East Timor and Indonesia’s Political Explosion

Against the Current, No. 83, November/December 1999

Malik Miah and Emily Citkowski

AS WE GO to press at the end of October, the 700-member Peoples Consultative Assembly (MPR, the national parliament) meeting in Jakarta reached some historic decisions.

In a seventy-two-hour period (October 19-21), the assembly rejected an “accountability” speech by President Habibie (who immediately withdrew his name for president); formally endorsed the August 30 referendum in East Timor, thus relinquishing its national claim to the territory; elected Muslim leader and supporter of reform Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as “Gus Dur”) as the country’s new president; and elected popular leader of the poor and students Megawati Sukarnoputri as the new vice-president.

These stunning events occurred in the context of a deepening political and economic crisis across the archipelago.  Megawati’s rejection as president, even though she had received the largest number of votes in the parliamentary election (Wahid ran a poor third), led to mass rioting in Jakarta, the island of Bali and other cities.

That turmoil led the ruling elite to turn to Megawati after rejecting her the day before as president.  The fact that an unlikely coalition of forces—Muslim parties who openly opposed a woman being president, old-guard supporters of former President Suharto in the Golkar party, and the military—put Wahid in office against the will of the people indicates an uneasy future.

Wahid is a longtime supporter of reform and is seen as his own man although he has collaborated with the military and ruling Golkar in the past. Environmental activist Emmy Hafild summed up the situation best:

“Yesterday [October 20] was a very difficult day for us; yesterday was a demonstration that the election did not mean anything.  The political elites are the ones who decide the outcome, and not the election.  I know this is the best we can do for now, but it’s hard to accept.”

After his election, Wahid confirmed he made a deal with the ruling elites to block Megawati’s presidential bid. He said he made “compromises” with the old order.  “And among the compromises,” Wahid explained, “I have to take several people into my cabinet, maybe from the past cabinet also.”

President Clinton expressed U.S. support to the new government, noting that both Gus Dur and Megawati support the IMF-imposed austerity reforms for the economy.  Wahid and Megawati also agree with the military, led by General Wiranto, that “national unity” (especially after the humiliating defeat in East Timor) is a priority.

Wahid said he and Megawati would focus their energies in putting down ethnic and separatist rebellions.  Neither Wahid nor the assembly took steps to lessen the role of the military in Indonesian society.

In East Timor, the independence leader José Alexandre “Xanana” Gusmão returned to his homeland for the first time in seven years on October 21.  In a defiant speech before 5,000 supporters in Dili, Gusmão said, “They [Indonesia] tried to kill us. But we are still here, crying and suffering but still alive.  We will rebuild our homeland.  Nothing can stop us.”

The Indonesian army pledged to leave the territory in November and assist in the return of tens of thousands of refugees in West Timor and other islands.  Tensions remain high since the armed militias organized by the army still operate on the border and in parts of East Timor.

The big issue for East Timor is the transition from UN control to a fully independent country.  The UN force (INTERFET) is demanding that the resistance forces disarm along with the Indonesian-backed militias.  The UN is also calling for “amnesty” and the integration of the thugs into the new government.

Gusmão and other leaders of the National Council of the Timorese Resistance (CNRT) oppose that suggestion.  “Amnesty is only a political act,” said Xanana.  “The real amnesty will be from our people.”

The UN has established a tribunal to investigate war crimes by the leaderships of the armed militias and the Indonesian army.

The Referendum and Afterwards

“Don’t think the military won’t make a revolution,” Indonesia’s President Habibie told a Western delegation soon after the August 30 referendum in East Timor.

Four days later the tally was in: 78.5 percent of East Timor’s 850,000 people voted to kick the Indonesian army (TNI) out of their country.  The army’s response?  Revenge.  Terror.  Bloodbath.

A militia leader said it bluntly, “Peace?  Why would we want peace?  If the vote is for independence we’ll just kill—kill everybody.”

Within one week his bold words were put into action.  Women, children, the elderly, but especially men and boys, and the educated, including nuns and priests, were annihilated.  Selected lists were drawn up to make sure that an independent East Timor would have no educated people.

