What To Do On, and In, East Timor

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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Agus Sari, "What To Do On, and In, East Timor", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 09, 1999, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/what-to-do-on-and-in-east-timor/

September 9, 1999

This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles on the crisis in East 
Timor.  This is the draft of a forthcoming article in Indonesia Alert! by 
Agus Sari, Executive Director of Pelangi, an Indonesian non-governmental 
organization that focuses on environment and development.

What To Do On, and In, East Timor? 
Forthcoming in Indonesia Alert!

A Region of Terror 

On August 30, 1999, the overwhelming majority of East Timorese decided to 
break away from Indonesia to become an independent sovereign country 
through a United Nations (UN) -facilitated voting mechanism.  Shortly 
after the decision--especially since Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, 
announced the result of the voting--pro-Indonesia militias have run amok, 
"cleansweeping" villages alleged to house pro-independence people.  
Hundreds more of unarmed and innocent villagers died since the beginning 
of the oppression, adding to the already large number of deaths since 
Indonesia annexed the former Portugal colony 20 years ago.

While the day of the voting itself was not necessarily a day of crisis, 
the whole voting process was far from peaceful.  The balance of power 
reportedly sided on the pro-Indonesia minority.  The police, the 
military, and the authorities seemed to be impotent, if not giving ways 
for the pro-Indonesia thugs to terrorize the region by burning houses, 
carry weapons, and killing random people.  The killing of an American UN 
officer outraged the United States to the point that both Kofi Annan and 
Madeleine Albright made a strong condemnation to the violence.  Armed 
clashes also happened in the residence of Bishop Belo, a joint Nobel 
Laureate for Peace for his dedication to East Timor problems.

Violence has increased, and many people who are lucky enough to remain 
alive are fleeing the region amid a shower of intimidation and bullets.  
Jakarta declares a state of emergency by enacting Martial Law in East 
Timor.  In so doing, it is sending even more troops to East Timor.  There 
are mixed reactions for and against this move, given the mixed reputation 
of the Indonesian Army.  Meanwhile, the Security Council sent a 
delegation to Jakarta to meet Habibie and Wiranto, whereas Canberra 
stated its readiness to deploy about 2,000 peacekeeping troops to East 
Timor.  The United States remains waiting-and-seeing, though it endorses 
an Australian move once Jakarta gives its green light.

What May Be Happening?  There are numerous theories on which one can 
speculate.  One is simply that the military needs to destroy evidence of 
atrocities that may bring them to the World Court tribunal for commiting 
war crimes and alleged genocide.  It is a strategy that has long been 
known in other parts of the world from Iraq vs Kuwait to Serbia vs 
Kosovo, even the United States vs Vietnam.

The second theory is related with Indonesian domestic politics.  The 
invasion of East Timor in 1975 and an orchestrated annexation the year 
after by Suharto-led Indonesia still leaves a sour legacy.  It cost 
Indonesia a lot, and it still does.  Like an abusive relationship, it has 
gone sour, but much has been invested, reputations are at stake, faces 
need to be saved, so that a breakup is not envisaged.

But today, Suharto is no longer President; thus theoretically, no face is 
slapped and no toe stepped on.  Therefore, amid increasing international 
pressures, President Habibie decided to give in by agreeing to a 
referendum in East Timor.  In the absence of Suharto and other generals 
that were directly involved and therefore have strong sentiments, Habibie 
can easily put East Timor on a journey to independence.  Wrong.  
Sentiments against East Timor's independence have gone full circle for 
one generation, and even without the presence of Suharto, laypeople in 
Indonesia have quite a strong opinion about it.

Taking all that into consideration, it can be theorized that the current 
escalating tension in East Timor may have been an unfortunate consequence 
of apparently an extension of domestic politics in Jakarta between 
President Habibie and his old and new political enemies.  The current 
debate within the Indonesian Parliament questioning his authority to let 
the future fate of East Timor be decided in the hands of, or at least 
facilitated by, an "outside force" such as the UN was an illustration of 
such.  The opposition-led Parliament members regret his unilateral 
decision to allow the referendum, thus denying a Parliamentary Law to 
accept East Timor as part of Indonesia.  Repealing such an Act needs yet 
another Parliamentary Law, thus denying Habibie's executive decision.  
Many observers agree that such questioning by the Parliament members 
should be isolated only as a domestic affair between the President and 
the Parliament, and should not be used to alter the UN decision on East 
Timor as it will only give Indonesia a bad reputation within the UN.  
But, of course, for Habibie's political rivals, this major legal flaw can 
backfire on his political standing.  If at all, this is only another 
example of Habibie's amateurish political move to make such a major legal 
mistake, albeit a really bloody one.  But it is also a mistake of his 
opponents in using this as political weaponry.

