Gambles at Highest Levels Failed Voters in E Timor
The Wall Street Journal October 21, 1999
Diplomatic Gambles at the Highest Levels Failed Voters in East Timor
By NEIL KING JR. and JAY SOLOMON Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In early August, Megawati Sukarnoputri, then the Indonesian presidential front-runner, made the last of her many appeals to delay East Timor's referendum on independence from Indonesia.
Sitting beneath a portrait of her father -- Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno -- at her suburban Jakarta estate, Ms. Megawati warned Jamsheed Marker, a United Nations special envoy, that the risk of bloodshed was simply too high.
Mr. Marker's response was equally blunt. "I told her it had to go ahead," he says. "It was the U.N.'s solemn duty to proceed with the vote."
The election results were released on Sept. 4: An overwhelming 78.5% of the East Timorese population had backed outright independence.
The backlash was instantaneous.
Within hours, pro-Indonesia militias began to exact their vengeance. Gangs roamed East Timor's capital, Dili, shooting residents and foreigners, torching buildings and forcing tens of thousands of terrified Timorese to flee. Reports poured in of massacres in the countryside. The U.N. soon was evacuating its personnel to Australia.
Benefit of Hindsight
About a week later, a chastened Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, emerged from his office in New York to assert that "nobody in his wildest dreams" had envisioned the bloodshed convulsing East Timor. "If any of us had an inkling that it was going to be this chaotic, I don't think anyone would have gone forward" with the vote, he said at his first news conference in the aftermath of the catastrophe. "We are no fools."
Looking back, though, it is clear that the international community was deluged with warnings. Far from going into the election blind, major players, especially the U.N., the U.S., Portugal and Australia, were aware for months of the huge risks they faced in leaving the Indonesians in charge of policing the election in East Timor. Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country, had brutally suppressed pro-independence uprisings since it seized the predominantly Roman Catholic territory in 1975, after its former ruler, Portugal, pulled out.
So why was the international community -- knowing full well that almost-certain carnage lay ahead -- willing to gamble on Indonesia's promise to keep the peace?
There is, of course, no single answer, but the various protagonists had their own powerful incentives to resolve the long-festering human-rights issues in East Timor. The U.S. was eager to support Indonesia's startling concession to allow an independence vote, particularly since it looked as if America could remain largely on the sidelines and thus not jeopardize its longstanding ties to a key ally. Portugal had kept a spotlight on the treatment of the East Timorese for years, making it a diplomatic priority when few other countries cared. The U.N. saw a chance to vindicate itself after a string of humiliations in hot spots such as Bosnia and Somalia, where its ineffectual peacekeeping efforts were on full display.
Seizing an Opening
Moreover, no one seemed willing to dictate terms to Indonesia, fearing the historic gesture made by Indonesia's then new president, B.J. Habibie, might never come again. And to some extent, this week's events may ratify that view. East Timor was in part Mr. Habibie's downfall, setting the stage for his withdrawal from the presidential vote Indonesia held Tuesday. Indonesia's newly elected president, moderate Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid, had been a harsh critic of the Timorese referendum, arguing that Indonesia wasn't ready for the trauma.
Wahid's Election Victory Gives Indonesia President Untainted by Suharto-Era Ties
"There was a window of opportunity, and we seized it the best way we could," says Mr. Marker, the U.N.'s special envoy for East Timor. Adds U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin: "I think we did the best that could be done under extremely difficult circumstances."
Even now, from U.N. headquarters to the White House, officials insist that, for all the suffering of the East Timorese, the people there have finally achieved the independent state they wanted all along. The West, they argue, did what it could, despite very little maneuvering room.
Back in January, then-President Habibie stunned even his own cabinet members when he sprang the idea of an East Timor independence vote. He told them that not only was he willing to let the island territory go its own way; he also wanted to wrap up the matter by year end.
On March 11, six weeks after President Habibie's astonishing announcement, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas slipped into Mr. Annan's 38th-floor office along the banks of New York's East River. Also there for the talks was Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama. Their discussions that day were auspicious in all ways but one.
Indonesia was willing to let the East Timorese have their say even if they chose independence, Mr. Alatas told the gathering. But on this point, the foreign minister wouldn't budge: His country would live up to its offer only if no foreign troops played a security role in the landmark election. "We don't regard ourselves as an occupying power in East Timor, and we will never allow foreign troops in to oversee the vote," the foreign minister said, according to a U.N. official present at the meeting. "For us, this is an absolute matter of sovereignty." A Deal Breaker?
Despite misgivings about leaving security to the Indonesian military, the meeting led Mr. Annan and his aides to determine that pushing for an international peacekeeping force would be a deal breaker. Diplomats from the U.S., Australia and other key allies, who weren't at the meeting, soon also came to the same conclusion: Either Indonesia would take care of security, or the vote wouldn't happen.
Pushing Jakarta too hard made little sense to the U.S., in any event. Indonesia was still struggling to emerge from the political chaos that followed the end of President Suharto's 32-year-old rule last year. Inside the White House, fears ran high that the world's fourth-most-populous country might splinter or slip into anarchy. East Timor seemed important, administration official say, but the vote wasn't important enough to undermine Indonesia's stability.
As a result, U.S. officials walked a political tightrope.
Swinging through Indonesia in early March, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met for the first time with Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, the imprisoned leader of the Timorese independence movement. But she also met with leaders of East Timor's pro-Indonesia militias -- despite the reservations of some officials traveling with her.