Dili, the capital, was depopulated and set afire, including the home of Nobel Prize Laureate Bishop Belo who fled to Darwin, Australia.  Tens of thousands of East Timorese were trucked to Indonesia’s West Timor and placed in refugee camps controlled by the thugs organized by Indonesia’s special forces.  Many refugees were shipped to other Indonesian islands.

The only safe havens were four cantonments in the mountains held by the Falintil, the East Timorese armed resistance.  Even churches and the United Nations compound were not exempt from violent attacks.

The interchangeable militias, army personnel and police who operated together and under the direction of military intelligence in Jakarta used arms provided by the United States, Britain and Australia.  These countries ignored all the explicit threats by the militias/army criminals that blood would flow if the people voted the “wrong” way.

Washington, in particular, had opposed making any contingency plans for the type of terror that occurred.  It was the outcry from people around the world to the horrific genocide taking place in East Timor—seen nightly on television until journalists and the UN Mission (UNAMET) were forced to flee—that put tremendous pressure on the Australian, U.S. and Western governments to push Indonesia’s army and regime to retreat.

The threat of economic sanctions and indictments of military commanders by an international war crimes tribunal was enough to cause General Wiranto, the real power in Jakarta, to “invite” UN peacekeeping troops.

The first Australian troops of a force of 7500 arrived September 20.  Almost immediately, the army’s regular units began their humiliating withdrawal.  Many of the armed militias crossed the border pledging ongoing revenge against the Australians and supporters of independence.

One militia leader said that for every one of his men killed, ten refugees would die. A secret meeting was held in Jakarta between militias leaders and army intelligence to coordinate future destabilization efforts.

“Kangaroo Domino Game”

One Indonesian magazine published a cover after the UN troops arrived in Dili with a picture of an Australian bayonet buried in East Timor and a map labeled “Kangaroo Domino Game” showing Canberra’s perceived designs on other parts of the archipelago.

It is, of course, ironic that the Australian government finds itself in this unusual position.  For decades Australia’s government was Jakarta’s strongest friend, providing political support as well as military training and arms. In 1995 a joint defense treaty was signed (now revoked by Indonesia).

The Judas role as the ugly white Australian was neither planned nor wanted by Canberra-which is not to say that Australia doesn’t view itself as a South Pacific power.  (There is a certain glee in Canberra that it is doing what the Europeans failed to do in the Balkans.) The political crisis in Indonesia, widened by the violence in East Timor, forced Australia’s hand.

It was the Howard government in Australia that first proposed to Habibie in December 1998 to hold a referendum on autonomy (not independence).  Australia felt it had the authority to make that suggestion, since it was the only country to recognize Indonesia’s illegal occupation of East Timor in 1975 and had generally dismissed criticisms of Jakarta for its twenty-four years of violence against the East Timorese.

But overall strategic concerns for Australia, the main strategic ally for the United States in the South Pacific, meant a shift in policy was needed.  Australia’s aim was to convince Jakarta quietly.  The proposed referendum, proposing “autonomy” within Indonesia for East Timor (so-called “integration”) was a way to get rid of the East Timor “problem.”

Meanwhile Habibie decided, unilaterally and without consultation with the army or Suharto-era parliament, to take the Australian proposal further: A vote against integration, he said, would be in fact a vote for East Timor’s independence.  But to hedge his bets, Habibie said the vote would be “consultative,” with the new national assembly meeting making the final decision.  The door to self-determination could be shut if necessary.

But events took their own course.  The East Timorese’s rejection of Indonesian rule was so overwhelming that the hatred and revenge by the occupying army took over. Its ferocity caught international political forces off guard, although a summary of the facts leading up to the vote show these same players knew the pre-vote threats of violence were not hyperbole.

Australia, like the United States, dragged its feet on intervening in East Timor, hoping the Indonesian army would back down and rein in the armed thugs it created and controlled.  Australia and the U.S. administration clearly misread the determination of the military to destroy a territory it dominated for almost a quarter century.

The advance knowledge of army intelligence plans, however, shows U.S. and Australian complicity in Indonesia’s crimes in East Timor—a story that all parties would like to keep hidden.  But letting the bloodbath continue unchecked was becoming a bigger blow to their political and economic interests than slapping the TNI, and pressuring it to retreat.

A secondary factor in how Australia eventually reacted to the violence was mass support in Australia for East Timor’s right to self-determination.  It was becoming a domestic political issue.

This marks a political defeat for Indonesia’s ruling elite, the repercussions of which within Indonesia’s rough-and-tumble political scene remain to be determined.  Jakarta’s weak, corrupt and foreign-dependent capitalist system, however, is not based on a Western-style democracy.

The first opening to end authoritarian rule began with Suharto’s fall from power in May 1998.  The source of the mass popular upsurge that continues today remains the desire to create a genuine democracy, which hasn’t yet been won. Indeed, bourgeois democracy doesn’t exist.  The fight for democracy—and what kind—is the underlying theme in every struggle in Indonesia today, from East Timor, financial corruption, and the role of the army to the selection of a president and by whom.

So Jakarta told Australia, the United States and UN that it understood a change in policy was needed for East Timor and Indonesia, but not as their Western friends saw it. The generals firmly believed that a domino effect would occur if East Timor was allowed its independence.

That’s why East Timor and Indonesia are so integral to each other.  The army’s analysis of the ramifications of a forced withdrawal from East Timor is logical.  A free East Timor, even under the domination of the UN, could be a serious blow to the unity of Indonesia as other oppressed Indonesians take East Timor’s successful struggle for self-determination as an example to press their own interests, including separation from Jakarta.

Canberra and Washington obviously knew the generals’ views on the subject of unity and power.  So why did they press on?

Imperialist long-term interests clashed with Indonesia’s immediate problems.  For imperialism, a shift in strategy towards East Timor was needed now to prevent a deeper revolutionary situation across the archipelago -one they weren’t sure the TNI could put down. Washington and Canberra made clear to Wiranto and Habibie that no repeat referenda should be held in Aceh or West Papua (see accompanying articles) where ethnic rebellions are also taking place.

Jakarta’s strongest backers had come to the calculated and cold-blooded conclusion that the bloodbath in East Timor, if allowed to go to the end—meaning annihilation of the territory’s population, followed by repopulation with only pro-integration people, even from other islands—would cause bigger political problems down the road. It would make it more difficult for the TNI to reorganize itself and stay in power, which is essential to protect the economic and military interests of the Western powers in the region.

Neither Jakarta nor Canberra or Washington ever seriously considered the lives of the working people and students in East Timor or Indonesia in their calculations.  While the death toll is distasteful, their real problem is putting down popular rebellions and maintaining the credibility of the UN and the Western powers in the region and within their own countries.

Resistance Stance

The East Timor people and its leadership, on the other hand, had only one objective after more political space was won with Suharto’s downfall: to end the army’s occupation as soon as possible to achieve self-determination.  This stance dictated their tactics including accepting a less than favorable agreement drafted by the UN, Indonesia (the illegal occupier) and Portugal (the former colonial power).  The East Timorese could not be signers since Indonesia still considered East Timor its “27th province.”

When Indonesia crossed out provisions in the May 5 document (the agreement to hold the referendum) for the disarming of militias and keeping TNI soldiers in their barracks, the UN bureaucracy did nothing.  Only 300 UN civilian police and fifty unarmed “liaison officers” were on the ground when the vote took place.

After the August 30 vote and ensuing genocidal campaign by the army, the East Timorese resistance leadership demanded UN troops go in to push the occupying army out. The TNI and its thugs were determined to depopulate the entire territory.  Smuggled videos showed people being forcible driven from Dili.

The events of 1965 and 1975 are well etched in the memory of the East Timorese.  In 1965-66 the Indonesian army slaughtered over a million people, after a far-right coup led by General Suharto overthrew President Sukarno.  It was supported by the CIA in its largest covert operation since World War II. In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor and within a few years one-third of the total population of 600,000 were dead.

