Why Indonesia released Allan Nairn

A groundswell of international protest gets the Indonesian military to free its toughest critic.

By Bruce Shapiro
September 20, 1999 2:54PM (UTC)
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As the first United Nations peacekeepers set foot in the ravaged territory of East Timor Monday, Garuda Airlines Flight 826 from Jakarta landed in Singapore. On board was American journalist Allan Nairn, who until just hours earlier had faced 10 years in an Indonesian prison for reporting from Dili in defiance of a government ban.

Even before leaving Indonesian territory, Nairn wasted no time in laying out the chain of responsibility for the past week's brutal rampage by militias backed by Indonesia. "Newspapers are still reporting this as an independent act by the militias, but it was controlled and planned and funded from the top," he said by cell phone from Jakarta's airport, still surrounded by three armed Indonesian guards and his passport in the custody of Indonesian secret police. But the concentric circles of complicity, he added, do not end with the military commander Wiranto. "President Clinton had to be dragged kicking and screaming to cut off military aid and IMF funding," Nairn said. "If he had acted even two weeks earlier, thousands of lives would have been saved."


It was while reporting on the massacre of the Timorese and the burning of their capital that Nairn was arrested and incarcerated. As recently as Friday, U.S. State Department officials expected him to face criminal charges for defying a military blacklist forbidding him from entering Indonesian territory as a journalist. Indonesia's abrupt turnaround came over the weekend. Suddenly Nairn, a freelance reporter for the Nation and Pacifica Radio who has also written about East Timor for the New Yorker, was told to pack and be ready to be deported within 24 hours.

Until then, his future looked grim: 10 years in prison for rarely prosecuted immigration offenses. He was interrogated by the Army, by regular police, by intelligence officers. He was asked to give a written statement to the Indonesian police -- the first step in the criminal prosecution process. In his statement, Nairn was defiant: "I do not think I am a threat to the Indonesian or Timorese people, but I hope that I am a threat to Gen. Wiranto," he wrote.

He named the names of those officers he holds responsible for the current terror in East Timor: "General Wiranto, and Generals Bambang, Zacky, Syafei, Kiki." And he threw in, for good measure, that the inquiry into accountability for the Timorese massacres proposed by U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson ought also include foreign officials who provided weapons or logistical support to Indonesia during its brutal occupation.


What convinced the Indonesians to reverse themselves just 24 hours later and release such a relentless critic is a matter for speculation, even by U.S. diplomats in Jakarta. Informed U.S. officials believe that from the moment of his arrest there was contention among the country's top leadership over what to do with the troublesome journalist, whose eyewitness account of a 1991 massacre at Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili once convinced Congress to cut off much of Indonesia's U.S. military assistance. Military officials and some regional authorities in East Timor wanted to throw him in prison, while in Jakarta Justice Minister Muladi reportedly favored a swift deportation.

But the key element was a groundswell of support for Nairn late last week, which astonished the Indonesians and State Department alike. Nairn reports that even to his low-level immigration-service custodians in Kupang, word trickled down that a United States senator had phoned the minister of justice on his behalf. Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta, leader of East Timor's political independence movement, concluded a meeting on Friday with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, supposed to be devoted to the U.N. deployment, by making a personal plea on Nairn's behalf. According to one individual present, he called Nairn "one of the saviors of my people."

In the end, both Washington and Jakarta most likely concluded that with much of the world press corps landing in Kupang to cover the U.N. deployment, the last thing either government wanted was an imprisoned Allan Nairn on hand as Exhibit A in the human rights case against Indonesia.


Nairn's incarceration was only a symptom of a deeper problem afflicting the U.S. and the U.N. as they strive to contend with the Timorese crisis: deep divisions within Indonesia's leadership about the country's future direction. Military leaders like Wiranto are struggling to hold onto their traditional power while civilian leaders seek their first foothold.

Nairn himself believes some of the supposed outpouring of nationalist resentment at giving up East Timor is pure theater, drummed up by the military and intelligence services to deceive the foreign press and secure their position.


President Habibie has promised to cooperate with Commissioner Robinson's tribunal -- which if followed up on will, once the thousands of murdered Timorese are accounted for, shake the military power centers of Indonesian politics to their deepest foundations, and rattle some cages in Washington as well.

For East Timor, the window between now and November -- when Indonesia's parliament is pledged to formally approve last month's independence referendum -- is a time of considerable peril. Washington, hoping to normalize its strained relations with Jakarta, may seek to ease the military and IMF aid it abruptly suspended -- a temptation that would send entirely the wrong message, convincing Indonesia's military leadership that they could return to business as usual, fomenting civil disturbance in the Timorese protectorate.

The surviving Timorese and the U.N., meanwhile, now face the task of building a democratic and independent nation up from the ruin to which Allan Nairn, almost alone among journalists, bore witness. This tiny, marginalized nation that has suffered so much over the last 25 years deserves a fighting chance.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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