East Timor and the “Disintegration” of Indonesia

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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Sylvia Tiwon, "East Timor and the “Disintegration” of Indonesia", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 21, 1999, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/east-timor-and-the-disintegration-of-indonesia/

September 21, 1999

This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles on the crisis 
in East Timor.  This article is by Sylvia Tiwon, Professor of 
Indonesia at the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, 
University of California, Berkeley.  It is also available on the 
Berkeley Indonesia Forum website at:

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


East Timor and the "Disintegration" of Indonesia

by Sylvia Tiwon

One of the reasons given for the reluctance of the Indonesian 
army to "grant" the independence of East Timor has been the fear 
that doing so might set off a "chain reaction" leading to the 
disintegration of the Indonesian state.  This reason also seems 
to be behind the general reluctance of the international 
community--the US in particular--to send in UN troops without the 
explicit "invitation" from President Habibie and, most 
importantly, from General Wiranto, minister of defence and 
Commander of the Indonesian Military (TNI).  The reluctance of 
the military to give up East Timor, the argument goes, is their 
fear that it will set up an example for Aceh and Irian.  If the 
international community "intervenes" against the wishes of 
Indonesia as a sovereign state, what will prevent such 
intervention into Aceh and Irian, where local groups are already 
making appeals for a referendum?  The chain of secessionist 
movements will destabilize the entire Southeast Asian region.  
Once the dominoes begin to fall, what is to keep other regions 
from following suit? 

Another, more culturalist view, takes the example of East Timor 
(and Aceh and Irian) to bring into question the whole idea of 
nation-building in a multi-ethnic region such as Indonesia.  East 
Timor, in short, is but another example that the end of the 20th 
century is witnessing the end of the nation-states that were born 
as ideas at the beginning of the century and found political 
reality at the end of the Second World War.  

Both arguments tend to be generalistic in nature, and overlook 
the complex dynamics on the ground.  This brief essay attempts to 
recast the question of "disintegration" by presenting a quick 
look at some of the particulars of nation-building under the New 
Order regime of Soeharto, a regime whose fundamental policies 
continue to this day.

What legitimacy does the Indonesian state have to keep intact the 
"imagined community," to use Benedict Anderson's apt term, other 
than its historical roots enshrined in the l945 Constitution?  
The New Order’s own strategies have undermined both the history 
of the nation and the l945 Constitution by rewriting the history 
of the nation in such a way that most Indonesians no longer 
believe it.  The Constitution has been violated systematically by 
the very powers that claim to uphold it as their sacred duty.  In 
addition, the state has dominated cultural and symbolic 
articulation so extensively that it has allowed very little room 
for the growth of cultural expression and exchange among the 
general public.  The entire educational system, while bringing 
literacy to some 95 percent of the population, was used mainly as 
a vehicle to inculcate the values and standards of the Jakarta 
power elite into a multi-ethnic population, thus marginalising 
local cultures and knowledge.  Cultural expressions that were 
allowed to "develop" were those that could be repackaged as 
tourist commodities.  Local cultures and religions were further 
disengaged from the process of modernisation by the laws 
governing local government, which enforced a uniform, and 
generally alien, system of administration upon the regions, 
reaching down to the village level and the bureaucratization of 
beliefs through the Ministry of Religion.  On top of that, the 
"floating mass" policy introduced by the New Order prohibited 
political party representation at the village level, and 
effectively cut off some 75 percent of the population from the 
political process.  

All this cultural, social and political engineering from the 
centre of power in Jakarta was undertaken not simply in the name 
of national unity or fostering feelings of nationhood and unity, 
as the regime broadcast throughout the country.  What went on 
behind the facade of "national unity" was a systematic and 
thorough exploitation of the natural and human resources of the 
regions in the name of "development." 

Apart from East Timor, the infamous DOM (Military Operations 
Regions or Daerah Operasi Militer), regions where the military 
were in charge because of activity by elements of what the army 
labeled "illegal movements to disrupt the peace" (Gerakan 
Pengacau Liar, or Gerakan Pengacau Keamanan) were the resource-
rich regions of Aceh and Irian.

Even a brief look at Aceh will indicate the extent of the 
economic exploitation that lies at the base of the present 
"separatist" movement for a Free Aceh.  The most violent 
transgressions of human rights have taken place in North and East 
Aceh, sites of the richest oil and natural gas fields.  Human 
rights organisations estimate that between 4-5000 Acehnese were 
murdered during the DOM, which was revoked only in l998, and the 
killings continue.  While the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh 
Movement) is now commonly perceived as a militant Muslim movement 
against a secularist and Javanese central power in Jakarta, the 
conflict is rooted in a dispute centered on the question of who 
has the right of control over natural resources.  In the early 
l970s, when Acehnese entrepreneurs initiated contacts with 
overseas investors to exploit the oil and natural gas fields, 
Jakarta-based interests, with strong military backing, 
circumvented these negotiations, effectively cutting off the 
Acehnese initiative.  Once contracts were signed and operations 
began, work crews were brought in from Java and almost no 
Acehnese were recruited.  The revenue generated by oil and gas 
went into public and private coffers in Jakarta, with Aceh 
receiving only a standard regional budget determined in Jakarta 
(the pre-crisis per capita income for Aceh was US$500/annum).  

