Dec 04, 2023 Last Updated 7:41 AM, Dec 4, 2023

Change in Indonesia, chance for East Timor

Transition to a post-Suharto era in Jakarta could be window of opportunity for East Timor

Coki Naipospos

The chances of a resolution in East Timor are closely dependent on democratisation in Indonesia. Two assumptions lie behind this view. First, as long as the Suharto regime retains power there is little likelihood of dialogue towards self- determination for the people of East Timor. Second, a new government in the post-Suharto era is going to need strong domestic and international backing to consolidate its authority, and will not want to be hamstrung by difficult issues inherited from the previous regime. There is every hope that the advent of a new government will give negotiations on the future of East Timor a chance.

But political change in Indonesia will not automatically bring change for East Timor. A cooperative relationship between the pro-democracy movement in Indonesia and campaigners for East Timorese independence will be crucial. As will the way in which political change comes about.

Modes of change

The political scientist Huntington once identified four modes of political change: (1) 'transformation', where democratisation is initiated voluntarily by the establishment elite themselves; (2) 'replacement', where it is driven by opposition forces; (3) 'transplacement', where it comes about by negotiation between those in power and an opposition; and (4) 'intervention', where democracy is enforced by an external power.

It is difficult to see change occurring by modes (1) or (4), so a 'replacement' or 'transplacement' mode would seem most probable.

Dili massacre

Indonesian public interest in East Timor was not aroused till the Dili massacre of 12 November 1991. Before that only a few individuals and institutions paid the subject any attention. Even so, the general reaction, as so often, was largely passive. People were concerned at the violence, but violence occurs in Indonesia too, and they were not sufficiently moved to do anything about it.

Not so the members of the pro-democracy movement. They fall broadly into two groups. First, those concerned about socio- economic welfare and human rights in East Timor. And second, those openly supporting self-determination through a UN referendum. The latter position is taken by a small number of groups mostly known as new generation non-government organisations (NGOs).


The majority of older generation NGOs fall within the first group. For them, self-determination is an extraneous issue, to be settled between the Suharto regime and the East Timorese themselves.

Traditional political groupings such as PNI (nationalist), Masyumi (progressive Islamic), Parkindo (Protestant Christian), NU (Islamic scholars), and others - including the signatories of the Petition of Fifty - similarly think of East Timor purely in terms of human rights violations rather than self-determination.

Ali Sadikin, a leading opposition figure, said shortly after the Dili massacre that it was best for East Timor to remain integrated with Indonesia because it was small and very poor. Nevertheless there are some within these older groupings who display sympathy for every aspect of the East Timorese struggle.

The same applies to the attitude of the two non-Golkar political parties, the PDI and the PPP. They clearly support the integration of East Timor into Indonesia, and both have branches in East Timor. Megawati's position on East Timor is not yet publicly known.

So East Timor hardly appears on the agenda of the pro- democracy movement. Those who publicly advocate freedom for the people of East Timor, like Pijar and the People's Democratic Party PRD for instance, don't yet represent a political movement of any size.


Why do even individuals who sympathise with East Timor's plightlargely leave it off the democratisation agenda? The first factor is the extreme sensitivity of the military on East Timor, and the second is the concept of Indonesia as a unitary state.

The military have a very strong position in Indonesian politics. Some pro-democracy groups still harbour the illusion that the military may support political change. They argue that change cannot possibly occur without military support. They point to a number of officers who want to 'professionalise' the armed forces. To avoid military intervention they tend to steer clear of issues likely to arouse military ire. Most pro-democracy groups are well aware of the rigidity of the military on East Timor.

East Timor has for long advantaged an elite sector of the military. It has meant access to the latest weapons training, and a promotions route for up and coming soldiers. They frequently refer to the sacrifice made by comrades who died in East Timor. A young Abri officer once told me in private they would never forget their fellows who died there. The actual number killed or maimed is still not known, but it is not difficult to imagine the adverse effect on military morale if East Timor were to separate from Indonesia.

Unitary state

The ideology of a unitary Indonesian state, meanwhile, is played upon skilfully by the regime to frighten the people. The various rebellions in Sukarno's day and the troubles in Aceh and Irian Jaya at the present time make Indonesians anxious about the future of their country. Their anxiety is heightened by images from the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. They fear that if East Timor were to break away from Indonesia the opportunity might be seized by other regions to do the same.

Dissatisfaction with the central authority of Jakarta and Java is known to be latent in the regions. Examples on a small scale of the sort of eruptions which could occur were seen during the recent elections for regents and governors.


An unsettling element is Suharto's practice of using Islam to shore up his authority. A number of opportunistic Islamic politicians are making the most of this situation to 'pull strings' as the final days of the Suharto regime approach. These people are often prepared to condone the actions of Suharto, including his handling of East Timor. The way in which the Suharto regime is prepared to use the factor of religion to aggravate the situation in East Timor was evident during the religious riots there.

Confrontation or accommodation?

According to some observers, the most likely change in Indonesia is of the accommodative 'transplacement' type, as a result of negotiations between reformists within the state and moderates among the general public.

However, change of the more confrontative 'replacement' type is not impossible. The success of this mode will depend on the steadfastness and courage of opposition groups in the face of the military. Groups such as Oposisi Indonesia and the Indonesian People's Action Front are demanding the abolition of Abri's Dual Function and a withdrawal to the barracks.

For the East Timorese, the best chance for freedom would indeed be change of a confrontative, 'replacement' kind. The new Indonesian regime would govern independently of the military, and this would make a comprehensive problem-solving exercise on East Timor possible.

The hard line opposition demands represent a stride forward for political activism in Indonesia. However it must be understood that they form only a very small component of the pro- democracy movement in Indonesia. If they opt for confrontative change they will have to contend with the physical opposition of the military.

It seems that the accommodative approach is the one most likely to bring about democratisation. This means the question of East Timor will take longer to resolve. A post-Suharto regime may choose to experiment with democracy and open up the issue of East Timor for discussion.

If the military personnel involved in this process take an inflexible stand I do fear the result will be discussion only rather than resolution. However, even with change of the 'transplacement' kind, negotiations on East Timor would still have more room to move than at present. Very likely the solution on offer would be 'regional autonomy' or 'special territory' status, such as in Jakarta, Aceh or Yogyakarta.

Closer ties

Regardless of all that, an urgent priority right now is to build stronger ties between the pro-democracy movement in Indonesia and activists in East Timor. Till now, close contacts have been limited to a number of small but radical groups. Mutual understanding between the two will lay the foundation for future relations between the peoples of Indonesia and East Timor.

If the two groups pooled their respective strengths - the East Timor activists' access to international opinion, and the Indonesian pro-democracy movement's backing in the domestic community - they could well form a combination capable of putting pressure on the regime.

They would each retain full freedom of action. But to effectively pursue their common objectives, namely freedom and democracy, it is essential that they form a common front. If they do this, democracy in Indonesia and freedom for the people of East Timor will become a reality.

Coki (pronounced Tjokkee) Naipospos helped found the Jakarta student discussion group Pijar, and currently coordinates Masyarakat Indonesia untuk Kemanusiaan, an organisation working for peaceful change. The translator was John Gare.


Inside Indonesia 48: Oct-Dec 1996

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