New Internationalist

Green Light To The Generals

Issue 318

new internationalist
issue 318 - November 1999

Green light to the generals
The West was wilfully blind to the Indonesian army’s rampage
through East Timor till it was far too late, argues Anouk Ride.

The East Timorese vote for independence under a United Nations-supervised ballot is a great achievement for a long-suffering and brave people. But the referendum process was one of the worst mistakes the UN and the West have ever made.

Why? First, the agreement for a referendum was signed by the UN with an illegitimate authority – President Habibie’s Government, which was only tolerated by the Indonesian public as a temporary measure until a free election could be held.

There was no consultation with the democratic political parties that had sprung up to contest the free elections in June, despite the fact that the results of the East Timorese referendum need ratification by the newly elected parliament. Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the most popular party, attacked Habibie’s decision to hold the referendum as unlawful.

Labour activist Dita Sari (See Good Citizen Sari) who has also campaigned for a free East Timor, says that the vote for independence came as a shock to Indonesians: ‘Many people were very angry when the results were announced. For years, the Indonesian people have been told that in 1975, East Timor was in danger of falling into the clutches of the communists. They were also led to believe that Indonesia was in East Timor because the East Timorese asked to be integrated into Indonesia. This distortion of history is still very strongly embedded in the minds of most people. Now the Indonesian press has reported in great detail on the international reaction to the events. This has helped break up old prejudices about how well Indonesia has treated East Timor.’

But, says Dita, it has not helped strengthen opposition to the military: ‘People see it as involving the loss of part of Indonesia’s territory and blame Habibie for suggesting that a referendum should be held. It’s all his fault. They are not blaming the armed forces.’

To add insult to injury, the UN agreement put the Indonesian military in charge of security in the territory. Imagine you have two warring parties – one is a pro-independence group and the other is an army which is anti-independence. You want peace. Do you give responsibility for keeping the peace to one of the warring parties?

The Indonesian army are clearly incapable of a policing role in East Timor. Since they invaded and occupied East Timor in 1975, the territory has become a symbol of their strength and prestige. Posts in charge of security in East Timor have been highly prized in military ranks. Operations there have also been lucrative – the military owns thousands of properties, mostly coffee estates in western East Timor. And their most successful riser through the ranks, General Suharto, owns about 40 per cent of East Timor’s land, according to George Aditjondro.

The UN’s action gave the military more room to manoeuvre in East Timor but also in Aceh and West Papua, provinces which have separatist sentiments. In Jakarta, the preman (rascals and gangs in the employ of the military) have resurfaced on the streets. The office where I interviewed Dita and other activists in Jakarta was firebombed. Other campaigners experienced increasing threats and intimidation in the last few months. It has been terrifying to watch their gains against the military slip so quickly.

Army chief General Wiranto even felt confident enough to put legislation before Parliament in September that would introduce a national state of emergency. The Urban Poor Consortium (profiled in 'Triumphant losers') were the first to protest against this and got very close to Parliament to present their case. But when students came out in their thousands riot-control forces responded with beatings and plastic bullets in the worst violent clash in Jakarta since November 1998. It was also the first time that the protesters used violence against the military – stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown from the crowd.

Aggression by the protesters is a significant and negative development. It indicates an atmosphere where militarization is once again sanctioned.

The UN contributed to this downward spiral by failing to stop the violence in East Timor. It seemed reasonable for the East Timorese to expect that the thousands of white observers who had crowded out the hotels and jammed the flights to Dili would ensure their peaceful transition to independence. But, once they had raised the hope of the locals for peace, the UN seemed to be like children who block their ears so as not to hear bad news. The violence continued unabated. There were also reliable indications that the announcement of a pro-independence vote would unleash militia rage (see box). But still the UN insisted on holding the referendum thinking it could face the consequences with its meagre contingent of unarmed personnel.

In a cringe-worthy interview on 3 September Secretary-General Kofi Annan says: ‘Even on 30 August people were saying that we could not have elections because there would be violence. It took place very well. I’m in contact with the Indonesian Government, and they have said that they will do what they can. Until now they have done their best.’

It was announced: ‘The United Nations is here for the long term. We will not leave East Timor after the referendum.’ The UN left on 14 September, just two weeks after the vote. The predicted scorched-earth campaign which displaced half the population and killed thousands was unleashed without witnesses. The brazen intimidation of East Timorese by the militias spread as far as Jakarta.

Throughout the militia campaign, the one thing that the Indonesian military could be forgiven for is confusion about what the West wanted. Although they talk about human rights, the US, Britain and Australia – the three most substantial sources of arms and military training to Indonesia – have continued this assistance over the past year. Leading American investigative journalist Allen Nairn reported that in April US Admiral Dennis Blair told General Wiranto that the US would initiate new riot-control training for the armed forces – the first such programme since 1992. Contrary to what the State Department officials had been told in writing, Blair told Wiranto that soldiers as well as police could be included. Nairn says that Indonesian officers he spoke to were delighted and saw this a green light to proceed with militia operations.