In these writers’ opinion, the demands of both the East Timorese and the international movement for UN military action were necessary and correct.  The bottom line is that the East Timorese had no alternative but to turn to the UN once the bloodbath began.  The armed freedom fighters were small in numbers.  Their clandestine support in the towns and villages was very strong—but not enough to take on the more powerful TNI.

The TNI is totally capable of extermination if not stopped.  While the UN cannot be relied on indefinitely-as shown over the period of occupation or in the period leading up to the August 30 vote-it was the only line of defense against the bloodshed.

Since the Australian-led forced landed, modest but real breathing room has opened up. International pressure and exposure remains decisive in forcing the UN to live up to some of its promises to provide safety.  A stronger and independent East Timor with its own army and government must eventually be forged.

At the United Nations New York headquarters, the leadership of the resistance is already negotiating with the UN over East Timor’s transition toward independence.  While it is accurate as a matter of principle to say that the UN should not have a say over how this process occurs, the reality is otherwise.

Xanana Gusmão, the main leader of the resistance, said this about East Timor’s future relations with the UN after meeting with officials in New York: “I can say in general terms that there will be some areas that the United Nations will take charge of exclusively, and there would be others that we would share the obligations, and some others that we can take charge fully of ourselves.”

Gusmão and other leaders see a several-year transitional period.  The East Timor leadership is adroitly maneuvering against and with powerful forces to gain their independence.

The Terror Campaign

Following the announcement of the results of the referendum, upwards of 600,000 East Timorese were forcibly displaced-some 200,000 to militias-controlled camps in West Timor, up to 300,000 in the mountains and tens of thousands more deported to other islands.  Some 7,000 people were executed.

The resistance leader Taun Matan Ruak in a September 8 statement (before Habibie and Wiranto agreed to let the UN come into East Timor) said: “The international community must intervene urgently in East Timor-or tomorrow there will be no Timor to save. I call on Timorese everywhere to mobilize to press in every way they can for international intervention.”

Before the vote Xanana Gusmão told the Far Eastern Economic Review (September 2) in response to question on what size vote they needed to win independence: “Seventy percent and above.  It is a very relevant question, because of the possibility of intimidation.”

He added: “The problem is that the military knows very well that the East Timorese people reject the Indonesian presence.  It was why they planned a strategy of intimidation.  They thought they could repeat what happened in Irian Jaya [West Papua] in 1968 by killing the independence leaders.  Our cadres could only survive because of the strength of our clandestine organization.”

This preparation enabled most of the resistance leadership to survive the slaughter.  In this, the TNI and its thugs failed in their annihilation campaign.

In hindsight it appears that the Indonesian regime made an error in calling the referendum, particularly since the army never supported it. Pressure from Australia and the United States to make some concessions to opponents doesn’t explain President Habibie’s decision.

The fact is that the government in Jakarta thought they could ride out the vote and keep control of East Timor.  All reports indicate the army high command firmly believed that its intimidation campaign would prevent separation.  But the expanding financial crisis in Indonesia and the growing student-led protests to end the army’s dominant role in society made a shift of policy toward all the “Outer Islands” necessary.

Habibie’s proposal for the East Timor problem was simply a way to solve one piece of a bigger puzzle.  His error was failing to recognize that the people of East Timor would not surrender their aspiration for freedom, while the dominant army high command was not ready to change its playbook: violence and more violence to put down rebellion.

The Army’s Historic Role

Ever since Indonesia became an independent country in 1949, after a four-year war of independence against their Dutch colonial rulers, the army has been held in high esteem.  It was the force of the revolution.  Few people challenged its nationalist character or its dual function in society (“dwifungsi”), to defend the country from external and internal threats.

Under Sukarno, the “father of the country,” and Suharto it was common for army officers to serve as city and village administrators.  Corruption and collusion is rooted in the military.

The student-led rebellion which caused Suharto’s downfall in May 1998 changed politics in Indonesia forever.  Since then the ruling elite-from Golkar (Suharto’s and Habibie’s party) to the TNI generals-has been in political retreat, forced to justify their own credibility and power.

