|Subject: First steps - Timor Independence
(Deliverance pt 2 of 5)
May 20, 2002, Monday
First steps - Timor Independence - BIRTH OF A NATION
Don Greenlees, Robert Garran
John Howard's letter urging self-determination for East Timor coincided with Indonesia's aim to rebuild its international reputation, according to Don Greenlees and Robert Garran, in the first of four exclusive extracts from their book Deliverance
IN December 1998, with Indonesian politics in a fluid and unpredictable state, Australian Prime Minister John Howard seized the opportunity for what he hoped would be a diplomatic master stroke. He signed a letter to then Indonesian president B.J. Habibie that remodelled 23 years of consistent Australian policy on East Timor.
Howard wrote in the tone of a friend, offering gentle advice. He played to Habibie's ego, lavishing praise on him. He described Habibie's offer of autonomy the previous July as "a bold and clear-sighted step" and acknowledged "the visionary lead" Habibie had given. He was also suitably modest in outlining Australia's ideas on the way forward for East Timor: "I take the liberty of making these suggestions, knowing the matter is complex and not pretending to have the solutions."
The cautious phrasing and a proposal to defer a review of East Timor's status could not disguise the letter's essence: a call for self-determination. The Australian Government hoped that proposing a long time frame would soften the blow.
Howard's letter proposed building a "review mechanism" into the autonomy deal along the lines of the Matignon Accord in New Caledonia, which, Howard wrote, had deferred a referendum on the final status of the French Pacific colony "for many years". Such a process would "allow time to convince the East Timorese of the benefits of autonomy within the Indonesian Republic". Howard made it clear he believed East Timor should remain part of Indonesia. He signed the letter on December 19, 1998 and the next day it was sent by cable to the Australian ambassador in Jakarta, John McCarthy. McCarthy was tasked with delivering it to Habibie.
After reviewing the cabled copy of Howard's message, Habibie called in Foreign Minister Ali Alatas for a discussion, but he had only a few questions. Alatas was bemused by one in particular. Habibie asked: "What is the Matignon Accord?" Alatas explained, and Habibie replied: "That's a colonial arrangement, that's France. I object to that."
When Habibie felt strongly about an issue he could become agitated and verbose. He would perch on the edge of his seat and make rapid gestures with his arms and hands. His eyes alight and bulging, he would become increasingly high-pitched in tone. Although most of the 90-minute meeting with McCarthy the next day passed in good humour, the Howard letter's reference to the Matignon Accord left him in an excited state. Habibie told McCarthy he was offended at the comparison between East Timor and a French colony. With Indonesia's own history of throwing off Dutch rule, any suggestion it had colonised East Timor was liable to wound.
The meeting revealed Habibie's wariness over foreign interest in the issue, particularly the motives behind Portugal's unrelenting campaign. "His own speculative view was that [Portugal] had returned to challenge Indonesia on East Timor because of possible economic wealth in the Timor Gap," McCarthy reported to Canberra: "Portugal's interest in East Timor was exploitative. Indonesia, on the other hand, was not a colonising nation. It took the decision to integrate East Timor because it wanted to help East Timor. " Later in the meeting, Habibie rejected McCarthy's suggestion that the UN might need to play a role in monitoring any autonomy arrangement:
The subject of some form of monitoring East Timor came up at a different juncture when Habibie mentioned the prospect of conflict between various groups in East Timor. We suggested that in the wake of any autonomy arrangement there might be merit in some form of monitoring, possibly with a UN force. Habibie reacted quickly saying that "I can't do that".
The meeting also highlighted what was to be the most critical aspect of Habibie's thinking: his impatience to achieve a lasting result. Although he was particularly sensitive to the use of Matignon as an analogy, his real concern was over a long transition before a final settlement was reached -- as proposed by Howard, Xanana Gusmao, [Bishop] Carlos Belo and others. Habibie argued it would be better to let the territory go immediately rather than give it the option of a referendum after an interregnum of perhaps 15 years. Habibie referred to leaving his successor a "time bomb" and the need to "decide quickly". This should have been a signal of the direction in which he was heading. It was a strong indication that he had already been thinking about the option of an early act of self-determination even before the Howard letter arrived. But no one for a moment thought the president was about to rashly agree to a vote on East Timor's future.
Throughout 1998 Indonesia had been a key topic of discussion in the Australian cabinet's National Security Committee, and in the second half of the year the committee also began to focus on East Timor. Diplomatic and intelligence reports to Canberra suggested that with the demise of president Suharto the Indonesian system had become "far looser, and probably weaker", and that those around the new president were prepared to let East Timor go. The Indonesians were facing pressure from the East Timorese, from Portugal, and from the broader international community. Australian officials felt there was an opportunity for Australia to urge Habibie to think constructively about managing the transition in East Timor rather than waiting to the bitter end and facing a dramatic collapse that could bring violence and bloodshed.
The months of debate within the Australian Government over East Timor policy started to crystallise in November 1998. On October 3, the Howard Government had been narrowly returned to office in national elections. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer went back to his desk eager to influence progress on East Timor. For some time he had been pressing his department head, Ashton Calvert, to find a way to advance East Timor policy. Soon after the election, Calvert raised first with his colleagues and then with Downer the idea of a letter from Howard to Habibie. Calvert, a former ambassador to Japan and prime ministerial adviser, argued that if Australia was going to recommend Indonesia change such an important policy, the proposal had to come straight from the Prime Minister. Those close to Calvert said he believed that previous Australian governments had taken the wrong path in their response to East Timor since 1975, although not all his colleagues agreed.
