Vol. 5, No. 3
|To Resist Is to
Humanitarian Aid for East TimorEast Timor Speaking Tour
|Against All Odds: The Victory of a Lost Cause
by John Roosa
The last contingent of Indonesian soldiers left East Timor on October 30. This was supposed to have been an impossibility. Since the first soldiers invaded 24 years ago, the East Timorese had been told that Indonesia would rule their land in perpetuity. Just last year, Jakarta's foreign minister Ali Alatas contemptuously dismissed the idea of independence for East Timor: "Stop talking about independence! It will never happen!"
Indonesia's foreign supporters, such as those in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, viewed the East Timor struggle as some quixotic, primitive, jungle rebellion against the invincible might of a modern military armed, financed, and trained by the Pentagon. Many governments of the world accepted Indonesia's annexation of the territory as a fait accompli.
A matter of genocide in such a tiny country, one two-hundredth the size of Indonesia, was not allowed to interfere with warm bilateral relations with Jakarta. U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Stapleton Roy, articulated Washington's post-1975 policy most succinctly this year: "Indonesia matters, East Timor does not." International solidarity activists who objected to this prioritization were routinely ridiculed as romantics with a penchant for lost causes and dullards incapable of recognizing the inescapable logic of realpolitik.
How did the impossible become reality?
First, the resistance of the East Timorese was never vanquished. After each defeat, the resistance reemerged in a new form with renewed determination. There are few parallels in history of such an intensive, pervasive, and institutionalized military occupation. Yet the East Timorese continued to summon the courage to resist.
Secondly, the international solidarity movement made the Indonesian government pay a high price for its crimes in East Timor. And thirdly, the economic crisis of 1997 and Suharto's resignation in May 1998 weakened the Indonesian government.
The combination of mass resistance in East Timor, strong international pressure, and a domestic economy in disarray led President Habibie to announce in January 1999 that he would allow a vote to take place in East Timor. Habibie promised that East Timor's disputed status would be resolved by the end of the year: either it would be recognized under international law as a province of Indonesia, or it would become an independent nation.
While the factors that led to Indonesia's willingness to hold a referendum are not difficult to identify, the reasons why it decided to sabotage its agreement with the UN and Portugal for a peaceful ballot are more difficult to understand.
The usual assumption for Indonesia's Janus-faced policy in 1999 has been that two factions were at work: the "reformers," President Habibie and Gen. Wiranto, wanted a peaceful ballot, while certain "hardline" or "rogue" elements in the military were opposed to the ballot. Habibie, it is said, pushed through his plan without consulting the military, which remained obdurately antagonistic. This factional analysis was, for instance, the wisdom at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta and in U.S. newsrooms.
When considered closely, this factional analysis is absurd. The decision to hold a referendum was taken by the entire cabinet and was announced immediately after a meeting of the cabinet's committee for politics and security, which included several generals. The cabinet assented to Habibie's proposal because they thought Indonesia would win the ballot. As Alatas recalled in an interview with the Jakarta Post (November 2, 1999), "Up to the balloting, the report we got from our own people, of the pro-integration people, including Lopes da Cruz, and so on, is that we were going to win."
They thought Indonesia was going to win because they had funded and armed paramilitary groups to intimidate the electorate into voting for Indonesia. By the time Alatas signed the May 5 agreement with the UN and Portugal, pro-Indonesia militias had already created a reign of terror. They had killed about 100 people and displaced about 60,000 since becoming active in January, precisely when the cabinet announced its intention to hold a vote. Alatas was only willing to sign the agreement if it gave Indonesia complete authority over security so that it could continue the strategy of intimidation without the interference of UN troops.
The militias, though directed by the military's special forces, Kopassus, enjoyed the support of the entire Indonesia government apparatus in Jakarta and East Timor. The Dili civil administration recognized the Dili militia Aitarak, headed up by Eurico Guterres, as an official "civil defense" unit and encouraged civil servants to join it. The regular military units worked with the militias. As one ex-militiaman testified, the militias never launched an attack without a sergeant accompanying them. The police, instead of stopping militia attacks, often joined in the beating and killing.
If Gen. Wiranto, whom the U.S. embassy thought to be the reformer in the white hat, was actually opposed to the militias, he could have acted against them at any time from January to mid-September. Instead, Wiranto helped legitimate them as spontaneously organized groups outside of military control. He consistently upheld the falsehood that the military was not supporting the militia. It is impossible that he actually believed this.
The military's deployment of militias was an implicit acknowledgment that Indonesia had no reliable civilian collaborators who could peacefully persuade people to vote for integration. It is a testimony to the brutality of the occupation that after 24 years Indonesia could find no better loyalists than deranged and inarticulate mafia bosses such as João Tavares, Eurico Guterres, and Herminio da Silva.
I recall meeting one elderly civilian collaborator, a former district chief and member of parliament, at his large house in Dili before the ballot. "I was invited by the SGI [Kopassus's intelligence agency] to a meeting back in February," he explained. "I told them this militia strategy would fail. No one supports these thugs."
I was surprised during my two months in Dili to find that nearly all of Indonesia's former collaborators supported independence. They were, like everyone else, desperate to get out from under the military.