This is why it appeared the army was rudderless, attacking and even killing protesters one day, then in the face of more protests, backing down and making a public apology the next. Habibie’s decision in January to allow a referendum in East Timor was in line with this stick and carrot approach to the widening political problems.

East Timor Is Unique

Unlike the other territories that oppose centralized Jakarta rule, the people of East Timor were never part of the Dutch East Indies.  East Timor was a colony of Portugal.  After Portugal’s 1974 revolution brought a leftist military regime to power, its colonies in Africa and East Timor rapidly moved toward establishing independent republics.

On November 28, 1975, the Democratic Republic of East Timor was created.  Over the previous year Indonesia attempted to destablize the country-in-transition.  But with the birth of the new country, Indonesian troops massed on the West Timor border and agents were sent into the territory.  Nine days later Indonesia invaded.  The invasion was well-planned, with up to 24,000 Indonesian troops were deployed.

Moreover, Suharto coordinated Indonesia’s destabilization efforts with the CIA. President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta the day before the invasion began.  According to columnist Jack Anderson, Kissinger admitted that given a choice between the people of East Timor and Indonesia, the United States had “to be on the side of Indonesia.”

Later, when UN resolutions were adopted condemning the invasion, the U.S. representative always abstained.  New York Democratic Senator Patrick Moynihan was the U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time. In his 1978 memoirs he wrote: “The Department of State desired the UN prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook.

The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

The United States alone supplied some $178 million in military aid from the time of the invasion until 1979.  The Clinton administration, despite protests from Congress, turned over another $150 million.  In 1997 the Pentagon continued to train Kopassus, the army’s special elite unit, in violation of Congressional legislation.

Months before the current terror campaign, the U.S. commander of chief of military forces in the Pacific region, Admiral Dennis Blair, met with General Wiranto.  Supposedly, Blair was to express U.S. opposition to the violence being orchestrated by the army and its armed militias.  But according to U.S. activist and journalist Allan Nairn (writing in The Nation, September 27, 1999), Blair remained silent and Wiranto took his visit as a nod of support.  Nairn was later arrested and deported from Indonesia.

Suharto’s invasion of in 1975, with the full support of Washington, was first and foremost a political act. There was and is little in common between Indonesia, with 200 million people, and East Timor, which at the time of the invasion had some 650,000.  Indonesia is mostly Islamic.  East Timor is mainly Catholic.

East Timor is very poor with relatively few economic resources (although the coffee and potential natural gas and oil reserves in the Timor Gap are large).  Indonesia is rich in natural resources.

Suharto’s and imperialism’s concern at the time was to prevent the formation of a left nationalist regime.  Its mere existence could lead to political problems throughout the region.  The United States had just suffered a major defeat in Vietnam.  Kissinger and Suharto thought: How difficult would it be to pacify such a small, rural based and uneducated population?

Days, weeks, they thought, would be sufficient—not more than a year. They were wrong.  While some 200,000 Timorese died during the occupation, popular resistance could not be defeated.  Armed guerrilla groups fought from the mountains.  Their main leader, Xanana Gusmão led the resistance until he was captured by the Indonesian army in 1992.  (Cynically, the same day that Habibie and army chief of staff Wiranto announced martial law on September 7, he was released from “house arrest” in Jakarta.)

East Timor became a training ground and killing field for the army. Almost all of today’s top officers served some time there (including Wiranto) before moving up in the ranks.  Hundreds died there.  Many became rich by looting the territory.

The army’s relationship to the East Timorese was a colonial one-they took all the wealth, all the jobs and posts and dictated everything.  Average annual costs for the occupation was $110 million.

No wonder Habibie and Wiranto said there were “psychological constraints” behind why the army could not stop the killings in East Timor.  “For more than 20 years, our personnel have been working hand in hand with the people to develop East Timor,” Wiranto explained after returning from a trip to East Timor with a UN delegation before the government announced it was allowing UN forces to enter.

“I can understand that it is very hard for them [the army] to shoot their own people [armed thugs], who have been regarded as their brothers, and who are not really criminals.  And they defend their basic principles emotionally.”

