Security Implications for an Independent East Timor

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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

John B. Haseman, "Security Implications for an Independent East Timor", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 09, 1999,

September 9, 1999

This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles on the crisis in East 
Timor.  This article was contributed by John B. Haseman, former US 
defense attache to Indonesia.  It will be published in a forthcoming 
issue of Jane's Defense Weekly.


Security Implications for an Independent East Timor
John B. Haseman

On 30 August the people of East Timor voted by a ratio of almost four to 
one to reject an autonomy package offered by the Indonesian government, 
and thus in effect voted to secede from the world's fourth most populous 
country.  Election day was peaceful, a respite from months of violence 
largely perpetrated by pro-Indonesian militia forces.  The very next day 
violence began again and has continued at a much more vicious pace.  It 
is clear that the one day of peace was deliberately ordered by whomever 
in the Indonesian army controls the militia forces, and shows that they 
have the ability to turn the violence on and off at will. 

After more than 20 years under Indonesian rule, East Timor rejected 
Indonesian pleas for national unity and chose instead to become Southeast 
Asia's newest independent nation.  The margin was not close -- 79 percent 
voted against the Indonesia government's autonomy proposal, only 21 
percent favoured the measure.  An astounding 99 percent of registered 
voters, more than 400,000 people, braved the threat of violence to cast 
their votes. 

Now the East Timorese have chosen independence, but if recent events are 
a harbinger of things to come, it is not likely to be an easy transition.  
The security implications are significant, for an independent country of 
East Timor, for Indonesia, and for the region.

Long lost in the press coverage and international rhetoric about East 
Timor is the legacy of internecine violence that has characterized East 
Timor's history.  For hundreds of years the Portuguese colonialists 
skillfully manipulated strains among clans, among the dominant family 
dynasties of East Timor, and later among the political parties that 
formed along ideological and family dominated political fault lines.  

East Timorese culture and history are a complex blend of dominant 
families split along political factions often in conflict with each 
other.  Indonesian government spokesmen have frequently alluded to the 
potential for violence in East Timor if the military ever pulled back 
from its strong presence in the province.  The militia violence that 
characterized the final months leading up to  East Timor's ballot on 30 
August was the most recent manifestation of the inherent violence of East 
Timor's past.  Though a callous and cynical reinforcement and 
exploitation of the historical cleavages in East Timorese society, 
manipulated by certain hard liners within the military hierarchy for a 
variety of reasons, the brutality of the past several weeks may not be as 
easy to contain as some critics believe.  The conflicts between pro-
integration and pro-independence forces is just a continuation of 
historical conflicts that have characterised politics in East Timor, 
whether as a Portuguese colony, a province of Indonesia, or now as a 
soon-to-be-independent nation.

One of the greatest challenges to face East Timor as a separate country 
will be to reconcile the violence between its own peoples and then form 
its own security apparatus.  Many of the police are native East Timorese, 
although more senior officers are Indonesian.  The military situation is 
more difficult.  Tactical Indonesian army battalions now deployed in East 
Timor will probably be withdrawn quickly.  However there are also two 
"territorial" Indonesian army battalions that have been permanently 
stationed in East Timor and whose manpower was largely recruited in East 
Timor.  The extensive military district structure is also heavily East 
Timorese.  It has yet to be determined whether or not East Timorese 
police and army personnel, as well as other East Timorese in the civil 
service, will be given the choice to remain "Indonesian" and withdraw 
from East Timor, or to resign from Indonesian service  and transfer to 
new East Timorese government institutions.

To this core group of the new security services will be added Fretilin 
guerrilla force members and supporters who may choose military or police 
service over government positions or a return to a "normal" civilian 
life.  Both pro-integration and pro-independence East Timorese leaders 
are on record that reconciliation and amalgamation of all elements of the 
security forces will be a high priority for the new East Timorese 
government, but the integration of individuals who have been enemies for 
twenty years is an obviously difficult challenge.  One civilian East 
Timorese official of the Indonesian government noted that "this is really 
a very small town here" and that many East Timorese on both sides of the 
civil conflict have known each other for decades.  Whether such early 
friendships can survive the ravages of many years of conflict and be 
resolved peacefully remains to be seen.

And what of the pro-Indonesia militia forces, whose brutality over the 
past year has so angered East Timorese society and the world community?  
Though certainly aided and abetted by elements of the Indonesian armed 
forces, the political sentiments of the respective sides of the conflict 
nonetheless are very real.  As surrogates for the Indonesian army's 
covert operations and intelligence organizations, it is possible that 
Indonesian withdrawal will dry up the financial and logistical support 
that sustained the militia groups.  In fact a considerable number of 
militia members are suspected to be non-East Timorese thugs recruited 
from other islands and characterized by a background in criminal 
organizations and youth gangs frequently employed as political surrogates 
by the army.  These men may well simply "fade away".  

