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No autonomy without democracy

Inside Indonesia Digest 72 - December 4, 1998

After years of deadlock, President Habibie's offer in June of autonomy for East Timor has finally set wheels moving over the fate of the troubled territory. Every one seems relieved with the progress. Except, strangely enough, the East Timorese. Before dismissing East Timorese complaints as unrealistic, let's examine the facts.

Senior Indonesian and Portuguese officials have been meeting at UN headquarters in New York since early October to work out the details. On the table is a proposal from UN special envoy Jamsheed Marker. It keeps foreign policy, external defence and the currency in Indonesian hands. East Timorese will have their own police force, will have limited legislative and judicial capabilities, and run their own cultural and educational affairs.

Could this be the compromise the world has been waiting for? Perhaps. And yet East Timorese are not happy with it. Bishop Belo says: "In the last few months and weeks, there has been a growing tendency to reject the autonomy offered by the Indonesian government. The people want a referendum ... and I'll go along with what the people choose".

If autonomy is to be a success, outsiders must take seriously what those at the centre of the drama are saying.

The first sign of trouble is that the autonomy proposal is not actually for them but for Portugal. East Timorese leaders are only being "kept informed" by Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas. He has firmly ruled out any possibility of (ever!) asking the East Timorese what they think of the idea by means of a referendum.

The deal, for Ali Alatas, is that the world acknowledges Indonesian "sovereignty" over East Timor. In exchange, Indonesia gives the territory "wideranging autonomy" within the bounds of that sovereignty.

Ali Alatas is here asserting a particularly strict view of state sovereignty. One in which any concept of people's sovereignty has no place. Yet post-Cold War, strict claims of state sovereignty are coming under increasing pressure.

Even Indonesia does not adhere to strict state sovereignty in practice. In the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty, for example, Indonesia proved quite ready to share sovereignty over the territory's hydrocarbon resources with its neighbouring state Australia.

Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's imprisoned resistance leader, is the best illustration of how Indonesian practice diverges from its strict claim of state sovereignty. On 15 July 1997 a presidential chauffeur came to fetch Indonesia's most famous criminal from his jail cell. He found himself at dinner with President Suharto and President Nelson Mandela, who appealed for his release.

Since that remarkable moment Xanana has received a steady stream of ambassadors, religious leaders, journalists, company executives, solidarity activists and military officers from Indonesia and all around the world. Habibie, meanwhile, has offered to release Xanana in exchange for recognition of Indonesian sovereignty.

Thus Xanana, Jakarta's criminal diplomat, proves at once Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor, and the total absence of that sovereignty.

Ali Alatas should cut the pretence of absolute state sovereignty. He should release Xanana and permit him to play an even more central role. This would help convince East Timorese that this autonomy process is really for them. But it would not be enough, because there is an even more worrisome sign of trouble.

At the heart of the autonomy proposal Ali Alatas has endorsed is the idea of demilitarisation via a Timorese police force. But is he serious about implementing it?

Having Indonesian soldiers in East Timor only for "external defence" would be in direct conflict with the Indonesian doctrine of the dual function of the armed forces. In that doctrine, soldiers play a domestic political as well as a normal defence role. This doctrine has been the key component of Indonesian authoritarianism for over three decades. Without it, democracy would have flourished years earlier.

Does Ali Alatas really propose to risk unleashing a democratic revolution by dismantling military rule in one part of the country while it remains in place elsewhere? Remember, that part of the country has been a military project more than any other since the bloody invasion of 1975.

Thus far, experience suggests the answer is no. Revelations in The Australian on 30 October totally contradicted Ali Alatas' previous claim, widely publicised, that all combat troops had been removed. Over 100 pages of leaked Indonesian armed forces documents, dated after the purported withdrawal of early August, showed there were still at least 2000 combat troops in East Timor. With a total of 18,000 combat and territorial troops, plus thousands of pro-Indonesian civilians in vigilante squads - a ratio of one to every 40 in the population - East Timor remains one of the most militarised places on earth.

These two signs of trouble demonstrate that autonomy is not an easy diplomatic option for East Timor. East Timorese reservations about autonomy are highly realistic. They strike at the heart of Indonesia's current political struggle. The autonomy proposal will not work unless it is carried out democratically. It cannot be carried out democratically until the armed forces are out of the political arena - not just in East Timor, but throughout Indonesia.

[Gerry van Klinken, editor, "Inside Indonesia" magazine]