Jakarta’s ambassador to Singapore—another former general who was part of the original invasion force-explained his feelings after learning the results of the referendum vote: “It’s very hard for us emotionally.  We fought for something that we thought was good for our country.  Why did we go through all that suffering?  It now seems it was all for nothing.” (Note the absence of concern for the civilians massacred by their “brothers.”)

It is clear that the army had no intention of letting East Timor go, or implementing the referendum results.  They misread their own power of intimidation and never understood the will of the East Timorese to win self-determination.  On referendum day, people literally came down from the mountains and stood in line for hours to vote, then went back into the hills with the knowledge that the killings were about to begin.

This was more than a vote, it was a way to say Enough! to army domination.  But the army and ruling elite figured, in the final analysis, that their imperialist allies would never go against them. As one international financial official said about Indonesian decision makers, “[They] shoot themselves in the foot every time .  .  .  .  They grossly underestimated the international consequences” of their actions.

The end of the Cold War has made justifying support client government’s terror campaigns to fight the threat of communism less viable.  Imperialism’s fear is not a Cuba in the Pacific, but a revolution in Indonesia.

What Next for East Timor?

What next?  More violence can be expected from the retreating Timorese thugs and elements of the TNI. West Timor will be a likely staging ground for attacks once the UN and resistance begin to take command on the ground.

What Canberra and Washington hope to accomplish—through the UN—is formation of a reliably docile East Timor transitional regime.  It aims to pacify the situation as rapidly as possible and leave as soon as the political situation in Jakarta calms down.

While there are many in the world who hold the conspiracy view of imperialist relations with Third World countries—in which the latter are seen as puppets under the thumb of the masters in Washington, Canberra, London or the UN-the reality is more complex.

The Indonesian army’s policy toward East Timor, as indicated, was never a secret to the UN, the United States, Australia, the resistance fighters and everyone who cared to follow the situation.  It was to destabilize the situation if they lost the vote-but they never thought they would lose.

They believed their campaign of intimidation before the vote would strike so much fear in the people that they would either vote for autonomy or not vote at all. That’s why the militias were created-all of them formed after Habibie’s surprise announcement in January.

Hypocrisy of the UN and West

The U.S. government, Australia and UN knew the views and actions of the army. They, in fact, had hoped that the vote would be for autonomy, not independence—to settle the legal issue of East Timor once and for all. It’s why the UN agreed to Jakarta’s terms in the infamous May 5 agreement, which Indonesia immediately began violating.

In fact, the agreement recognized Indonesia’s sovereignty over East Timor, the basis on which it was allowed to be the “security” force (the fox guarding its prey) during the vote and afterwards.

The UN, Washington and Canberra seek to limit the damage done to their credibility by the ruling elite’s terror campaign.  The UN’s value for the major Western powers is the illusion the UN fosters that it is for human rights.  In this context, even while demanding that the UN protect the East Timor people after promising them such protection—including adding more troops if necessary—it is important that their real historical record be publicized.

What that record shows before the August 30 vote is complicity by the United States and Australia with the Jakarta regime and army. Neither country did anything to rein in the military’s tactics, although the UN personnel on the ground sent in daily reports to New York, Washington and Canberra about the violence against East Timorese (up to 3,500 of whom were killed before the vote).  They continued to stand by the May 5 agreement and the “security” role of the Indonesian army.

Even after the violence escalated on September 4, Sandy Berger, President Clinton’s national security advisor, balked at any U.S. action (beyond phone calls to Wiranto by Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff chairman General Shelton, who publicly said the violence in East Timor did not affect U.S. national security).

After saying East Timor is in Asia and not Europe, Berger said, “Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world.  It is undergoing a fragile but tremendously important political and economic transformation, which the United States strongly supports.  The resolution of this crisis matters not just for East Timor but for Indonesia as a whole.”  It is up to them to resolve, he said. (Quoted in the September 9 New York Times)

In the tradition of Kissinger, the U.S. main concern is Indonesia’s strategic location as the main air and shipping conduit between the Middle East and Japan and the rest of Asia. It is a buffer state between the West and China.  The end of the Cold War does not change these facts.