Now that the UN and the West have got both Indonesia and East Timor into this mess, what can be done? The mobilization of a multinational peacekeeping force is a positive move. The next stage will be to try and establish some sense of law and order. So far reports indicate that militia members arrested by the peacekeepers are being turned over to the Indonesian police. Given that the justice system in the country is largely hostage to the army, this will not prove an effective way of bringing the militias and their leaders to trial. An alternative national justice system – fairer, cleaner and democratically accountable – is imperative.

There is also a need for the new Indonesian Parliament to recognize the results of the referendum and make firmer commitments as to how the transition to independence will occur. There is still much that could thwart East Timor’s move to independence if the pro-democracy parties and the justice system do not support it.

Another urgent action the West needs to take is to stop supplying the Indonesian army with weapons and assistance. It seems like a simple enough gesture towards support for peace in East Timor and Indonesia yet still some nations, especially Britain – the largest exporter of arms to Indonesia before the economic crisis – seem to be incapable of this. Last year British Defence Secretary George Robertson urged the sale of armoured vehicles to notorious commander General Prabowo, whom he described as ‘an enlightened officer, keen on human rights.’ In September this year when the military’s involvement in the militia campaign was completely transparent, Britain sent Indonesia three Hawk aircraft.

The West cannot go on saying it supports human rights in Indonesia while arming and supporting the military, dealing with an illegitimate government and saying nothing when pro-democracy groups are still being jailed, shot and intimidated in Jakarta and elsewhere.

Just as Indonesia and East Timor are at a critical juncture between embracing freedom or having their arms tied by a system that will not change, so the West has a crucial decision to make. It must either support the current defunct Government and a repressive military – or it must reject both of these and welcome not just the new nation of East Timor but also the long-awaited awakening of the world’s third-biggest democracy.

Make your own militia
How the military did it and who knew

[image, unknown] July 1998: Ausaid worker Lansell Taudevin tells Australian embassy officials that the Indonesian army is forming and arming militia gangs. Around 5,000 West Timorese (ethnically identical to East Timorese, though Muslim rather than Roman Catholic) are recruited into militias by the Indonesian army. More recruits are brought in from Java.

[image, unknown] 4 November 1998: 400 élite troops from Indonesia’s notorious Kopassus Group 4 unit – trained to track down and eliminate political dissidents – arrive in the port of Atapupu.

[image, unknown] January 1999: Civil servants in East Timor are threatened in order to make them pledge their support for integration with Indonesia. Even the Governor of East Timor Abilio Osorio Soares suggests that those who support independence should leave their jobs and says their safety is not guaranteed.

[image, unknown] February 1999: Major-General Zacky Anwar Makarim, a US-trained intelligence specialist, stands down as head of the military’s intelligence agency to become the senior military adviser of the Indonesian Government’s plebiscite team in East Timor. Makarim has a reputation for callous violence in East Timor. The pro-integration militia leaders are promised logistical support, weapons and at least two million dollars.

[image, unknown] 4 March 1999: Representatives of the Australian Defence Intelligence Organization in Jakarta tell their headquarters that the military is ‘clearly protecting and in some cases operating with the militias.’ They also warn that the militias will undertake a scorched-earth campaign if the vote goes against them.

[image, unknown] March 1999: East Timorese representative José Ramos Horta warns: ‘If the UN simply relies on the will of the Indonesian side and pushes ahead with the vote, bloodshed is almost certain because the Indonesian army will be there, the paramilitary will be there, and their interest is to disrupt the vote, to intimidate the people.’

[image, unknown] 5 May 1999: The agreement on the ‘consultation’ or referendum in East Timor is signed. The Indonesian military is to provide a ‘secure and safe’ environment for the vote.

[image, unknown] 9 June 1999: The Australian Government admits through senior defence official Hugh White that the military is supporting militia gangs.

[image, unknown] 24 July 1999: A secret six-hour meeting of militia and military leaders in Dili is held. They lay out a post-referendum plan that includes instigation of riots, targeting and assassination of independence activists and full mobilization of militias and armed forces. Makarim gives militia leader Eurico Guterres a list of 370 people to eliminate as part of a campaign of terror. All UN staff and foreign journalists are to be forced out of East Timor.

[image, unknown] 30 August 1999: The overwhelming majority – 80 per cent – of East Timorese vote for independence. Once the result is announced violence escalates.

[image, unknown] 23 September 1999: Financial Times journalist Sander Thoenes is found dead in East Timor. He is last seen being chased by soldiers. Recently he exposed a $250-million scandal at a company controlled by General Prabowo.

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