The Crisis in East Timor: An Analysis

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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Damien Kingsbury, "The Crisis in East Timor: An Analysis", 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 is by Dr Damien Kingsbury, Executive 
Officer of the Monash Asia Institute in Australia.  Previously, 
Dr. Kingsbury was East Timor Coordinator of the Australia East 
Timor International Volunteer Project, the Australian NGO 
observer group in East Timor for the "popular consultation." 

The crisis in East Timor: an analysis

By Damien Kingsbury

The tragic events in East Timor since the territory's vote on 
self-determination on 30 August 1999 have raised a number of 
critical questions about the process agreed to by Indonesia, 
Portugal and the United Nations on 5 May.  Some issues include 
the role and function of the UN, the behaviour of Indonesia's 
military and political institutions and the processes of 
development.  Responding to points raised by the Nautilus 
Institute, the following paper attempts to assess some of these 

The UN failed to prepare for the events that followed the 30 
August ballot, in that it was totally unable to control the 
violence that erupted allegedly in response to the 78.5 per cent 
pro-independence result.  However, the responsibility for the 
violence, in which more than a 1000 people were killed in the 
week following the ballot, rests squarely with the Indonesian 
authorities.  In the first instance, it was the Indonesian 
president, Habibie, who initiated the ballot, referred to in 
typically Indonesian terms as a "popular consultation," and who 
established the timelines for the ballot.  All parties apart from 
the Indonesian government regarded the timeline for the ballot as 
being far too short.  It did not, they said, allow adequate time 
to either establish a stable political environment nor to redress 
the economic and political concerns of the 100-plus thousand non-
East Timorese who had shifted to the territory since Indonesia's 
invasion in 1975.  More importantly, the short timeline did not 
allow the Indonesian armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia - 
TNI) time to come to terms with what amounted to a humiliating 
defeat of its policy of repression and intimidation.

Given that the UN at no stage ever accepted Indonesia's invasion 
or occupation of East Timor, it can hardly be held responsible 
for the TNI's policy there.  Further, it was a primary condition 
of the ballot, imposed by the TNI, that the UN not have an armed 
force in East Timor.  The Indonesian government insisted that 
security would be guaranteed by its own paramilitary police.  
While the UN was rightly skeptical about this "guarantee," it had 
little choice but to accept it or to forfeit the chance to secure 
for the people of East Timor the right to self-determination.  
Again, responsibility for the unarmed status of the UN rests 
squarely with Indonesia.  

To the extent that the UN's "dwindling credibility (has) been 
further eroded" by the post-ballot events in East Timor, there is 
an assumption that its standing was already in decline.  Given 
its successful role in both the 1993 and 1998 ballots in 
Cambodia, this assumption is not valid and reflects a peculiarly 
American view of the UN that underpinned the US refusal to 
fulfill its financial obligations to the UN starting from the 
early 1980s.  The view was predicated on the UN "being held 
hostage" by a large number of small member states, with 
particular reference to the policies of the UN Educational, 
Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

If the UN Security Council does not endorse a peace-enforcement 
or peace-keeping mission to East Timor, this will more probably 
reflect the intransigence of China than any particular failure of 
the UN's Assistance Mission to East Timor (UNAMET).  China's 
position on this matter can be understood in light of its own 
illegal invasion and occupation of Tibet, and the vulnerability 
it would face on this issue if it endorsed armed intervention in 
East Timor.

In so far as there is, at the time of writing, likely to be a 
peace-enforcement or peace-keeping mission to East Timor, it will 
probably comprise members of the defence forces of Australia, New 
Zealand, Britain, Portugal and some ASEAN member states.  The 
rationale for such intervention is based on the status of 
Indonesian legitimacy in east Timor.  Such legitimacy is 
fundamentally compromised on the following grounds.  

a.  Indonesia's invasion and occupation of East Timor is not 
regarded by the UN as lawful.  
b.  The legitimacy of a state rests, in significant part, on its 
ability to secure law and order within its claimed territorial 
boundaries.  Indonesia has demonstrably failed in this task.  
c.  The Indonesian government allowed the people of East Timor to 
vote in an act of self-determination that overwhelmingly rejected 
integration with Indonesia.  This result was accepted by 
Indonesia's president, Habibie.  The question was thus one of not 
if East Timor would become independent, but the timing and 
process of achieving such independence.  
d.  Under its defence treaty with Indonesia, Australia may 
intervene in its affairs if Indonesia has demonstrated that it is 
unable to secure its own environment.  

