What next for East Timor?

Experts debate what the United States should do to stop the carnage.


Fiona Morgan
September 9, 1999 12:00PM (UTC)

The tiny island region of East Timor, rocked by anti-independence militia violence last week, has been the site of terror and bloodshed for a quarter-century. Only slightly larger than Connecticut, East Timor was a Portuguese colony until 1975, when it was invaded by Indonesia just as it was gaining independence. It has been torn by rebellion and conflict ever since. But because it has been closed to foreign journalists since the occupation by Indonesia began -- a few reporters have been able to move in and out over the years -- there has been little international interest in the crisis there until now.

Officially, the United States and the United Nations have never recognized Indonesia's rule in the province. This year, in a move to win confidence in his promised democratic reforms, President B.J. Habibie offered East Timorese the chance to vote on whether to be an independent state or "autonomous" under Indonesian rule. Despite threats from the military and a ban on campaigning by independence advocates, on Aug. 30 nearly 99 percent of registered voters dropped ballots, with 78 percent of them voting for independence. Though the election was amazingly free of violence, in the past week anti-independence militias have terrorized the Timorese. Scattered reports tell of killings, looting and massive destruction. Bishop Belo, the Catholic leader of the province and a well-known advocate for independence, has been evacuated.

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In response to militia violence, Habibie's government proclaimed a state of "martial law." Yet many observers say the Indonesian military itself is the problem, that its soldiers and military leaders are working with militia groups to gather Timorese and interrogate, transport or kill them, and that Habibie has no control of military forces. An estimated 200,000 Timorese -- one quarter of the population -- have been relocated or killed since the violence began.

Now the international community must decide what, if anything, to do to stop the bloodshed. While the United Nations considers whether to send peacekeeping forces into the region, neighboring Australia says it is ready to deploy 2,000 troops. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen says the United States has no plans to send peacekeepers. However, President Clinton on Thursday suspended future relations with the Indonesian military. U.S. support for the Indonesian military has been in place since the reign of Suharto. In his statement, delivered to Indonesian Gen. Wiranto, Clinton threatened economic sanctions if the violence did not end, and said Indonesia "must invite the international community" to assist in restoring security.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank must also consider whether to cut the billions of dollars in financial aid they have been sending to the Indonesian government in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. But again, the United States is reluctant to risk harming its relationship with Indonesia and with Habibie's tenuous reform effort by joining the push for sanctions.

A new, reformist assembly is scheduled to convene in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in November, and one of its agenda items is the ratification of the vote in East Timor. Some experts fear that violence in Dili, the East Timorese capital, is only a precursor of the military's coming effort to prevent the assembly. And reports are surfacing that Habibie, a civilian leader, is likely to face a military coup at any moment.

Salon News asked four East Asian experts what the world community should do about the fate of East Timor and the future of Indonesia.

Ben Anderson, professor of government and Asian studies at Cornell University: The Indonesian military relies for its information on a very expensive network of informers and spies, but they seem to have forgotten that informers and spies have a habit of reporting what they think that their superiors want to hear. I'm told that prior to the election, all of the information coming into military intelligence was reassuring to the government that the autonomy proposal -- that is, no independence -- would be accepted by over 60 percent of the vote. That was why the vote was allowed to proceed without any serious trouble. It was an extraordinarily stupid mistake, but the military can be very stupid about these things.

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Now that this has been a huge blunder and they've lost the vote by a huge margin, they're trapped by these commitments that they never thought they would have to live up to. From the Indonesian military's point of view, the war in East Timor has cost them more casualties than any war they've ever been in. Many people in the army feel angry at the idea that all the sacrifices should have been for nothing, rather like the United States in Vietnam.

One thing you need to bear in mind: the military's financial situation. It's been in very bad shape since the fall of Suharto. The collapse of the economy means that the military has lost the kind of resources it needs to retain discipline. And the military is out of the control of the civilian government. I know from people that I've spoke to in Jakarta who have reasonably good access to meetings of the cabinet that some of the generals in the cabinet endorsed the idea that Malaysian and Australian troops might be a good idea, but this was opposed strongly by the present military commander, Gen. Wiranto. This shows that the military is very far from united on what they should have done, should be doing now and should do in the future.

A lot of Indonesian people are of course upset that East Timor voted to leave Indonesia. Middle-class people are extremely embarrassed by the terrible beating that Indonesia's international image has taken. It's a very nationalist country and one that at no time in the past 50 years would have agreed to have international troops upon Indonesian soil. And yet I talked to people in Jakarta last night and they said they thought people would actually be relieved to have United Nations troops come in. Because the television-owning population of Indonesia has been watching for the past two weeks what their own military have been doing. It's all been on the international news media. This is a big shock for a lot of people, the absolutely savage way that people have behaved. The military's image in Indonesia, which has been pretty poor anyway for the past two or three years, has taken another deep nosedive.

The atmosphere is getting much worse in Jakarta. There have been plenty of rumors of a possible coup to get rid of Habibie but I don't think that is going to happen. But the currency is dropping. Sanctions may create riot situations in Java, which would mean the federal government in Indonesia comes close to collapse. What other nations want to do is find a line between disciplining the Indonesian military and undermining the reform of the civilian regime.