The delicate balancing act continued in early April when Washington sent Adm. Dennis C. Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, to introduce himself to Gen. Wiranto, head of the Indonesian armed forces. Their meeting was hardly confrontational. Sipping coffee in a drab military office on the outskirts of Jakarta, Adm. Blair told the general that the U.S. wanted to help ease Indonesia toward democracy and to assist it in reforming its military. How the armed forces performed in East Timor would be crucial in securing America's support, he said.
But the admiral never insisted that Indonesia disarm the anti-independence militias in East Timor. These units had been arming themselves with the tacit support of the military in a drive to terrorize anyone that openly backed independence in East Timor. "The U.S. had a deep and desperate desire to believe that the military would solve the problem," says one prominent U.S. diplomat. "That became a deep refusal to see that the military was the problem."
On April 23, the key architects of the coming vote -- Mr. Annan and foreign ministers Alatas of Indonesia and Gama of Portugal -- slipped once more into Mr. Annan's office to hash out the final details of the election, scheduled for sometime in the summer.
By this time, any initial optimism about Indonesia's overture had receded. Anti-independence militias had killed several dozen people in two especially bloody attacks in East Timor. Under pressure from hard-liners in the military, the Indonesian government was also getting cold feet over its autonomy offer. After hours of negotiations, the U.N. and Portugal say they won the best security deal they could get: Indonesia would allow in a large U.N. contingent to oversee the election process, but it would have to be unarmed. The secretary-general wasn't satisfied.
On May 4, Mr. Annan submitted a secret memorandum outlining the security conditions necessary for the vote to proceed. Indonesia would have to disarm all militias, bringing them "under strict control and discipline." The parties agreed to this memorandum, but kept it secret because Indonesia said its disclosure would upset the military, which opposed the referendum. The final agreement was signed the next day.
With the vote set for midsummer and U.N. personnel streaming into East Timor to organize it, danger signs continued to mount. Militia groups ambushed U.N. convoys and attacked several U.N. offices. Men with guns and machetes killed dozens of civilians as thousands more fled into the hills for safety.
In late June, the U.N. postponed the vote until late August. U.N. officials warned President Habibie and his lieutenants that the vote would never happen unless Indonesia got a grip on the proliferating violence. Aides to Mr. Annan also quietly appealed to the U.S. and Australia to start planning for a military force -- in case they had to evacuate U.N. personnel, or even intervene to protect the East Timorese. The response from both countries was "no way," these advisers say. They would only lend a hand if Jakarta explicitly invited them to keep the peace.
As the summer wore on, alarming reports from the U.N.'s base in Dili were beginning to circulate not just within the secretary-general's office, but also among key diplomats including ambassadors from Britain, Japan and the U.S. Ten days before the vote, one particularly candid report about the mounting violence caused deep concern to the secretary-general himself, his advisers say. "The security situation in East Timor is deteriorating by the day and the lawlessness of the militias increases in intensity, distribution and brazenness," warned one passage in the secret Aug. 20 document, which was written by a team of three prominent U.N. election commissioners.
Diplomatic pressure exerted by the U.S. and other allies in the immediate aftermath of this report led Indonesia to remove a number of pro-militia military officers from the island. But Mr. Annan stopped short of enforcing his own previous ultimatum: Despite the secret promise made by the Indonesian government to fully disarm all the militias, it never did. Aides now say that their boss pushed the issue as hard as he could.
Nevertheless, the U.N. continued to cling to the hope that the election would go forward peacefully. Even if events spiraled out of control, the secretary-general's aides were steadfast that it was the U.N.'s duty to give the East Timorese their shot at self-determination. Indeed, in the several weeks leading up to the election, 450,000 East Timorese, nearly the entire adult population, registered for the vote despite massive intimidation. The turnout showed that people would risk a lot to express their views -- and made any thought of calling off the referendum all the harder.
"By then, we knew we were morally obliged to give the people a chance," says Mr. Marker, the U.N. envoy.
As the day of the vote came and went, the U.N.'s audacious gamble appeared to have paid off. More than 98% of registered voters streamed to the polls on Aug. 30 amid only sporadic acts of intimidation. Then, with the Sept. 4 announcement of the election results, East Timor suddenly erupted. And the territory's powerful backers were finally jolted into action.
After a week of diplomatic waffling, President Clinton unequivocally blasted Indonesia. The Indonesian military "is aiding and abetting the militia violence," he said in a statement while flying to New Zealand on Air Force One. Mr. Clinton also announced that he was cutting all military ties and threatened to sever all loans to the government.
With a chorus of recriminations coming from the U.N. and other allies as well, President Habibie on Sept. 12 said he would welcome an international armed force to restore order in East Timor. It was the invitation the West asserted it had needed all along.
But for the people of East Timor, the damage had already been done. Tens of thousands of refugees remain abroad, many huddled in camps across the border in West Timor. Thousands of others are unaccounted for. Devastated and povertystricken, the territory now is in the hands of a multinational force of about 6,000 soldiers, led by Australia, with only a tiny contingent of 150 U.S. troops. Despite Indonesia's ratification of the independence vote on Tuesday, the U.N. must now create a new country from scratch -- a grueling task sure to take years.
-- S. Karene Witcher and Jeremy Wagstaff contributed to this article.
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