Freedom in East Timor is no longer a dream. But the transition to freedom is full of danger.
With his extraordinary announcement that Indonesia is prepared to accept self-determination in East Timor, President Habibie opened the way to great hope, and at the same time to great danger in East Timor.
The Timor colonial folly had several years ago reached the limits of political possibility. No rational Indonesian interest of any significance was being served by continuing occupation. Abri careers have long since ceased to be made in Timor; the oil in the Timor Gap is divisible by three countries as easily as by two; and the drain on the shrunken state budget was unending. The decision by the hitherto ever-reliable Australian government to abandon Indonesia was profoundly shocking.
In December 1975, newly oil-rich Indonesia led by the Smiling General was the darling of an anti-communist United States reeling from the fall of Saigon. In 1999, beggarman-poorman Indonesia knocking on the door of the IMF is in no position to indulge the expansionist fantasies of its dead and disgraced generals.
The keys to diplomatic change were the United States and the United Nations. Under Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN has been persistent in its search for peace in East Timor. The Clinton Administration is no longer willing to protect an Indonesia embroiled in a hopeless war. International financial negotiators have made clear their irritation with Indonesia’s expensive colonial folly.
Indonesia has recognised reality, and made a public commitment at the highest level to self-determination in the country Timorese now love to call Timor Lorosae. That cannot now be retracted. The commitment has been made when world diplomatic and media attention is focussed on Indonesia to a greater degree than at any time since 1965. Xanana is out of prison, the resistance umbrella organisation CNRT he leads is well-organised and without serious internal conflict. The Indonesian political public is now informed about the realities of East Timor, and there is much to gain for both sides in an orderly transition to self-government and then self-determination.
Yet there is reason to be fearful for the future of East Timor, primarily because of the conflicting actions of different parts of the Indonesian government. The most significant immediate problem is the arming of Timorese civilians who are in favour of continued integration into Indonesia. No policy is more certain to simultaneously bring terror and distrust to the people of East Timor, to derail the peace process, and to destroy any vestige of international respect for Indonesia’s political leaders.
Most worryingly, the arming of the paramilitaries may be evidence of disintegration of the Indonesian armed forces command structure. It is possible that General Wiranto’s claim that the paramilitaries were to be unarmed was a knowing lie. Perhaps Abri headquarters made a covert decision to follow a Nicaraguan model. Abri would withdraw but leave behind in East Timor politically reliable and well-equipped pro-Indonesian contras with orders to derail the peace process in the short term, and to use terror to destroy an independent Timor. Certainly on past experience Indonesian intelligence organisations are capable of such thinking.
With Abri’s political standing inside the country at possibly its lowest ebb since the 1945 revolution, and an economically crippled Indonesia crucially dependent on massive international aid, and with the world’s media scrutinising Indonesia, it is hard to conceive of a more counter-productive plan for President Habibie and his successor.
More likely is that after the sudden shock of Habibie’s announcement, longstanding vague plans at the regional headquarter level to expand the existing Timorese paramilitaries were rapidly updated. Additional pressure came from prominent beneficiaries of Indonesian rule fearful of the future. What is unclear is whether local commanders or intelligence officers acted on their own initiative, or perhaps at the suggestion of Abri factions hostile to General Wiranto and President Habibie when they decided to arm the paramilitaries as a contra force. Either way, a breakdown of Abri command may have been involved – with frightening implications for Indonesia in 1999.
The role of the United Nations in facilitating negotiations is now central. Ambassador Marker’s proposal to first establish self-governing autonomy in East Timor and then move towards an appropriate form of self-determination offers the most likely basis for an orderly and peaceful transition after two decades of war. Yet possible Indonesian pique, the fears of pro-Indonesian Timorese, or an ill-considered rush for immediate independence by some East Timorese challenging CNRT’s authority could sabotage such negotiations.
Most importantly, and most difficult to achieve, the UN Security Council needs to establish and deploy a peace-keeping force throughout the territory. The Security Council is likely to be reluctant to undertake yet another thankless and hazardous peace-keeping task.Yet the mountainous terrain of East Timor and the highly dispersed population will demand a substantial presence to be effective. The reluctance of the Security Council will increase in proportion to the degree of intra-Timorese violence and the amount of political chaos in the transition period.