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One consideration would be to stop the training of the Indonesian military, which would break the connection between the military and Pentagon and would also send a very strong signal that even the U.S. military itself is unhappy with what the Indonesian military is doing.

Arnold Kohen, author of "From the Place of the Dead: The Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo of East Timor": To be honest with you, even I had no expectation that it would be nearly as bad as it is, and I've been following this for a long time. I just didn't believe that it would be this bad, this degree of terror and horror.

The U.N. people in Timor are very dedicated. They've done the best they could. They went in there with two hands tied behind their backs, in the sense that they had no armed peacekeepers and not enough people in and around the territory. They were depending on the international community to put pressure on the Indonesians to have the process be peaceful. It didn't happen -- you can't blame the U.N. This is the fault of the United States and other big countries that have coddled the Indonesian military too long.

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The army is behind all of this, all of this is completely orchestrated. This martial law declaration is for public relations purposes and nothing more. It's the army that has made the militias possible.

What is needed is an immediate intervention of international troops, really within the next 24-48 hours. Otherwise, we're going to witness a near genocide. There are Australian troops in Darwin, Australia within an hour's flight of East Timor. They could be sent by the end of today. They probably won't, but they can be. We don't have to wait for a U.N. resolution or a U.N. Security Council mission. This is meaningless, too.

New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, all of these countries have offered to send troops. They can do it immediately. But they need to have consent. They don't want to fight their way onshore. What has to happen is there has to be real pressure on the Indonesian government. They have to understand that all aid will be cut off with the exception of food and humanitarian aid to the people, but all financial aid will be cut off. You hear stories that we have no leverage -- that's nonsense.

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Bishop Belo was right all along about what these people were capable of. He's a realist. His role leading up to the election has been to try to have a fair result. He's been trying to tell the world about the violence that's been perpetrated against independence forces. For a long time he was very neutral and tried to work between the different parties. But what disgusted him was all the killings that have taken place in the past six to eight months. Before all of this broke out into the news in recent days, there were 3,000 to 5,000 people killed, which is the same proportion that were killed in Kosovo, relative to the population. There were a handful of decent people in favor of autonomy in the government, but it turned the corner when these death squads started killing opponents of Indonesian rule.

It's an authoritarian military that does not want to cede control and is a renegade group. They have to be taken to task by the world powers. And if they are not, then the world is going to have another genocide on its hands like in Rwanda, only worse. The world participated so much over a 25-year period in terms of military aid and economic support to Indonesia. Now what they're doing is too little, too late. We're talking about water and electricity being cut off, people being herded like cattle onto trucks. God knows what's happening to them. We're talking about people being taken off trucks and shot. They're emptying the territory of population. The head of the Justice and Peace Commission in East Timor is missing and we're worried about him. Someone should do something for him and his family. Bishop Belo's secretary, we don't know where he is. All of these people have been taken away in trucks and planes and taken to Indonesia.

The big problem we have is that the Clinton administration has been soft on Indonesia for a long time. They've been making better statements recently but they simply have not done enough. They share a responsibility for what's happening now. They've created the impression that the Indonesian military will not suffer any real sanctions.

Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica Radio's national daily newsmagazine, "Democracy Now": Two weeks ago, I attempted to get into East Timor to cover the referendum and I was deported twice. But I was in Timor in 1990, 1991 and 1994, with another journalist, Allan Nairn. In 1991, we survived a massacre there, when Indonesian soldiers armed with U.S. M-16s opened fire on a commemoration procession in honor of a man who'd been killed two weeks before, when the Indonesian military shot into a Catholic church. More than 1,000 people showed up and marched to the cemetery, and the Indonesian soldiers marched up, hundreds of them in formation. Without any warning or provocation, without any hesitation, they opened fire on the crowd, gunning people down from right to left. They beat us to the ground -- Allan threw himself on top of me to protect me -- and they used their U.S. M-16s like baseball bats until they fractured his skull. That day they killed more than 250 Timorese.

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We were able to get out that day and we reported the massacre to the outside world. The Indonesians had always denied that massacres take place and this wasn't even one of the largest ones. But it was the first time Western journalists had witnessed one. After that, they banned us from returning to the country, called us a threat to national security.

While I couldn't get in to Dili, we've been reporting every day, getting eyewitness reports from Dili. Over and over again, the observers tell us that they not only see the militias going into people's homes, setting fire, dragging people out, they also see the Indonesian military doing that. The militias will often report back to [military] headquarters. We just talked to Allan [Nairn, who is in East Timor] and he was taken into police headquarters yesterday by the militias, and those militias were answering the commands of the Indonesian police. They were together interrogating Timorese.

Habibie claims that they're democratizing the country and yet, clearly, it's the power of the military that has remained unbroken. The Indonesian military should be pulled out of East Timor. They're the ones responsible for the killing. To think martial law can solve this problem ...