Calvert believed there had been no possibility of resolving the issue while Suharto was in power. With Suharto gone, if there was any way to remove the burden placed on the Australia-Indonesia relationship by East Timor, the opportunity should be seized. In November the Foreign Affairs Department drafted a proposal for Downer to take to the NSC, along with a draft letter to president Habibie. The ideas in the draft became the basis of the final version, advocating self-determination, based on the Matignon model of delayed consultation.
The proposal was discussed at an NSC meeting on December 1. At the time the letter was not considered as important as the formal shift in Australia's stance towards East Timor. The official record of the meeting made no mention of the proposal to send a letter. It noted that ministers held a discussion in the context of a possible meeting on East Timor in Australia, and that the changes in Indonesia had created a window of opportunity for dealing with East Timor.
The meeting's record said the committee agreed that Australia should take advantage of the opportunity to bring about a lasting settlement, based on substantial autonomy for East Timor. Downer raised the issue in an oral presentation, not with a formal written submission. During the discussion, dominated by Howard and Downer, the foreign minister argued that the department's review of East Timorese opinion showed some mechanism for self-determination would be a productive approach. At the end of the meeting Howard turned to Downer and took him by the arm. "This is big, this is very big," he said.
12 produced a sudden flurry of activity. Habibie was advised from several quarters to give the East Timorese a free choice.
The president was particularly close to his Co-operatives Minister Adi Sasono. Sasono recalled he had told Habibie on various occasions, before and after he became president, that Indonesia should offer the East Timorese a choice and be prepared to let the territory go. In 1996 a think tank linked to ICMI, the Centre for Information and Development Studies (CIDES), prepared a paper for internal distribution arguing for East Timor to be set free if that were the wish of the Timorese.
Later, ICMI held a seminar behind closed doors on the subject. Around this time, one of Indonesia's most influential Muslims, Amien Rais, chairman of the 28-million strong Muhammadiyah organisation, had also written an article in an Indonesian magazine and given interviews calling for a referendum in East Timor. Adi Sasono claimed to have developed the same view as Rais, in large part because of his own visits to East Timor. He saw in East Timor a pattern of military abuse that had occurred elsewhere in Indonesia. Granting the military free rein in the territory had been one of Suharto's "gross" mistakes.
Habibie faced a dilemma. He was conscious that no agreement was likely without tackling the issue of self-determination, yet he remained opposed to a deferred vote. He was to speak often of Indonesia entering the 21st century with a clean slate, unburdening itself of historic problems, including its poor human rights record and tarnished international reputation. The economic crisis and Indonesia's increased dependency on international economic support added a sense of urgency to efforts to rehabilitate the nation's image. These factors influenced Habibie's preference for an immediate resolution of East Timor's status.
THE advice to Habibie, and his own line of thinking, coincided with the arrival on January 17 of the original copy of the letter from Howard. As the discussion with McCarthy had revealed a month earlier, Habibie had for some time been toying with the idea of giving the East Timorese a choice of accepting or rejecting the autonomy package. But in January his thinking started to harden. Indeed, the day before the original version of the Howard letter arrived, Habibie asked Dewi Fortuna Anwar: "Why should we remain a captive of East Timor? Why don't we just let them go if they no longer want to stay with us?" But the arrival of the signed original of the Howard letter, under a covering note from McCarthy, brought the issue to a head. Habibie reread the letter and, on January 21, wrote in a flourish in the margins the words that would have a profound effect on the course of his government: that it would be "reasonable and wise" to request that Indonesia's supreme lawmaker, the People's Consultative Assembly, let East Timor go if its people rejected autonomy.
Habibie's notes filled the left-hand side, looped underneath and curled up around the other side as he urgently covered the available space. As far as its limited circle of readers was concerned, the handwritten memorandum neatly captured the extraordinary nature of its author. "He was obviously in an agitated mood," observed one of its five recipients.
Few words he would use in his short tenure as Indonesia's third president would have more lasting significance. In this unusual memo, Habibie took the first steps to granting independence to East Timor. One US State Department official said the Howard letter had "provoked the whole thing". It later suited Indonesian politicians to encourage this perception. Justice Minister Muladi was among those who attributed the Indonesian policy switch to the letter, saying Habibie had described it as "insulting" because of the parallel it drew between Indonesia's role in East Timor and the French decolonisation of New Caledonia.
However, the records show that initially at least Habibie was not so exercised about Australia's new policy. Moreover, political figures in the US and European Union were similarly warning autonomy alone would not be enough to settle the question of sovereignty. Adi Sasono insisted Habibie's change of heart was unconnected with the Howard letter. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Habibie was clearly changing his views in the weeks leading up to the decision, and there is a strong possibility he would have agreed to self-determination irrespective of the Australian Government's new stance, especially given the attitude of his influential advisers.
TOMORROW: Dirty tricks
Deliverance: The Inside Story of East Timor's Fight for Freedom by Don Greenlees and Robert Garran will be published by Allen&Unwin on June 1 (RRP $35).
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