Subject: JP: Hard lessons to be learned from East Timor

Jakarta Post December 14, 1999


Hard lessons to be learned from East Timor

By John Hargreaves

JAKARTA (JP): A number of questions stand out about the chapter of East Timorese history which just ended. One question is what made Soeharto and Western countries decide to integrate East Timor in 1975 to 1976.

Many people say it was a Cold War necessity influenced by events in Cuba and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. But Castro's rebels in Cuba were neither hard-line communists nor Soviet allies when they overthrew Batista in 1958. They became so only after three years of hostile and inappropriate U.S. policy.

The Fretilin rebels were even less communist or Soviet aligned. They started out as the Social Democratic Association of East Timor and saw Australia as a potential key ally. It certainly was not inevitable that a Fretilin-led East Timor would turn into a Soviet military outpost.

What really drove the Western-backed takeover was the fear that a communist East Timor would contaminate Indonesia and destabilize the Soeharto regime. They still believed in the domino theory that justified the Vietnam War. But they did not foresee that the Fretilin rebels would resist a foreign army and a brutal dictator as fiercely as the Vietcong had.

Later Western policy on East Timor is also questionable. For example, the Timor Gap treaty was said to be good for Australian-Indonesian relations. But the East Timorese people were likely to lose their oil for little return. At a local level, exploitation of resources by foreign companies is a more important aspect of international relations than friendliness between central governments.

Recent Australian actions have worsened relations with Indonesia through bad presentation. When former president B.J. Habibie announced his decision to allow independence, stories circulated that a letter from John Howard had influenced Habibie. Actually Habibie's policy was totally different from what Howard proposed. But the policy was popular in Australia so the Australian government fostered the impression that Australia had helped to shape it.

When violence broke out, Australia's policy of military readiness was prudent. But it was accompanied by misleading reports in some media and aggressive anti-Indonesian demonstrations. Some comments from Australian leaders were more in tune with the aggression of the demonstrations than with the prudence of the policy.

Turning to Indonesia, the man most criticized over East Timor was Habibie. For sure, Habibie took a risk by offering East Timor independence, but all possible courses were high risk. Habibie, stepping out of Soeharto's shadow, chose the course that offered a quick resolution.

Nonetheless, the announcement of the referendum was flawed. A normal procedure would be: legislature offers referendum, referendum held, same legislature ratifies result. In this case the procedure was: government offers referendum, referendum held, wait two months, new legislature ratifies result. The two-month wait became a mine field. The prointegration group hoped that if it lost it could still persuade the new People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) to reject the result. The president became trapped between foreign pressure and fear of preempting the MPR.

Still, the big problem was security. It has been said that Habibie's decision to offer independence triggered an upsurge in violence. But Habibie's decision was indeed only a trigger. Trouble was instigated earlier through the recruitment of civilian militias to complement the official armed forces.

For Indonesia it is important to find out how security arrangements went so wrong.

For the United Nations it is important to ask whether any referendum of this kind can be held without an international peacekeeping force. Several countries pressed Indonesia to accept such a force bud did not insist for several reasons: fear that the ballot offer would be withdrawn, fear of upsetting Indonesia's democratic transition, need for unity in the UN and lack of enthusiasm among countries required to supply and fund troops.

In this last regard, the United States affirmed until well after the ballot that it expected Indonesia to keep its security pledge and that the East Timor problem was only one of many in the world. According to statements by John Howard and Jose Ramos Horta, a change of mind by Bill Clinton made Interfet possible.

This indicates that United Nations action depends excessively on the United States. It also suggests that media pressure had an excessive influence when many international media reports about East Timor featured exaggerated death tolls and stories of genocide. In future, stories of a mere couple of thousand deaths may fail to move world public opinion and world leaders, even when intervention is practical. East Timor may find that once outrage subsides the funds it requires will prove elusive.

For Indonesia, the East Timor crisis creates or influences several important goals.

One aim is to build a friendly relationship with East Timor. Beyond technical matters, this means a new outlook. After so many years viewing Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao and Ramos Horta as enemies of the state, some Indonesians may be suspicious of East Timor. But East Timor will have a minor influence on Indonesia while Indonesia will have a major influence on East Timor. While East Timorese leaders will naturally want to get on well with Indonesia, it is Indonesia which should lead as it is by far the larger and more powerful country.

A second aim is to improve Indonesia's position in the world.

An important route to this goal is to develop the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The recent crisis showed that it cannot handle security and human rights problems, which limits its influence on the world stage. While some members already seek more cooperation in these areas, it is now up to the group's biggest member, Indonesia, to take a stance.

It is also important to strengthen the domestic base for foreign policy. While some commentators saw nonrecognition of East Timor's integration as a failure of diplomatic lobbying, the real problem was repression inside East Timor.

This also means strengthening the decision-making process for foreign policy. The policy of opening trade links with Israel, for example, has already suffered because it was sprung out of the blue. Policies of great public concern should be fully discussed before they are adopted and political parties and national leaders should take a clear position. Otherwise, benefits from a policy will be attenuated by doubts about its long-term direction.

A third aim is to restore order in the province of East Nusa Tenggara. Officially, it is already government policy to return as many refugees as possible to East Timor. But in East Timor itself, lack of commitment in implementing official policy led to disaster; there is a danger that the same will happen in west Timor.

A fourth aim is to preserve the unity of Indonesia. The original invasion of East Timor was driven by the domino theory that an independent East Timor would transmit communism to other parts of Indonesia. Now it is feared that an independent East Timor will transmit separatism to other parts of Indonesia.

The need highlighted is for nation-building. For the military, nation- building meant extending the gains of the war of independence: the 1945 Constitution, the expulsion of the colonialists and the united republic. Anyone doubting any one of these gains was a traitor. Thus, the government crushed regional rebellions through force but could not handle the grievances that caused the rebellions.

With a revised constitution and regional autonomy, Indonesians now want to build a new Indonesia. But nothing can guarantee that the Acehnese or others will want in.

A fifth goal is to prevent further human rights disasters.

Improving civil control of the military is important for this. Long-term plans to reform the bureaucracy, revise the national budget and overhaul the judicial system will directly affect the capability and professionalism of the armed forces.

In addition, civilians should plan further internal reform, including in sensitive areas like intelligence and special forces.

In the short term, the greatest need is to try cases of abuse. But none of the high-profile cases from the Habibie era have yet reached court.

In general, the East Timor crisis highlights the need for greater commitment to uphold human rights.

Major cases like last year's May riots have not been satisfactorily resolved. Soon after the riots, attention shifted from investigating what happened, supporting the victims and preventing a recurrence to the contention that all reports of rape during the riot were fake. A report from a fact-finding team was filed and forgotten.

Unfortunately, a similar outcome is likely in East Timor. Even at the height of the violence, attention shifted from ending the terror, supporting the victims and preventing a recurrence to the contention that Indonesia was the victim of an international conspiracy.

Although a team is now investigating, its report may not be followed up. With the military already under pressure over Aceh, where the political stakes are high, it is unlikely that the government will want to pile on extra pressure over East Timor, where there is no apparent political gain.

The writer, a graduate of Cambridge University in Britain, is a teacher at the Jakarta International Korean School.

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