On September 27 the UN Human Rights Commission voted 32 to 12, with six countries abstaining and three absent, to set up an international inquiry into the killings and atrocities in East Timor.  Most Asian countries including China and the Philippines, however, voted against the proposal because of regional concerns.

While the United States and Australia plan to limit any investigations to the army commanders in East Timor, the history of Western support to the TNI and Jakarta is likely to be exposed.  They should also face war crimes indictments.

UN Troops as Double-Edged Swords

How long will the UN troops be in East Timor?  What role will the United States play?  So far the troop size is just 7500, mainly from Australia and a few other Asian countries.  The Pentagon pledged 200 troops mainly for logistical backup.

The Western powers’ dilemma is to clean up their embarrassment of allowing a referendum vote, claiming they are for democracy in the world, and at the same time maintaining close ties with the Indonesian army and ruling elite.  The problem is that the TNI and its armed thugs seek revenge and oppose stabilization.  It is likely that some “peacekeepers” will be assassinated to feed the chauvinism and anger of the armed forces.  How these conflicts are resolved is unclear.

The political muddle in Jakarta runs deep. The average Indonesian still sees East Timor as a much smaller problem than the declining economy and the presidential succession.  After two decades of propaganda against the pro-independence rebels, and charges of Western meddling into internal Indonesian affairs, it is not surprising that most Indonesians are ignorant about East Timor.

Now that the UN is on the ground with troops other dynamics are likely to unfold as well. Will the UN let the resistance set up their own transitional government, as Xanana and the other resistance leaders insist?  The Western powers still oppose a radical regime in the Pacific.

While in our view it was entirely correct to demand that UN troops go into East Timor to stop the genocide, this does not lighten the weight of the UN’s past complicity with Jakarta.  The UN will seek to appease Jakarta and forge a transitional government that is amenable to pressure.

There will be future conflicts with the UN. It is inevitable.  The outcome will be based on the strength of the popular movement and the solidarity received from the Indonesian people as well as other people from around the world.

If the democracy movement fails in Indonesia, East Timor will have a hard time surviving as an independent country.  Armed thugs could easily operate from Indonesian borders.  East Timor could become a permanent protectorate of the UN or Australia.

Political Stakes in Jakarta

The deepening political crisis in Jakarta remains centrally relevant to East Timor’s future.  The army and ruling elite in Jakarta don’t care about the current or future problems of the East Timorese people.  But they are concerned about the broader ramifications of their humiliation in East Timor.  The psychological problems are political problems.

The real question for the ruling elite is: Will East Timor be the first domino that falls leading to total chaos in Indonesia?  The TNI still believes it is possible.  The bloody lesson the TNI was teaching to the Timorese was also directed at militant Javanese, Chinese, Achenese, West Papuans and other groups that oppose the army’s total power.

Not surprisingly, the main pro-market opposition parties were divided over the East Timor issue.  To them it was one of many crises facing the regime and for the most part the lesser one.

The drive by the military to reassert its authority can be seen in General Wiranto’s attempt to ram through a new law before the lame-duck parliament adjourned in mid-September.  The law granted sweeping new powers to the army, such as the right to declare martial law for almost any reason.

Mass protests, led by students, were so immediate and violent that Wiranto and Habibie had to retreat.  Most students see the proposed law as a first step toward a military coup. “The military will have the legal power to declare a state of emergency,” said one student leader in Jakarta.  “They will use the trouble in East Timor as a pretext to take over the country.”

Salem Said, a military observer in Jakarta noted, “It’s a reflection of how weak the government is. It shows how much the Habibie government is like the Suharto government, always ready to use force,” after six people were killed by the army.

The mass protests spread across the country and on September 25 (the day after parliament adopted the new law) President Habibie announced he would “delay” signing it. The local army commander also gave a public apology for the shooting deaths.


Then there is Baligate—the banking and corruption scandal that worries the Western bankers more than East Timor.  It shows that corruption and collusion is still rampant in the “post-Suharto Indonesia.”

Habibie and his family have been big beneficiaries of the Suharto era corruption.  As president he continued eating from the trough.  Before the June parliamentary elections, where he ran second to Megawati Sukarnoputri’s party (the PDI-Struggle), a friend of his in the ruling Golkar party arranged a large loan from Bank Bali to help fund his campaign.