Rough calculations show that if Aceh were to receive even 50 
percent of the revenue from its oil and gas fields, it would be 
able to offer free education and free health services to its 
entire population of nearly 4 million.  As it is, a vast area of 
Aceh's 55,390 square kilometers remains inaccessible because of 
poor infrastructure.  Of the eight provinces on the island of 
Sumatra, Aceh has the highest number of poor villages, at 40.32 
percent out of a total of 5643 villages.  Most public education 
and health services are located in the industrial areas and the 
regional capital.  The province is segmented into two economic 
zones: the industrial zones comprising the AAF (Aceh ASEAN 
Fertilizer), PIM (Pupuk Iskandar Muda, also fertilizer) I and II, 
KKA (Kraft Aceh paper plant), MobilOil, and Arun, and the 
agrobusiness zone.  This latter comprises 19 forest and 
plantation concessions (HPH, HTI) covering 4,130,000 hectares, or 
more than 70 percent of Aceh's total land area.  All these 
enterprises go through the hands of the Jakarta-based business 
elite.  Indigenous peoples are evicted from traditional land-
holdings, often with violence, while indigenous fisherfolk are 
forced to fight a losing battle against modern fishing concerns 
exploiting marine resources.  

Aceh was seen simply as one enormous resource for exploitation by 
the Jakarta power and economic elite.  In the face of economic, 
political and cultural marginalization, the Acehnese were left 
with but one viable avenue of resistance; this was Islam.  The 
articulation of Islamic values merged with the effort to recover 
a historical identity older than Indonesia, rooted in the 
Acehnese Sultanate that had engaged in diplomatic relations with 
Great Britain as far back as the 18th century, and culminating in 
the great Aceh War against Dutch colonialism in the 19th century.  
Aceh thus establishes for itself the status of statehood 
preceding the l945 declaration of Indonesian independence and the 
nationalist revolution itself.  

On the other end of the archipelago lies Irian, a mineral-rich 
region blanketed by a rainforest still largely untouched, whose 
(thus far) unpolluted waters offer a wealth of marine life, has 
suffered a fate perhaps even worse than Aceh.  Its indigenous 
peoples live in extreme poverty on some of the richest mineral 
deposits in the world.  For the sake of development and security, 
the Jakarta government has moved whole villages from Java to 
areas bordering Papua New Guinea.  There they serve as buffers 
against jungle-based guerrillas and provide agricultural labour 
for modern plantations.  While the dislocated Javanese peasants 
suffer from the lack of health services and protection against 
malaria--from which hundreds die every year--the indigenous 
peoples, evicted from traditional garden and forest holdings, 
languish unemployed and untrained in urban and sub-urban 
resettlements.  They are trained to depend on rice as their 
staple, particularly as the sago groves, their traditional source 
of carbohydrates (and protein from the sago-grub) are rapidly 
turned over to commercial crops.  And the distribution of rice is 
in the hands of the government.  Few of the indigenous peoples 
are recruited into government and entrepreneurial jobs.  Most 
government jobs are controlled by Javanese, while mid-level 
enterprise is largely in the hands of migrants from South 
Sulawesi (BBM--Bugis, Buton, Makassar--as the locals call them).  
Resistance is met with extreme violence, both physical and 
cultural, for the military and the bureaucracy look upon the 
indigenous peoples as a primitive, savage race.  

The list of atrocities practiced by the military upon the peoples 
of Aceh and Irian is far too long to present here but can be 
summed up as: eviction, rape, torture and mass execution.  Nor 
are such methods of control exercised by the Jakarta power elite 
in the name of a sanctified unity limited to these "outlying 
regions." They are practiced everywhere: in Java, Riau, Bali, 
Ambon, Kalimantan (Borneo)--in short, practically all over the 
Indonesian archipelago--local communities have suffered extreme 
forms of human rights abuse carried out systematically by the New 
Order regime of conglomerates and generals with the backing of 
international capital interests, including the weapons industry.  

The fear of the Indonesian military is not only that they stand 
to lose their training grounds and lucrative businesses in East 
Timor, but that they will lose their self-created right to 
"unify," and thus exploit, an entire nation.  If the independence 
of East Timor--the land of Loro Sae--sets off a chain-reaction of 
"separatist movements" in Indonesia itself, it is but a chain of 
the New Order’s own violent creation.

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