Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

The East Timor peace process

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Heike Krieger, East Timor and the international community: Basic documents, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 494+xxviii pp, hardcover, Rrp AU$160.

Geoffrey C. Gunn, East Timor and the United Nations: The case for intervention, Lawrenceville, N.J: Red Sea Press, 1997, 241+vi pp, paperback, Rrp US$19.95. Avail: Red Sea Press, 11-D Princess Road, Lawrenceville, N.J., USA 08648-2319; fax: 1-609-844-0198.


Today the questions of peace and self-determination for East Timor are higher on the international agenda than at almost any time since 1976. The 1996 Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, and President Mandela's dramatic appeal to President Suharto to release the imprisoned CNRM leader Xanana Gusmao, focussed the collective mind of the diplomatic community on the search for a break in the stalemate.

For stalemate it is. Even after 22 years of Abri 'pacification', Indonesia simply cannot win in East Timor, politically or militarily. But equally, the East Timorese resistance cannot throw the invaders out. Nor, to this point at least, can CNRM convert its extraordinary record of diplomatic achievements based on absolutely minimal resources into concerted international pressure.

Short list

Many people suggest that Indonesia will never leave East Timor, because it has too much invested. However, if you look hard at the question, 'which Indonesians have interests in East Timor that cannot be negotiated?', it turns out to be a much shorter list than most would have you think.

For the Indonesian military, East Timor is a long-running sore and a humiliating failure. Under Murdani, careers were made in Tim-Tim: no more.

In security terms, Indonesia gains little from Timor except grief and the diplomatic status of a quasi-pariah. An independent East Timor will necessarily pay great heed to the foreign policy concerns of its giant neighbour. There will be no 'Cuba of Southeast Asia', no 'export of the Timorese revolution' to Irian Jaya or the Moluccas.

Economically, three groups of Indonesians benefit from Timor - Abri-linked conglomerates, Indonesian beneficiaries of the Timor Gap oil and gas exploitation, and the large number of mainly poor transmigrants. None of these necessarily stand in the way of self-determination if the political will is there.

The Indonesian conglomerates that make money in Timor are more associated with the old Murdani-crowd than the current Abri leadership. In any case, a new East Timorese government can always negotiate such commercial interests - if that is the price of self-determination.

In the same way, self-determination will require a re-negotiation of the Timor Gap Treaty with both Indonesia and Australia. An independent East Timor will have to make cruel choices about how much of its oil and gas rights it will be willing to give up for its freedom.

The most complex group of economic beneficiaries of the Indonesian occupation is the weakest politically: Indonesian immigrants into East Timor. Xanana Gusmao has indicated that CNRM will not demand their immediate repatriation. CNRM will need to give great thought to how it would ensure their protection following the withdrawal of Indonesian troops.

De Gaulle

The two largest Indonesian obstacles to the peace process are the possible loss of face for Suharto and the Abri leadership, and the fear that any concession on East Timor would weaken them in the contest for the presidential succession. Yet time has helped a great deal here. Suharto is himself the last survivor from the group that dreamed up the invasion of East Timor in the first place.

East Timor was never part of the former Netherlands East Indies. An adroit Indonesian politician can argue that it really should not be thought of as part of the Indonesian nationalist project, and that Murtopo and Murdani made an error of judgement from which it is not too late to pull back, despite all the blood.

Like General Charles De Gaulle faced with the French catastrophe of the war in its Algerian colony in 1960, a new military president after Suharto deciding to cut his nation's losses would have the political means readily to hand: scapegoat the old crowd, rise above issues of 'face', and look to other means of influencing the former territory, such as economic power.

But President Mandela has initiated the other version of this argument: an appeal to Suharto to use his last years in office to gain the international stature he so clearly yearns for. Suharto cannot travel freely abroad for fear of demonstrations in almost any advanced industrial country. While Mandela's first approach did not succeed, the card still lies on the table.

There is one more player on the table, eyeing that card, or looking at the others: the United States. In 1975, there can be little doubt that the US gave the green light for the invasion. But the late 1990s are very different. Post-Cold War, the United States is the animateur of the diplomatic scene, and has been moving systematically to use its influence to force resolutions of lingering regional conflicts: Israel and Palestine, Morocco and Western Sahara, former Yugoslavia, North Korea. The Nobel Prize was the most visible sign that the issue of East Timor and Indonesia is now on that agenda.

