create an environment on East Timor that 
makes continued union with Indonesia more attractive than the vagaries of 

Another factor that cannot be ignored is General Wiranto's belief that 
the Army is central to Indonesia's future stability.  In the wake of the 
fall of Soeharto and the decisions to reduce the military's role in 
business and politics, Wiranto has focused on holding the Army together.  
That meant in practice allowing some of the hard-liners regarding East 
Timor to support the militias and to try to influence the vote through 
intimidation.  But that attempt failed; as one suspects Wiranto 
anticipated, although perhaps not as one-sided as Army high command 

While these are all relevant to understanding why events unfolded as they 
did before the election, why didn't Jakarta clamp down after the 
election?  Another factor, arguably the most important, has to be 
considered.  From the perspective of TNI, and probably General Wiranto, 
the most important aspect of East Timor's successful "secession" from 
Indonesia is the example it sets for other separatist movements in 
Indonesia; especially Aceh.

Because it is almost impossible now to roll back the separation of East 
Timor, the important point for TNI is to "teach a lesson" to other 
separatists groups what the consequences of secession would be.  If, as 
the press has reported, TNI essentially pursued (is pursuing) a scorched-
earth policy in East Timor, the objective is less vengeance than sending 
a clear message to Acehenese and other erstwhile separatists movements 
that total destruction would be a price that TNI would be willing to 
extract to prevent separation.  This crude and cruel, but often 
effective, approach has many antecedents in military history--Sherman's 
march to the sea in 1864 is but one example from our history.  The 
Chinese have a folk saying or "chengu" that captures the concept; "kill 
the chicken to scare the monkey."

Not wanting to encourage other separatists also accounts for Jakarta's 
stalling for so long before permitting a UN peacemaking, or peace 
enforcing, force to intervene.  Certainly considerations of national 
pride were involved, but also the precedent-setting nature of such an 
intervention for future separatist problems was probably the decisive 
consideration for Jakarta.  If separatists throughout Indonesia can 
convince themselves that in the end the UN will come riding to their 
rescue, it makes compromise with Jakarta less likely, and the prospect of 
future troubles throughout the archipelago higher. 

The reluctance of Jakarta to promptly stop the violence in East Timor has 
to be understood in the larger context of Jakarta's concerns about East 
Timor being the first step in the dismemberment of Indonesia.  Arguably, 
early assurances aimed at assuaging Indonesian concerns about the 
implications of the erstwhile "Clinton Doctrine" of humanitarian 
intervention in support of future separatist movements might have been an 
important step in restoring stability to East Timor.  The fact is 
however, that US policy makers have always been reluctant to reduce 
future options and flexibility by taking anything off the table.  Nor 
could they, for good reason, appear to give Jakarta a green light in 
future dealings with other separatists.  The reality is that the violence 
only died down when Jakarta was persuaded that the "lesson" has been 
adequately communicated, and the UN permitted to enter East Timor only 
after the damage was done.

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