I sent this article July 18, 1999, to a SEA English-
language newsmagazine, and three weeks later to 
Reg.East-Timor  <east-timor@igc.apc.org>  list.

East Timor: What Indonesia Can Learn from Her Own History

It was surely no easy decision for UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, that registration of voters for the East Timor polls could begin Friday, July 16, as scheduled. Security had not yet been completely restored, anti-independence militias had not fully stopped intimidating the population and causing trouble to the UN mission.

But he deserves all respect for this courageous decision. It gives the people of this valiant small nation the chance to rise to a last and decisive stand in its 24-year fight for independence. No one doubts that this, independence, is what the majority would vote for in a fair referendum. But would they now also dare do so in the face of anticipated terror of the militia?

Reports from the first day of registration suggest, that Kofi Annan's message was understood and appreciated by the East Timorese. On Friday they turned out in masses, walking the gauntlet of militia posts to report at the registration offices. Most even had to be sent back, because only a limited number could be registered each day.

Who knows, how many dead and injured the East Timorese still have to suffer, before they finally get to give their vote? It is the price they will have to pay for the world community's failure to decide upon an international peacekeeping force in East Timor. But what will be after that?

Few seem to realise that history is repeating itself. Exactly 50 years ago, in 1949, the so-called Round Table Conference put an end to three years of war between Indonesia, fighting to defend its independence, and the former colonial master, the Netherlands.

The trick with the militia and "pro-integration" East Timorese politicians is not very original. The Netherlands had set up a series of indigenous puppet states as counterbalance to the independent Indonesian republic, and had beside Dutch soldiers a numerically stronger indigenous army (KNIL - the Royal Netherlands-Indies Army). Representatives of those puppet states were then paraded before UN assemblies to create the impression that the independent republic was some sort of extremist minority movement inspired by foreign (Japanese) interests.

But the results of the Round Table Conference called for a unification of the independent and colonial indigenous armies, and of the republican and puppet administrations. The reconciliation cabinet under Prime Minister Mohammad Hatta included leaders of former puppet states. In view of perspectives for a reconciliation of East Timorese factions after the polls, the Indonesian experience of 50 years ago may provide some instructive points.

The Indonesian reconciliation was amazingly successful. Members of the puppet and colonial administration and army were fully integrated without experiencing the kind of discrimination one might have expected. As a rule, they successfully continued their civilian or military careers in independent Indonesia. But our retrospective study would be idle waste of time unless it, firstly, also looked into the significant exceptions from that rosy picture, and, secondly, answered the question of in how far that Indonesian experience is comparable to present conditions in East Timor.

For the first point, one will of course realise, that putting together the two rival administrations and armies required overcoming tremendous emotional barriers. Enemies responsible for recent killing of close relatives and neighbours now had to share neighbouring office desks and compete on the career ladder. Predictably, here and there, somebody lost his nerves.

In three instances within less than half a year, unnerved former colonial officers started violent rebellions. The first, the APRA rebellion in Bandung, was swiftly contained after initially terrorising the population. The second, led by Andi Sele in South Sulawesi, also failed to provoke an uprising of the population and was quickly put down. But some associated politicians fled to Ambon to start a third rebellion. There they managed to get a considerable contingent of former colonial soldiers as well as the local population to participate. This RMS ("Republic of the South Moluccas") movement was only finally defeated after protracted military operations that also brought much suffering to the population.

Applied to East Timor, all this sugggests that one may probably expect initial success in setting up a reconciliated independent East Timorese administration. However, one must reckon with the one or other ex-militia hothead going berserk and starting a rebellion. East Timor is small and such a development could quickly engulf much of the territory in violence, inviting intervention from neighbouring Indonesia. Therefore, if formal rules of sovereignty had prevented the UN from bringing in a peace-keeping force before the referendum, then they may under no circumstances neglect doing so in the changed situation after the polls. They should not wait until after the polls to start thinking about preparing to consider sending in such a peace-keeping force. Not if they do not wish to disavow their General Secretary for his present decision.

In one point, however, the conditions faced in the present problem in East Timor differs fundamentally from Indonesia 50 years ago. The Netherlands were in full control of their army and civil administration, and were reasonably committed to fulfilling their part of the agreement. Serous doubts exist, however, in the sincerity of at least some significant, so-called "rogue" elements in the Indonesian army and occupational administration and their faithfulness to the central government.

There are perhaps two important reasons for this. The first, under the Suharto regime, experience in the occupational forces in East Timor was the highest criterion of merit in the army, being also an important factor in promotions. The entire system of values the army feels committed to thus centres on continued occupation of East Timor. Rational considerations of national interests and reason of state only rank second in significance to that.

The second, the East Timor military theatre served as test grounds, and the East Timorese population as guinea pigs, for the training of units of the army in "special methods". It is here, that Indonesian soldiers were rid of possible compassion for civilians, old people, women and children, and taught to become predators. The kidnapping of political activists, the rape of Chinese and other women, the mass atrocities in Aceh and Irian Jaya, all ascribed to the one or other unit of the army, were apparently learned in East Timor. What one tolerates one's soldiers to do to a foreign population, they may one day do to one's own. In Indonesia, they did just that.

On one hand, this makes the diehard position of the Indonesian military on East Timor understandable. On the other hand, however, it seems obvious that any hopes for an accomodation of the Indonesian army to democratic reform, and that means abandonment of all those "proficiencies" it acquired in East Timor, are immediately tied to successful release of that territory into independence.

Not all units of the Indonesian armed forces are equally implicated in unsavoury practices against the civilian population. Perhaps one shouldn't be as naive as to think that any unit could be totally immune. However, the Indonesian marines enjoy a reputation of civil conduct and discipline when dealing with democratic manifestations of the civilian population.

When formal sovereignty rules stand in the way of replacing the Indonesian military in East Timor by a neutral peace force, having the presently involved units replaced by the marines could bring substantial improvement, and at the same time test Indonesian sincerity in fulfilling their commitments.

More than just East Timor seems to be at stake, for the release of this territory apparently has immediate implications on prospects of success for democratic reform in Indonesia, and alleviation of its economic crisis. The significance of Kofi Annan's decision must therefore really not be underestimated, nor efforts spared to bring about the final results that will justify it.

(Waruno Mahdi, 18 July 1999)


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