The US is not happy with Suharto, and it has no interest in the continuing war in Timor. From the US viewpoint it serves only to weaken its most important regional ally. It is now concerned about the fragility of the entire Suharto regime.

In the international media, the mood has been turning against President Suharto for several years. Articles in The Economist and Newsweek now almost casually list Suharto along with Kim Jong-il and Fidel Castro as the last dictators surviving from the ice ages of the Cold War. The global political public is being prepared for a change in Indonesia.

Krieger and Gunn

Heike Krieger's monumental East Timor and the international community: Basic documents is a must for any library concerned with East Timor, Indonesia, or international relations. Part of a series produced by the Cambridge University Research Centre for International Law, Krieger's 500-page collection reproduces more than 130 documents relevant to East Timor from 1859 to 1995, concentrating on the last twenty years. Reports by UN Special Rapporteurs and of proceedings of the UN Fourth Committee (including testimony by many non-government groups) are included.

More importantly, the collection renders accessible the workings of the UN and other international bodies such as the World Court, as well as exchanges of diplomatic notes. T

hese documents represent the world in which Jose Ramos-Horta has performed with such extraordinary skill since December 1975. They make his achievement - and Indonesian diplomatic failure - evident. Self-determination will ultimately be won in East Timor, but many times in the past 22 years it could have been lost abroad, but for Horta's persistence.

Unfortunately, a cut-off date of June 1995 for a book of documents published in 1997 seems a trifle early. Particularly since the pace of Timor diplomacy has picked up.

Geoffrey Gunn's East Timor and the United Nations: The case for intervention goes some way to remedying these limitations (at an accessible price). Half the book is a collection of documents, many not included by Krieger. The other half collects Gunn's recent articles on East Timor, the largest of which has already been published in an earlier book. Some are interesting but slight contributions to electronic conference debates.

The book takes its title from the final chapter by Gunn, which sets out the lessons from recent UN peace initiatives, including Western Sahara, Namibia, Mozambique and Cambodia. This important piece developed out of a contribution to the highly constructive 1995 ANU conference on peace-keeping initiatives for East Timor organised by Michael Salla.

Timorese groups in Australia and elsewhere, as well as the Timorese leadership, together with activist scholars such as Michael Salla, now at the American University in Washington DC, and David Scott in Melbourne, have started asking some of the hard but necessary questions involved here.

If the United States is to use its good offices to pressure Indonesia to the conference table, the US will need to be reasonably confident that CNRM is in fact capable of taking responsibility for the territory.

The CNRM under Xanana Gusmao has demonstrated a willingness to consider the crucial diplomatic concessions. Their plan envisages a two-step process - Indonesian military withdrawal and Timorese autonomy first, followed by a UN supervised self-determination process of some years. The devil would be in the details - for example, 'autonomy' in Indonesia has some poor precedents. But with negotiators like Xanana and Horta, East Timor would hold a good hand.

Hard work

The hard work would then begin. To take some simple but crucial problems, consider the following:

Given that most young people in East Timor now speak Bahasa Indonesia, in what language will education and administration be conducted? Assuming agreement about a phased withdrawal of Indonesian troops, just how will the new administration provide security for all residents of East Timor, including a large number of Indonesian immigrants? How will the economy be organised and the administration financed, given the distorting effects of Indonesian militarisation and budgetary subsidies? How will the rights of returning East Timorese refugees be handled, in relation to both Timorese who stayed and Indonesian immigrants? Their property has been bought or seized. Many East Timorese abroad have led entirely differently lives from people inside for two decades. Serious cultural difference is inevitable.

Many East Timorese inside and outside are thinking about these issues. Some may be writing constitutions for an independent East Timor; others may be building trust between East Timorese and Indonesians. Others still will be developing practical policies to make an effective transition from occupied colony to autonomous state and on to independence. Krieger and Gunn are contributing to this process in the international community. There are opportunities now that must not be lost.

Richard Tanter is Professor of International Relations at Kyoto Seika University. In 1976-77 he worked as an assistant to the Democratic Republic of East Timor office to the United Nations.

Inside Indonesia 53: Jan-Mar 1998

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