The impact of events in East Timor will certainly test the 
validity of the ASEAN Regional Forum.  In this sense, it will 
also act as a test of ASEAN as an organisation.  Given the 
somewhat fragile and superficial nature of ASEAN and the 
increasing discord between its member states, this conflict is 
neither surprising nor is it cause for concern to other than 
supporters of this shallowly constructed grouping.  The 
implications for the relations of the member states of ASEAN are 
limited, especially given that tensions already exist between 
member states, including Burma and Thailand, Thailand and 
Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia, the Philippines and 
Singapore and Singapore and Malaysia.  This is only to mention 
the most overt tensions and does not include long-standing 
rivalries and tensions between ASEAN member states that have 
precluded ASEAN acting as an effective organisation.

The massacres in East Timor are very clearly orchestrated by the 
TNI.  The reasons for this include the following:

a.  Securing unity of the state, as it is more broadly conceived 
by the TNI.  
b.  Using East Timor as an example to other territories 
contemplating separation.  
c.  Ensuring that East Timor does not become Indonesia's 
"Vietnam" (pride of the TNI).  
d.  Ensuring the economic well-being of Indonesian investors in 
East Timor, including the TNI, leading political and military 
figures and tens of thousands of economic migrants.

The means by which TNI has orchestrated this violence has been by 
supplying logistics, arms, money and training to the "militias."  
This has been well documented and has been supported by first-
hand observation in East Timor.  The "militias," incidentally, 
comprise very few East Timorese and are largely made up of West 
Timorese and other outer-islanders, usually led by Kopassus or 
ex-Kopassus officers and NCOs, as documented by UNAMET, amongst 

There are no "intra-military" politics at stake in this venture, 
as the TNI has been effectively united since early 1999.  The 
factional divisions leading up to and following Suharto's fall in 
1998 were almost entirely resolved in favor of the "Fraksi Merah-
Putih," which is led by TNI commander-in-chief (panglima), 
General Wiranto.  In terms of Indonesia's post-Suharto political 
environment, this and related events clearly point to a shift in 
real political power to the TNI generally and Wiranto in 
particular from around October 1998.

Unless the United States steps in as a major military or 
financial provider, there is little prospect of it taking a 
"leadership role" in East Timor.  Indeed, many observers agree 
that no US military presence would be a positive step, removing 
both the perception and the reality of the US as the self-
appointed world policeman.  More usefully, if a number of other, 
smaller states could act together in East Timor, it would show 
that international concern is widespread and not dominated by the 
world's remaining "superpower."  Having said that, at the time of 
writing, the US had indicated that it could provide logistical 
support for a multi-lateral peace enforcement or peace-keeping 
mission in East Timor.  This low-key approach to US involvement 
in international affairs would be a welcome shift from what has 
often been interpreted as the heavy-handedness of US 
international engagement.  

A further issue, which is particularly of concern to the regional 
states of South-East Asia, including Australia, is the future of 
its relationship with both Indonesia and an independent Timor.  
Clearly both are and will remain of strategic importance and, in 
the case of Indonesia, again of economic importance.  However, 
Australia's foreign policy deliberations towards Indonesia have 
been determined by either bluff ignorance and disengagement or by 
appeasement and sycophancy.  Australia's relations with Indonesia 
are now at the crossroads.  There is the possibility that 
Australia will continue to pursue constructive relations with 
Indonesia.  However, there is increasingly the feeling in 
Australia that such a relationship will be more predicated on 
compromise by both sides on foreign policy issues and less on 
Australia attempting to artificially accommodate the peculiarly 
constructed world-view that continues to dominate Indonesian 
thinking about the nature and role of the state.


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