One condition of the International Monetary Fund’s $43 billion bailout is that Indonesia must reorganize its failing banks and begin to pay off a huge foreign debt. Many banks have been consolidated.  Having gone bankrupt, Bank Bali applied for government aid. After it was nationalized in July, the bank transferred 546 billion rupiah (approximately $80 million) to a company controlled by Golkar’s deputy treasurer, Setya Novanto.

Novanto said he was being paid a fee for collecting problem loans.  But the money was supposedly diverted to Golkar to help bankroll Habibie’s campaign, which he and Golkar deny. Once the scandal broke, the money was returned to the bank.

No one believes that Habibie is innocent.  It appears to be classic cronyism at work. The outside auditor Price WaterhouseCoopers submitted a final 123-page report indicting close aides to Habibie.

The government so far is refusing to release the entire report.  Only a 36-page summary (without naming names) is available, stating that the audit found “preferential treatment, concealment, bribery, corruption and fraud.”

The IMF calls this a “major corruption case” and is worried that more IMF loans are being diverted.  For financial capital, the scandal is bigger than the East Timor crisis as it directly affects the restructuring of the economy and corporate investments.  “This scandal is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Mark Baird, the World Bank’s country director in Indonesia.  “It’s indicative of the much bigger political and economic stakes in Indonesia.”


In the streets, there are numerous organizations protesting the military’s polices.  The most important group is the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD).  Before Suharto’s fall from power, the PRD was the only organization to support self-determination for East Timor.  It helped organized a solidarity group in Indonesia before it was banned by the army in 1996.

While the PRD’s chairman, Budiman, is still in prison for his political activity, the PRD was legalized by the government and ran in the June parliamentary elections.  The party’s main demands center on people’s democracy and forming a popular social democratic government that ends the dual role of the army in society.

The PRD supported the August 30 referendum and demanded UN intervention to disarmed the militias and force the TNI out of East Timor.  “The PRD,” it stated in a September 13 statement, “considers further that the presence of the international peace keeping forces must be followed by an immediate withdrawal of all Indonesian military personnel and the disarming of the pro-integration militias .  .  .

“The PRD also considers that the killings done by the military in East Timor strengthen our belief that the presence of the military in social and political life will only bring about oppression, violence, poverty and total destruction of democracy, human rights and dignity.”

The response of the PRD and other radical student-based groups is an indication of the army’s political problems.  Not surprisingly the PRD’s national office has been firebombed and its demonstrations attacked.  One party member, M. Yusuf Rizal, 23, was killed in the demonstrations against the “state security arrangement” law.

International Solidarity

Will there be a parliamentary meeting?  Will a new president be selected and be independent of the army?  Will the army be forced to get out of politics?  Can the peoples of Aceh and West Papua win self-determination?  Will East Timor gain full independence?

Yes, as Sandy Berger noted, Indonesia is in Asia and of strategic importance in the world.  The question is: Will Indonesia be a democratic country?  Or, will it remain a tool of the ruling elite, the army, the IMF and Western powers?  Nothing is settled.  International solidarity remains crucial for both East Timor and the pro-democracy movement in Indonesia.

The East Timor Action Network (ETAN), for example, is a small dedicated group that kept the issue of East Timor in the minds of Congress and the American people for years.  ETAN sent observers to East Timor during the referendum vote and is leading the campaign to get out the word on what Indonesia and the militias are doing, as well as explaining why pressure must be kept on the UN.

ETAN’s efforts were key to getting Congress to adopt laws against US military training of the TNI and to pressing the Clinton administration to end its direct military ties to Jakarta (although the Pentagon always finds covert ways around such bans).

The authors are members of the National Committee of Solidarity .  Emily Citkowski travelled in Indonesia this past summer.  Her account of the Indonesian election and her interview with Dita Sari appeard in Against the Current #82.  Malik Miah is on the editorial board of the Oakland-based newsletter, IndonesiaAlert!

ATC 83, November-December 1999