Most militia members, however, are native East Timorese.  There is an 
unfortunate possibility that many of them will remain organized, though 
without the sponsorship of the Indonesian army, and continue to prey on 
East Timorese society.  The worst case, of course, is that a bitter and 
recalcitrant hard-line element within the Indonesian army will continue 
to use the militias to destabilise East Timor in much the same way as 
covert Indonesian army special operations troops were used in 1975.  Each 
of these scenarios poses security challenges to the new East Timorese 
government and its international supporters.

On the strategic international level, East Timor will likely apply 
quickly for membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations 
(ASEAN) as well as the South Pacific Forum.  Donor nations and non-
governmental organizations will remain a major presence in East Timor for 
years while they provide the budget and training support for the 
fledgling nation.  These outsiders can be expected to bring with them a 
security umbrella of some sort.  Should militia violence continue there 
is a strong likelihood that the United Nations will quickly deploy an 
armed military peacekeeping force to East Timor.  If not, such countries 
as Australia and the United States will likely contribute forces to a 
multi-national security force outside of UN auspices.  

Australian military forces of at least one and perhaps two brigades have 
been on alert and in training for such a deployment for months.  Despite 
public denials the U.S. has reportedly prepared both Marines and army 
troops for deployment to East Timor in cooperation and consultation with 
the Australians.  However the Americans are preoccupied with other 
commitments around the world and East Timor is a long way from home.  The 
U.S. expects Australia to take the lead in any East Timor security 
operation.  These deployments, or even the threat of troop movements to 
East Timor, might deter a recalcitrant or rogue Indonesian military 
faction from attempting to continue sponsorship of pro-Indonesian militia 
groups or their own covert operations forces in East Timor.  But there is 
always the chance that an international peacekeeping force might clash 
with covert Indonesian military operations.

The Indonesian military's culpability in the surge of militia violence of 
recent months is an astounding development for a military organization 
with a plethora of problems.  Its reputation is in tatters after a series 
of public revelations of systematic army involvement in human rights 
abuses across Indonesia.  Though publicly espousing the cause of 
political and economic reforms, the military is seemingly having 
difficulty in adjusting to a reduced political role in a more democratic 
Indonesian society.

Now the army has been accused of, at the least tacitly accepting and at 
worse overtly supporting a failed effort to destabilise the United 
Nations operation in East Timor.  This association with an unsavory and 
brutal militia movement whose depredations resulted in world wide 
opprobrium, despite official denials believed by almost no one, has 
disgraced the Indonesian armed forces even further.  It is difficult to 
explain why this happened, but some speculation into the possible reasons 
illustrates the deep identity problems that now faces Indonesia's 
security forces.

First, despite public commitment to political reform there is within the 
military a small but powerful hard line element dedicated for many 
reasons to retention of the status quo.  Second, there is a strong 
psychological tie to East Timor and loyalty to those thousands of East 
Timorese that supported Indonesia's military and government operations 
during more than 20 years of combat there.  Third, there is a very real 
and justifiable concern throughout the military and elsewhere that 
allowing East Timor to secede from Indonesia will make it far more 
difficult to preserve national unity. There are strong separatist 
sentiments in Aceh and Irian Jaya and widespread discontent with the 
centrist policies of the Soeharto era.  Political and economic 
devolvement to the provincial and district level may well assuage part of 
the discontent, but it is still worrisome.  And finally there is 
financial wealth and personal power at stake in East Timor.  The Soeharto 
family and cronies have major ownership stakes in East Timor business, 
land, and small industrial base.  It is not known to what extent this 
wealth has been shared with, or promised to, elements of the armed 
forces, but certainly the prospects must be a part of the equation.

The combination of these, and perhaps other factors, must be very strong 
for the military to have allowed itself to become so identified with the 
brutal and reprehensible behavior of the pro-government militia forces in 
East Timor.  The military's ability to curb those militia groups and to 
assist in safeguarding the security of the East Timor and its large 
contingent of international assistance agencies during the transition to 
East Timor's independence will impact immediately on Indonesia's 
credibility with its international friends, donor nations, and 
international organizations in the months to come.

Still to be determined is a road map to the separation of East Timor from 
Indonesia, the ability and willingness of the Indonesia security forces 
to maintain public order there, and the size and make-up of any 
international peacekeeping force likely to be deployed.  Even with the 
best of intentions on the part of all concerned, however, it is clear 
that security challenges will persist during the transition and into the 
separation of East Timor from Indonesia.  It will require strong 
commitments on the part of the East Timorese of all political 
persuasions, on the part of the Indonesian government and security 
services, and on the part of the international community to assure any 
degree of success in what promises to be a difficult process for 
Indonesia and the region.

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