Subject: IHT: In East Timor's story, lessons for Indonesia

International Herald Tribune

Letter from Asia: In East Timor's story, lessons for Indonesia

By Jane Perlez
The New York Times

Published: August 14, 2006

JAKARTA For more than two decades, the brutal military occupation of East Timor, a distant, impoverished, peripheral territory, brought Indonesia little but disdain and dishonor on the world stage.

The ending, a bloody rampage by Indonesian-backed militia after a vote for independence in 1999, further tarnished the nation's reputation abroad, and left a bitter mood at home where the loss of East Timor was a subject best left untouched.

The seemingly closed chapter was reopened this month in a new book by Ali Alatas, the former foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations.

It is the first account by an Indonesian insider who tried to steer some of the sorry events that at critical moments involved the United States, the United Nations and at all times, the heavy hand of the Indonesian Army. Alatas, always amicable, always accessible, was respected in New York as a quintessential diplomat handed the tricky task of representing his country during the rule of the secretive and authoritarian General Suharto.

In "The Pebble in the Shoe, The Diplomatic Struggle for East Timor," Alatas traces events from the Indonesian invasion in 1975 to the exit in September 1999, and the handing over to a UN peacekeeping force.

For the most part, he sticks to the narrow diplomatic history, rarely veering into what the Indonesian Army was doing on the ground, and mostly hinting, rather than asserting, that the army's actions made the diplomatic track so tortuous. "I decided I would try to open up a debate and leave it to the reader to draw his conclusions," Alatas said in an interview.

The debate came immediately. A launching of the book here Aug. 9 fashioned as a public seminar in the stately courtyard of the National Archives and attended by former army generals, Indonesian officials and foreign diplomats turned into an initial round of soul-searching, even catharsis.

An Indonesian official, who served under Alatas and is now President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's most senior foreign policy adviser, told the audience that Indonesia had many stark lessons to learn from East Timor.

The official, Dino Patti Djalal, described the period leading up to the UN administered referendum of Aug. 30, 1999, when the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Djalal said he had been sent by Alatas to visit the East Timorese leader, Xanana Gusmão, when he was still being held by the Indonesians in prison in Jakarta. He had received and passed along a warning from Gusmão that the militias backed by the Indonesian Army would create mayhem. Nothing was done to prevent it, he said.

"One thing that stuck with me from that visit," Djalal said. "He said: 'Dino, this thing about the militias is going to be a cancer.'

"We never had the heart or the will to rein in the militia," Djalal said. "For the government as a whole that was a lesson. That's what killed us. We paid very dearly." According to UN estimates, about 1,000 people died in the violence that analysts have said was turned on and off like a spigot by the Indonesian military.

In his book, Alatas recounts that the looting, burning and killing after the voting was so bad that a delegation of Indonesian officials, including Alatas, was unable to leave the airport when they flew to East Timor for a first- hand look. At that point, Alatas acknowledges the nature of the Indonesian Army's complicity with the militia. "Privately," he said, he began to have serious doubts whether, even under martial law, Indonesian troops could control the situation, "because of wavering and indecisiveness to act strongly against the militias."

Djalal was more forthright in his remarks, saying Indonesia deluded itself during its rule of East Timor. "We spoke of winning the hearts and minds, but we didn't know what we were doing," said Djalal. "We thought we could just splash lots of money about and that would signify something. We were wrong. East Timor became a police state, we were bribing people we thought were loyal to us, and doing horrible things to people we thought were not loyal to us."

At another point in the seminar, the former Indonesian ambassador to Australia, Sabam Siagian, recalled how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in a visit to Jakarta just before the 1975 invasion of East Timor, had told Suharto the plans for East Timor were acceptable as long the operation was done "quickly and cleanly." Siagian noted: "It was neither quick nor clean."

In his account, Alatas says that the gunning down of East Timorese protesters in November 1991 by the Indonesian military at a cemetery in the district of Santa Cruz was a "turning point" from which Indonesia never recovered. The massacre was captured on video tape by a British filmmaker and shown worldwide. "Since that date, international support for Indonesia's position inexorably declined, while that for the independence movement in East Timor markedly increased," he writes.

Soon after the Santa Cruz killings, the United States cut military aid to the Suharto government. With Indonesia's international image suffering so much, Alatas writes that he tried in 1994 to persuade Suharto of the wisdom of granting East Timor autonomy, a status that Alatas long favored. Suharto turned him down.

If autonomy had been granted in the 1980s or 90s, then independence would not have been necessary, Alatas suggests. To the astonishment of many, including Alatas, after Suharto's downfall the new president, B.J. Habibie, quickly set the path for independence.

The book's title comes from a remark Alatas once made to a Portuguese journalist who had asked him how he felt about the stigma over East Timor.

Yes, he had answered, it was a problem for Indonesia, "but only as bothersome as a pebble in a shoe," Alatas said. "In retrospect, however, I have to admit that in its final years, the East Timor problem was no longer a mere pebble in the shoe but had become a veritable boulder."

The troubles of East Timor came at a personal cost to Alatas. In the 1990s, he was a serious candidate for secretary general of the United Nations.

But Alatas has told people that Suharto did not want his candidacy pursued. Friends of the former foreign minister say that Suharto did not want the spotlight on East Timor that a campaign for Alatas would have attracted.

see Letter to Editor


Back to August menu 
May  
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu