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A problem Jakarta cannot shake off

Sydney Morning Herald - June 2, 1999

Too many vested interests mean the chances of East Timor separating peacefully from Indonesia are slim, Asia Editor David Jenkins writes.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, President B.J. Habibie sat in his office and talked about East Timor.

"Why the hell is East Timor with us?" the President recalled asking himself when he took over last year from President Soeharto, the man who sent the Indonesian army into Portuguese Timor in 1975. "It doesn't belong to our declared territory as of independence. Because of that, it becomes a problem in the United Nations."

That kind of thinking is not just a red rag to presidential front-runner Megawati Sukarnoputri, who would like East Timor to stay within the republic. It is anathema to powerful groups in the Indonesian Defence Force (TNI), or ABRI as it is still commonly known.

ABRI has lost between 4,000 and 5,000 men killed in East Timor, with many thousands wounded. It has no wish to pull out now.

"Habibie's attitude is short-sighted," says a member of a Jakarta think tank that advised the former Soeharto government on its East Timor strategy in the mid-1970s.

"He is not a statesman. He is a businessman and a very naive and narrow-minded one. He considers Indonesia as an enterprise. If one part of production is losing money, then why don't you sell it?"

In short, the battle over East Timor's future is being waged not just in the fear-filled streets of Dili but at the centre of power in Jakarta.

When Habibie was sworn in a year ago, he was widely seen as a man who would run a caretaker government.

Now, say the critics, the interim leader has had the nerve to make a decision about chopping off part of the country, without any mandate.

The policy debate over East Timor was bound to be reopened following the forced resignation of Soeharto, a development which gave a shot in the arm to the East Timorese independence movement.

And it began to hot up in January, not long after Australia's Prime Minister sent Habibie a letter suggesting that the East Timorese be given a greater say in their future.

Habibie rejected the basic premises of John Howard's letter. But according to a well-placed Indonesian source, the Howard letter had a major impact on the President.

"If Australia, which recognises the integration of East Timor, says that," the President is reported to have told his staff, "it means Australia is not happy with the autonomy option."

On January 21, Habibie invited key ministers to consider the idea of letting East Timor go, a policy option which enjoyed the support of advisers who had served with the President in the influential Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI).

Members of the so-called "ICMI crowd" saw East Timor as an issue that had caused Indonesia too much grief. They objected to the idea of spending large sums of money on what was, in their view, an essentially mendicant and ungrateful Christian outpost.

One of those often said to be closely associated with the idea was Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political scientist who is sometimes portrayed as a de facto foreign minister in Habibie's Government. Another was Dr Adi Sasono, the ambitious and sometimes combative Minister for Co-operatives. A third, some Indonesians believe, was Lieutenant-General Zen Maulani, Habibie's hand-picked head of Bakin, the civilian intelligence body. Yet another was Jimly Asshidiqui, a welfare policy adviser.

When the Habibie Cabinet met on January 27, according to an Indonesian source, the mood was, "Let's get something moving which will lead eventually to the separation of East Timor". Habibie, in particular, had felt this way, the source said.

"The international dimension was rather small," source said. "An underlying theme at that meeting was, "To hell with international opinion, including Australian opinion".

Perhaps even more curiously, ABRI went along with the plan, which was to lead eventually to the agreement for an August 8 poll in which the East Timorese would be given a choice between autonomy and independence.

When Habibie asked the Defence Minister, General Wiranto, for his views, the general reportedly said that ABRI would be prepared to accept the separation of East Timor provided three things were made clear.

One condition was that the 1975-76 invasion and annexation of East Timor was not acknowledged as a mistake of state policy; it had to be borne in mind, Wiranto said, that Indonesia had intervened to accommodate a desire for integration.

A second was that Indonesian military operations in the territory should not be seen as a mistake. There could be no suggestion that Indonesian soldiers had died in vain in East Timor.

Finally, it would be necessary to emphasise that East Timor had not been part of the Netherlands East Indies, the original basis of the Indonesian state, a point long made by those who support East Timor's independence.

On March 8 there was a swing back in Cabinet's mood. The Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, came to the new meeting with an elaborate autonomy package based on UN experience in various parts of the world.

"It accommodated so many elements of UN interventionism that Habibie stopped him in the midst of his presentation and told him to revise it and come up with a new package," the Jakarta source said.

As a result, a "more unilateral nationalist package" was put to Cabinet on April 6. This was accepted by Cabinet and subsequently signed at the UN.

According to a member of the Habibie Cabinet, religious and economic factors lay behind the change in Indonesian policy on East Timor. "I would say it would be about 60 per cent religious and 40 per cent economic," he said. (The territory costs Jakarta about $150 million a year.)

That view is disputed by an adviser to the President. He claims that international considerations were dominant. Everywhere Indonesian diplomats and officials went, the official said, they were badgered about East Timor.

Although Wiranto had not opposed the new policy in Cabinet, it was not long before the Indonesian generals began drawing up plans to ensure that the pro-integration side carried the day in the August 8 vote.

In February, pro-Jakarta militias began appearing on the streets of Dili and other towns, cranking up a campaign of terror against those who favoured independence.

In the early stages of this process, the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, put forward the thesis that the growing unrest in East Timor was the work of "rogue elements" in the Indonesian army, not army policy.

No-one in Jakarta believes that. "He's right," said a Western diplomat, his voice laden with sarcasm. "It's rogue elements. But Wiranto is the chief rogue."

That view is endorsed by a wide range of Indonesian and foreign sources. "It's not just rogue elements," says another diplomat. "It is deliberate policy to try to hold on to Timor, by fair means or foul."

Why did Wiranto support – and then undermine – government policy? According to a source close to the palace, it wasn't immediately clear, even to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, what Habibie had in mind. Nor did Wiranto want to openly oppose the President.

An Indonesian with close army ties puts it slightly differently. ABRI, he said, suffered from "weak leadership at the top" and had not wanted to risk "an open conflict with the Government in this uncertain time".

But military men had felt confident about "sabotaging" Habibie's planned referendum "because they know that after the general elections they will get the upper hand from [political leaders] like Megawati and even [the conservative Muslim leader] Abdurrahman Wahid."

The army has two main concerns, one emotional, the other strategic.

First, a lot of Indonesian army pride and prestige has been invested in East Timor and a lot of army blood spilt there. An Indonesian withdrawal would be seen by many as an unbearable loss of face, a loss which would be compounded in some quarters by a loss of business opportunities and a loss of access to government subventions.

Second, army leaders have genuine and quite understandable concerns about the flow-on effects of an independence vote in East Timor. Already there have been calls for similar polls to be held in Aceh and in Irian Jaya, restless provinces at either end of the archipelago.

It is also true that some army officers are concerned about those East Timorese who favour continued association with Indonesia. East Timor has 13 districts, these officers point out, and there are significant kinship and cultural ties with Indonesian West Timor in the five districts closest to the border.

How is the Timor vote likely to go? "My guess," says a senior Western diplomat, "is the independence people will win. But it could be by quite a narrow margin, possibly 60-40 or 55-45, partly because of the stake some people have in the status quo in terms of jobs and so on, partly because of the intimidation. It's going to be as messy as hell."

An Indonesian who was closely associated with Jakarta's clandestine 1974-75 program to subvert and disrupt Portuguese Timor endorses that view. He warns of major problems if East Timor's five western districts are "forced" to join an independent Timor.

"If that happens," he says, "then subversion will always be there. If the process of getting independence is bitter and sour, then there will always be undermining factors, if not clandestine fighters, from the Indonesian side."

If ABRI is forced to walk out of East Timor, says this source, "I think they will leave some clandestines, the militia, behind. And it will become an Angolan situation [with each side supported by foreign backers]".