The tension in civilian politics, however, pales compared with the 
military ones.  The role and presence of Kopassus, the Elite Force within 
the Army (deemed as "the Green Berets" of Indonesia), has been pivotal in 
East Timor.  Kopassus also has long been known for its maverick behavior, 
while it is the most well-funded troops within the Army.  Its otherwise 
brilliant former Chief, Prabowo Subianto, was in rivalry with Wiranto, 
the Chief Commander of the Armed Forces.  The tension remains, even after 
Prabowo was sacked by Wiranto shortly after Suharto — Prabowo's father 
in law — gave up his Presidential chair to Habibie amid growing unrest.  
Some Kopassus officers, however, remain loyal to Prabowo even after he 
became a civilian.

Wiranto, known as a leading general from the "Red-and-White faction" of 
the military for his alleged non-partisan positions, still holds power as 
Chief Commander of the Armed Forces, and unlike some factions within the 
military, backs Habibie's presidency.

Declaring the Martial Law in East Timor and dispatching more troops — 
about 1,400 more from Jakarta — may seem to add insult to injury, 
especially since the army reportedly are backing the pro-Indonesia thugs.  
But one can argue that these troops are loyal to Wiranto, whereas the 
ones already in East Timor are not.

What does this mean?  East Timor will be a battlefield between factions 
of the Indonesian military.  Who will lose in the battle?  The civilians.

On Sending UN Peacekeeping Troops 

Will sending UN Peacekeeping troops assure a solution?  What are the 
likely problems?  Certainly, denying the unarmed and innocent villagers 
protection is a sin of omission.  So, something must be done.  Imagine 
this: the motive is to protect the innocent civilians in East Timor from 
being slaughtered, the backdrop is a delicate international power 
politics and diplomacy, as well as military preparedness.  Xanana Gusmao, 
who was just released from prison, suggested a UN peacekeeper to enter 
East Timor.  Xanana may be right, given the uncertainty of the sides the 
Indonesian military is backing currently.  But choosing the right 
passport-holders in the peacekeeping team may be complicated for various 
reasons.  The following fleshes out some of the complexities.

The first complexity has to do with the reluctance of the government of 
Indonesia to allow foreign troops to enter Indonesia.  Indeed, this 
reluctance is a giving-in response to the sentiments shared by some 
politicians in Indonesia — some of them actually are in Habibie's bloc 
— against any foreign involvement.  Already the acceptance of the 
International Monetary Fund (IMF) in managing Indonesia's economy has 
been criticized in Indonesia.  Far beyond economic involvement, military 
involvement will instigate the nationalistic sentiments of some of the 
Republicans in the country.  Habibie as well as Wiranto will not risk it.

Second, even if, or when, Indonesia accepted the UN's offer for a 
Peacekeeping Force in East Timor, the way is not too smooth.  Unlike the 
Serbia-Kosovo case, the international community is currently facing an 
important and significant country.  Indonesia is the fourth most-populous 
country with a substantial economy and military, and its military 
officers only listen to other strong countries.  Indonesia respects only 
a few of other countries' military forces.

Third, There are biases in the international community regarding the 
status of East Timor.  One side of the spectrum is Portugal, which denies 
completely Indonesia's claim over East Timor.  On the other is Australia, 
which acknowledge Indonesia's rule over East Timor due to its interest in 
exploiting the Timor Gap oil.  There is military joint training and 
education between Jakarta and Canberra.  Its outrage against the militia 
in Australia emerged only recently when its Ambassador's car was shot in 
East Timor.  All of these facts render Portugal and Australia unlikely to 
be perceived to act fairly.

Third, the peacekeepers may have to face the Indonesian military, albeit 
the maverick ones.  This needs more than a straightforward decision in 
the battlefield; i.e., to shoot or not to shoot.

So, what to do?  A carefully crafted UN Peacekeeping is definitely 
needed.  It needs more than the size of the troops or the readiness, 
however.  Time is limited, however, and the time to act is now.

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