After the East Timorese enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of UN personnel in late May, the government began to worry that the militias had not properly terrorized the population. A military officer working in the "politics and security" ministry, H.R. Garnadi, visited East Timor in June and wrote a pessimistic report of Indonesia's chances for victory at the ballot box. His report (dated July 3) was leaked by one of those East Timorese collaborators secretly working against Indonesia.
Garnadi wrote that pro-integration forces had become "dominant" in the early months of the year but the "anti-integration" forces received a "second wind" once UNAMET (United Nations Assistance Mission to East Timor) was established. He thus recommended the development of a contingency plan in case the integration option lost, a plan that would involve the evacuation of all pro-integration people and the "destroying of vital facilities."
Garnadi's outlined contingency plan evolved over the subsequent two months into a full-scale scorched earth strategy. Despite the Indonesian government's denials, the violence after the UN's announcement of the vote results was a carefully planned operation that began before the results were announced on September 4. One must emphasize that the military and its militias in East Timor knew they had lost before the vote count. When a remarkable 98.6% of the voters turned out to vote despite all the intimidation and displacement, the result was fairly obvious even to colonialists deluded by their own myths.
I happened to be at the polling station when Eurico Guterres arrived to vote the morning of August 30. Not a single East Timorese person of the two thousand gathered in the compound greeted him. Though he had become a leading figure of the pro-integration cause in the press, he was ignored as if a non-person while waiting in line to vote. He announced to the journalists crowded around him that morning that he would, starting the next day, control who entered and exited East Timor.
At the time, I thought this was just an odd bit of bombast. But the next day he did indeed fulfill his boast in what was to be the first step of the scorched earth strategy.
The Indonesian government handed Guterres the power to become a kind of one-man immigration and transportation department. He appeared at the Dili airport and docks to announce that he would determine which East Timorese could leave. Travelers on the roads in and out of Dili, including foreigners and Indonesians, were supposed to obtain a permit signed by him. Militias throughout East Timor set up road blocks, pulled pro-independence individuals (and Australians) out of vehicles and beat them up. The police spokesman, Capt. Widodo, told the press that the militia actions were "understandable and conducted under police supervision. They just want everyone to remain in East Timor."
The militias began telling people on September 3 that there would be major violence and that they should flee to West Timor. Herminio da Silva, the second in command of the militia umbrella grouping, told journalists that they should leave to avoid a "scorched earth" operation that would begin the next day.
Between the day of the vote, August 30, and the announcement of the results, September 4, I witnessed Indonesian police and military load trucks with their personal belongings and office material. They were evacuating even before the 4th.
The militias began attacking UNAMET offices on August 31. They murdered East Timorese who had worked for UNAMET. By September 4, nearly all of its district offices had been closed down and its foreign staff evacuated to Dili. Since arriving in May, UNAMET had promised that it would not leave East Timor after the vote. This was an implicit assurance to the East Timorese that they could vote for independence without having to fear retribution from the military and its militias. But UNAMET was in no position to guarantee that promise since it had no military power. And the East Timorese knew UNAMET was powerless.
The United Nations, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan personally, committed a serious blunder in proceeding with the vote without ensuring that there was military protection for the East Timorese. Annan was being disingenuous when he said that the UN had no idea that there would be such violence. Many prominent and organizations, had warned him that the military and its militias appeared ready to wreak havoc after the vote.
The United States and Australia bear a greater amount of blame for the devastation of East Timor. They had bluntly told Annan that they would not send troops into East Timor as part of a multinational force before the vote unless Indonesia invited them. But the introduction of multinational troops need not have been an act of war if preceded by measures to force Indonesia to accept such troops (as was belatedly done).
The UN had the right to demand the introduction of a multinational force as Indonesia had no rightful claim over East Timor and had so spectacularly reneged on its pledges under the May 5 agreement to remain neutral and maintain security. Still, Annan could not assert the right when faced with the pro-Indonesia position of the main military powers of the region. At the very least, however, Annan could have insisted that a multinational force be ready for immediate deployment after the vote. He could have postponed the vote until a contingency plan was prepared. Indonesia would have protested, of course, but its protests would have rung hollow given its blatant violation of the May 5 agreement.
Knowing that no multinational force would arrive, the Indonesian military forged ahead with its scorched earth strategy. The destruction was systematically organized: the populace was rounded up in door to door raids and ordered to board trucks to West Timor. Their houses were then looted and the contents loaded onto trucks. The houses were then burned down. Mass killing was not the main intent of this operation - it was the forced deportation of the population, the theft of all moveable property, and the burning of anything that remained. All three acts are crimes against humanity.
This operation was conducted within about one week, from September 4 to 12. Given that some 200,000 people and all manner of goods (even roofs) were transported to West Timor, and that 70-90% of most towns were burned down, this was an impressive feat of logistical work. The Indonesian military perhaps deserves an award for one of the most efficient commission of crimes against humanity in history.
Now that a new government exists in Indonesia, with a civilian president and defense minister, the U.S. appears eager to forget about the crimes against humanity that were committed in East Timor and return to cozy relations with Jakarta. But until Indonesia's generals are investigated and put on trial for their crimes in East Timor, there will be no justice for East Timor and no end to the culture of impunity for the military that commits similar crimes in the provinces that are part of Indonesia.