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Estafeta -
Spring 1998
Spring 1997

Suharto’s fall: A New Era in East Timor

By John Roosa, ETAN Madison

According to one report, Suharto told his military commanders in the crisis days before his May 21 resignation, "If I go down, you go down."

He may not have needed to explicitly state this since the implications of his fall would have been tacitly understood by the generals. The social unrest in Indonesia, the student demonstrations especially, forced the 77 year-old dictator from power but also delegitimized the military’s dominant role in Indonesian politics. The military’s violent response to anti-Suharto forces, as in the kidnapping of over 50 activists and the killing of four Trisakti University students, discredited it even in the eyes of Java’s domesticated middle class.

cipinang.jpg (42269 bytes)

Once its "Godfather" fell, the military (ABRI) lost its sense of absolute impunity and invulnerability. Demands have come from all sides for investigations into the massacres of the past 33 years (including Aceh, Tanjung Priok and Lampung). With ABRI on the defensive for the first time and its finances strained by the economic crisis, it has been unwilling and unable to sustain world-famous levels of repression in both Indonesia and occupied East Timor.

The partial, perhaps temporary, defanging of ABRI has led to a new era in East Timor. While ABRI is still killing, torturing and beating the East Timorese, the level of repression and the spread of its intelligence network has noticeably declined. There has been a profusion of meetings, demonstrations, and free-speech forums in recent months of unprecedented size and militancy. On June 6, a day-long meeting of several thousand, organized by the government itself in an auditorium directly behind the Governor’s offices, focused on President Habibie’s offer of autonomy. Against the wishes of the Governor, Abilio Soares, who was jeered and booed, those present rejected the autonomy proposal and endorsed a referendum on independence.

Over the following weeks, free-speech forums were held at the University of East Timor. Hundreds of students organized caravans to other regions of the country, from Los Palos in the east to Suai in the west, to hold more such forums. Banners supporting a referendum and photos of Resistance leader Xanana Gusmão were displayed at all these events. Such public displays of support for independence would have been violently suppressed just one month prior. Now the East Timorese feel confident to make them every day.

On June 18, over 10,000 students and youths marched through Dili after holding a funeral for Herman dos Reis Soares (21), who was shot dead by a soldier on June 16. Military commanders in Dili, who in the past ordered the dispersal and shooting of demonstrators, kept the soldiers in barracks.

Realizing that its customary tactic of massacre would draw more international attention to East Timor, ABRI attempted to subvert the popular movement by creating an appearance of mass support for continued integration with Indonesia. For the visit of three European diplomats on June 27, the ABRI-controlled government mobilized civil servants, paid spies, and paramilitary youth gangs for a demonstration favoring integration. This group of several hundred people greeted the ambassadors at the Dili airport, followed their car into town, and then disbanded after clashing with a much larger pro-independence rally.

People from all over East Timor headed for Dili on June 27 to demonstrate support for a referendum. Convoys of buses, trucks and cars clogged the road along the northern coast (the only decent paved road). At the town of Manatuto, 50 kilometers east of Dili, the convoy was halted by a pro-integration group. In the ensuing confrontation, soldiers fired into pro-independence civilians, killing one man, Manuel Marques Soares (21), and injuring two others. The pro-independence group brought Manuel’s body into Dili. Thousands of demonstrators, despite being tear-gassed when they carried the corpse to the governor’s office, marched through the capital for the rest of the day. Such pro-independence demonstrations continued on June 28 and 29.

In Baucau, thousands demonstrated on June 29 when European ambassadors arrived to meet with Bishop Nacimento. A van full of military intelligence officers surrounded by East Timorese chanting "Viva Timor Leste" opened fire from inside their vehicle, killing one man, Orlando Marcelino da Costa (35), and seriously wounding five others. As they sped off, they drove into and badly injured two men.

Through these demonstrations and forums in June, the East Timorese people clearly made known their preference for independence. On July 17,when the government celebrated Integration Day, the anniversary of East Timor’s formal annexation by Indonesia, virtually all East Timorese boycotted the official ceremonies and wore black clothing.

In July and August, student activists concentrated on organizing more free-speech forums so that East Timorese could discuss what kind of independence they wanted and how to achieve it. The newly-formed Student Solidarity Council (Dewan Solidaritas Mahasiswa), avoided an affiliation with any political party and opened the discussions to all viewpoints. The largest forum was held on August 22 in Dili. For the first time in history, Indonesian activists and intellectuals (namely, Wilson, Yenny Rosa Damayanti, and Father Mangunwijaya) delivered speeches inside East Timor condemning the occupation and supporting a referendum.

There is a clear consensus among all political parties (Fretilin, UDT, etc.) and all non-party organizations that East Timor should have a referendum on independence. (Even some in the historically pro-integration Apodeti party support this goal!) But there remain differences of opinion on many questions. The Student Solidarity Council organized an open public meeting on August 22, again near the Governor’s office in Dili, to discuss the range of issues associated with a referendum.

East Timorese students studying in Indonesia have had a very active year. Many participated in the Indonesian student protests against Suharto prior to his resignation. On June 12, they organized their own demonstration in front of the Foreign Ministry office in Jakarta, where about 1,500 young East Timorese protested Indonesia’s illegal annexation of their country. They were billy-clubbed by the military and forced to board buses that took them out of the city. Several were hospitalized but all were later released. The demonstration was an historic achievement: the first mass protest of East Timorese openly held in Jakarta (In 1994-95 protests, East Timorese students jumped over the fences of various embassies and usually were deported to Portugal. The organizers of a 1991 protest were given long prison sentences; some are still in jail.)

Many East Timorese students who stayed in Jakarta during summer break joined a demonstration on Indonesian independence day, August 17th, in front of Cipinang prison, where Xanana is held. This demonstration, demanding the release of all political prisoners, was a joint project of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), six of whose leaders are in Cipinang, a faction of Megawati’s party, and the East Timorese students. Though no political prisoners were released that day, prison officials allowed Xanana and Budiman Sujatmiko, the head of the PRD, to speak to the crowd from a balcony.

There is a new hope surging through the East Timorese nation and a confidence to seize the basic civil liberties so long denied them. It would be a disgrace for those countries that abandoned the East Timorese in 1975, the United States and Australia most notably, to continue their infatuation with ABRI, when the East Timorese themselves have so clearly demonstrated their desire for what is rightfully theirs: an act of self-determination and a peaceful end to their country’s illegal occupation.

Photo at Cipinang prison by John Roosa.