Consequently, enormous responsibility rests with both East Timorese and Indonesian political leaders and diplomats. Xanana Gusmao, Bishop Belo, and Mario Carrascalao have demonstrated a capacity to handle such responsibility. Xanana has stressed the need for reconciliation, abjuring revenge, and has frequently forsaken short-term and narrow advantage for the sake of long-term and widespread political benefit.
It is not so clear that present Indonesian leaders have such capacities. President Habibie’s courageous decision was not followed through decisively. Within Abri in particular, there was clearly a reluctance to make a constructive response. Megawati Sukarnoputri reminded the world more of Indira Gandhi the nationalist dictator, rather than of Cory Aquino the courageous democrat, when she rejected out of hand the possibility of East Timorese self-determination should she become president. Indonesian parliamentarians, safe from the challenge of political responsibility, spoke in tones of infantile regression about the ingratitude of the Timorese children who, having spurned Indonesia’s good intentions, should be simply abandoned forthwith. Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, repeatedly humiliated by his masters, and outplayed diplomatically for a decade by Ramos-Horta, has shown no sign of recognising Indonesia’s enormous moral responsibility.
Facing self-government, East Timorese political figures will have to deal with an extraordinarily difficult set of policy choices. These include issues of language, law, administrative structures, economic issues ranging from basic food provision to the renegotiation of the Timor Gap treaty, and above all demilitarisation after the habit of war. However, the most immediate task is to ensure the acceptability of whatever is agreed upon in the UN-facilitated talks to the majority of East Timorese. Timorese of all persuasions feel sidelined from these talks while their futures appear to be negotiated over their heads.
In the parallel case of Palestine, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Authority is widely discredited amongst Palestinians, in large part because of the secrecy of negotiations and lack of consultation between the PLO leadership and the mass of Palestinians both in occupied Palestine and in the diaspora.
The question of a referendum as the end-point for self-determination is therefore a fundamental goal for CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance). If there is a chance for any agreement to be discussed and approved on the ground in East Timor, the result is much more likely to be effective in providing a stable framework for transition to effective self-determination.
Fortunately CNRT has consolidated a complex two-way flow of both information and decision-making structures, spanning from Cipinang Prison in Jakarta to East Timor and beyond to CNRT external leadership and to the ever-increasing numbers of activists and intellectuals emerging from East Timorese diaspora communities around the world.
It is possible that Indonesian authority and its administrative organisations will fall apart very rapidly. The most important immediate key issues are demilitarisation, security, and the abjuring of revenge, each of which is capable of being exploited by opponents of self-determination.
After all the suffering flowing from war and occupation, it is inevitable that many East Timorese will feel extreme bitterness towards Indonesians in the territory. They will feel even more bitter and violent towards East Timorese they regard as collaborators. After the end of World War 2 in Europe, the French Resistance summarily executed some 40,000 French citizens held to be collaborators with the Nazi occupation. One can well imagine the fears of some East Timorese faced with the prospect of Indonesian withdrawal.
Two decades of war have had a profound effect on East Timorese society. Will it be possible for the habits of violence and secrecy, necessary for survival under alien occupation, to be forgotten? CNRT has begun to think through these problems. Its peace plans now stress the importance of demilitarisation, the disbanding of domestic military forces, and the role of the United Nations in maintaining peace in the transition period.
Yet the trauma of violence knows no party, no nationality. Xanana Gusmao and Bishop Belo have both stressed the need to eschew revenge and build a society based on compassion. The first step towards peace is to forget the simple-minded notion of ‘collaborator’. In 24 years of Indonesian occupation, the families of even the most ardent supporters of independence have had to make compromises with Indonesian authority. Lives are not always lived politically. CNRT will have to move rapidly once Indonesian authority begins to crumble.
CNRT has indicated some understanding of the position of innocent Indonesian citizens in East Timor. Indonesia is sure to demand guarantees of protection for its citizens. However their numbers are now so large that there will have to be complex plans made to actually manage the process of withdrawal of Indonesian troops from the mountains and countryside to the towns, and from there to Indonesia itself. Much can go wrong. Here again, the question of how large a UN presence can be expected is important.
8 February 1999.
Richard Tanter is Professor of International Relations at Kyoto Seika University, Japan. He has been writing on East Timor issues since mid-1975.