But I think the idea of a U.N. peacekeeping force is problematic. I understand people's instincts, why they want anything to shield the Timorese, but I think the most immediate, effective way to stop the killing right now is for the United States -- and Britain and Australia, the countries that arm the Indonesian regime and finance it -- to impose a total arms and economic embargo of Indonesia. If they were to do that, in one day the Indonesian military would turn around.

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Part of the reason Indonesia is letting East Timor go is because the repression has just cost them too much, both in terms of international outcry and prestige, and also, it's actually cost them up to $1 million a day. With the economy in a shambles, Habibie just saw they couldn't afford that. If there is an embargo imposed, Indonesia would turn around immediately. The economy would collapse, and they're trying to come out of a collapse right now. They're too reliant on loans and aid and weapons. It's just not worth it to them. They'd just stop the violence. Sanctions against Indonesia would not be like the sanctions against Iraq, which only hurt the people. We're talking about stopping the direct flow of weapons from the United States to the Indonesian military.

Sylvia Tiwon, professor of Indonesian studies at UC-Berkeley: I think what we're getting here in the United States is a very distorted view. People tend to focus in a narrow way on East Timor instead of looking at the big picture, at Indonesia.

Habibie clearly offered the chance for independence to East Timor in a move to curry international favor. I'm not one to praise him for anything, but on the other hand, we have to recognize what he has been attempting to do, to restore the freedom of the press, restore party politics in Indonesia, restore civilian government. And very importantly, he released almost all political prisoners. Habibie's stand on East Timor was not an easy one for him. But he took it because he knew that this is what was needed to show that he was truly a democrat. I think that he knew also at the time that the army would stand in the way.

The military's retaliation against the vote for East Timor's independence is not only a precursor of what we will see in Jakarta, it belongs squarely in a pattern that the military has established in Indonesia over the years. It's simply a logical extension of that kind of military strategy and it's only going to escalate in the approach to the assembly. People are saying, we'll wait for the assembly in November, which has to ratify the referendum in East Timor -- they're talking fantasy at this point. If that November assembly is going to happen is now in question.

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One of the elements that is so confusing to the general public is the way people talk about Indonesia as if it were one undifferentiated mass. There are huge rifts, huge divisions. One of the major rifts is between the military and the civilian government. This is not anything new. Since the early '60s the United States has been dealing with the military separately from its dealings with the civilian government. From the time that Suharto took over, the U.S. has had a special liaison with the Indonesian army that cuts through normal diplomatic relations with the civilian government.

The United States stopped aid to Indonesia but continued military aid. The fear of the government's ultra-nationalism made them believe that the army was the only organized force in the country that they could use to try to establish an order that was against what they perceived to be the threat of communism. The U.S. has a long history of establishing the army as a power apart from civilian government. Now you have an army that feels that it has the ability and some strange kind of legitimacy to establish its own idea of what a government should be doing. It is the army that is continuing the reign of terror in East Timor, in Ache, in Amwan, in West Papua, in all the areas of Indonesia, even in Java itself.

Given the fact that the United States and the U.K. have been the main suppliers of weapons to the Indonesian army that have been used to suppress East Timor, the Americans' "hands off" approach is cynical. America has its hands in the problem up to the elbows.

As for sending in troops, you cannot simply imagine that you can go in there with guns blazing and hope that the situation will subside. If they were going to go in there against the Indonesian government itself, you're going to maybe stop the massacre of some people in East Timor, but you may well risk the massacre of many more within Indonesia itself. The army could easily use this as an excuse to establish martial law through the country.

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It's been on the verge of doing that for a long time, and it may well use this opportunity to totally discredit the idea of a civilian government. And it will stand up to the international community and say, you guys put us in place. We're going to do what we were trained to do. For decades they have been told by the international community, in the face of the most horrific mass murders, that they were doing fine. And now suddenly, they're not?

Removal of International Monetary Fund funding is simply going to blow the whole place apart. What the IMF has been doing to this day has hurt millions of women and children, millions of peasants by withholding funds, by structural adjustment programs, by forcing open the Indonesian market. One example is sugar: Sugar peasants in Indonesia are suffering now because they cannot sell their sugar. The domestic market is flooded with cheap imported sugars against which they can't compete. Indonesia has this enormous debt, and the international community never questioned this until the financial crisis hit, in fact was encouraging more and more of the same developmentalist ideology. The effect of economic sanctions would be much worse than in Iraq -- Iraq is nothing compared to what Indonesia is facing right now.

People continue to disengage the violence in East Timor with the whole economic picture, and you can't do that. The military violence is part and parcel of the violence that gave birth to the new order and its development plan. You have to wonder why this violence has suddenly come to international attention. If the financial crisis had not happened, this would never have come out. The whole situation demonstrates the extreme dependency relationship of Indonesia to the international economy and international finance, international capital interests. People pooh-poohed dependency theories, but here it is, and these are the consequences.

You have to reinforce the democratic movement within Indonesia and that doesn't mean punish the people even more -- millions and millions of peasants and workers are suffering. You have to extend a hand in assistance, and not just use the old rhetoric of put pressure here, send in forces.


Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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