Issue 234 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Indonesia and East Timor


Clare Fermont explains why the future of the Indonesian masses is connected with the fate of East Timor

Line of fire

  • In 1975 East Timor was invaded by Indonesia and 'incorporated' as the country's 27th province.
  • On 30 August 1999, 98% of East Timorese voters defied months of intimidation to line up outside polling booths.
  • They voted overwhelmingly (78.5%) for independence.
  • The recent murderous rampage built up steadily in the days following the vote. At least 2,000 people were killed in the first week.
  • By the time the first multinational troops arrived, 800,000 out of 850,000 East Timorese had been displaced, according to the Red Cross, an unknown number of them killed.

    Habibie & Wiranto

    Can the students and workers go forward to victory, or will Habibie, Wiranto and the state maintain control? The final outcome has yet to be decided.

  • Can the students and workers go forward to victory, or will Habibie, Wiranto and the state maintain control? The final outcome has yet to be decided.

    'Dili is a ghost city. Everything is destroyed, not only houses and blocks of flats, but everything. You cannot see one person in the street.' The terrified Portuguese reporter struggled to find words to describe the devastation of East Timor. Who was responsible for the terror? The official view blamed 'militias' who they said had been organised spontaneously by nothing more than hostility to East Timorese independence. The truth is that the militias were recruited, trained, armed and commanded by the Indonesian military.

    This was no secret. As long ago as February an Indonesian army spokesman on BBC's Radio 4 admitted the military was arming paramilitary groups in East Timor. In March the Australian intelligence service warned that thousands of men had been recruited into militias to intimidate the population. In July leaked Indonesian government documents predicting a win for independence supporters and outlining plans for a 'scorched earth' response were leaked to the UN.

    This evidence was backed by other factors that made the carnage predictable. The Indonesian military has substantial economic interests in East Timor. The territory is the Indonesian 'province' with the second largest landholdings under the control of former President Suharto's family and his cronies. The land includes huge plantations of sugar cane, coffee and timber, as well as marble deposits. These sources of riches are interlinked with the business interests of army generals, many of whom have been rewarded with land and stakes in local companies for their tours of duty in East Timor. The withdrawal of the army from East Timor, therefore, represented a direct attack on their material interests.

    These economic interests, however, are small fry next to the vast untapped oil and gas reserves that lie in and around East Timor--thought to be the seventh largest reserves in the world. Many of the Suharto clique are partners in this industry with companies such as Mobil Oil and the Australian minerals giant BHP. East Timor was always too big a prize for Indonesia's army and ruling class to give up without a fight.

    In addition, East Timor is just one of several islands and regions that have been fighting for independence. Antagonism between the central most heavily populated island of Java and the outlying regions is one of the major problems facing the government as militant independence movements grow in places such as Aceh and West Papua. Jakarta's hold on these areas would have been threatened if the East Timorese won a painless victory.

    All the warnings were ignored. Western governments and the UN pressed on with their plans, all agreeing that the Indonesian military would remain undisturbed and even unregulated in East Timor during the referendum. Written into the UN negotiated agreement signed On 5 May by Portugal and Indonesia that set out the arrangements for the 30 August vote was the right of the Indonesian military to 'maintain security and law and order' in East Timor.

    After waiting for East Timor to be razed to the ground and nearly emptied of people, the UN finally authorised a military intervention. Some action became inevitable, given the close parallels with Kosovo and mounting popular outrage at double standards. In several countries there were large demonstrations. In Australia the unions boycotted sea and air cargo to Indonesia; by 13 September up to US$50 million worth of cargo was held up.

    But will the UN intervention really serve the interests of the East Timorese? A clue to the answer lies in the fact that the country selected by the UN to command the intervention is Australia--the only one of the UN's 188 member states that recognised Indonesia's occupation of East Timor! Australia recognised Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor in exchange for a promise by Jakarta that Australia would share the oil and gas spoils of the Timor Gap, a deal formalised in 1989. It consolidated its support for the butchers of Jakarta in 1995 by signing a security treaty with Suharto, committing the Australian military to intervene on the dictator's behalf in the event of instability.

    As the international focus on the East Timorese independence movement gained force, Australia faced a dilemma. If East Timor became independent, the Timor Gap treaty would be void. However, if Australia abandoned its recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, then the treaty would be nullified and result in substantial financial claims. Australia tried, through its giant company BHP, to make a secret deal with East Timorese leaders over future oil rights, but when Indonesia found out about the talks, the BHP envoy was denounced to appease Jakarta.

    So the country that has done most to betray the East Timorese, has had the closest relationship with Jakarta, and whose actions have been dictated solely by the lure of oil revenues as opposed to human rights, is the main country that has been entrusted to safeguard the interests of the East Timorese.

    Who else is behind the intervention? Two of the main architects have intervened consistently for 35 years in support of the oppressors of the East Timorese. The US and UK governments supported Suharto's long dictatorship. The US gave the nod for the invasion of East Timor and both governments then rewarded the dictator with military supplies and training. After the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Dili the US began a covert operation to train Indonesian military commanders in military techniques 'that could only be used internally against civilians'.

    So who did the UN choose to write the resolution outlining the terms of the intervention? None other than Robin Cook, the man who ensured that Britain's long tradition of arming Indonesia's military continued and who refused to cancel any military orders for the first ten days of the carnage in September. Only when his position became untenable did he agree to 'suspend' the sales--for a generous four months.

    The UN also invented a novel approach to a government responsible for genocide. It waited until it had permission from that government before agreeing to send troops in. Obviously, no such permission was sought from Saddam Hussein or Milosevic before their countries were bombed--for the simple reason that the purpose of those military adventures was to crush rulers who were threatening western interests.

    Habibie poses no such threat For the western powers, he is crucial for the stability of Indonesia during what they hope is a transition to a form of democracy that leaves the old ruling class and military more or less in place and remains a firm ally of the west. An article in the New York Times on 8 September summed up the US position. 'The administration... has made the calculation that the US must put its relationship with Indonesia, a mineral-rich nation of more than 200 million people, ahead of its concern over the political fate of East Timor, a tiny impoverished territory of 800,000 people that is seeking independence.'

    This is, no doubt, true. But precisely because Indonesia is so important to the west, the running sore of East Timor had to be solved, one way or another. Its continued repression without a referendum didn't square with the 'new democracy' the US was promoting in Indonesia. Moreover, campaigns in many of the countries that were profiting from arms and business deals with Indonesia were beginning to threaten a lucrative source of trade. So pressure was put on Habibie to allow a referendum in East Timor. For him, compliance seemed the best option. The move did not seem too risky politically. The student movement appeared to favour a referendum, and there was always the chance that the years of intimidation might lead to a vote for integration.

    But calling the referendum meant taking on the army, especially its hard core. What has happened in East Timor since the vote is just one manifestation of the power struggles gripping Indonesia, the outcomes of which will affect the future of the East Timorese far more than anything the UN forces might do.

    In May last year a revolutionary uprising led by Indonesia's students and poor toppled Suharto, who had ruled the country without mercy for 32 years. The mass movement won many reforms, including the holding of elections, the release of political prisoners and the legalisation of independent trade unions. The potential of the movement to push the revolution forward even further was hampered by weak leadership and the minimal role played by organised workers. As a result, the May uprising ended with the transferral of power to Habibie, a Suharto protege, the survival of most of the ruling elite, and the continued prominent role of the army in all aspects of life (its 'dual function).

    The installation of Habibie bought time for the regime, but solved none of the basic problems confronting the ruling class. The economy, after contracting by 13 percent in 1998, is stagnant at best. A quarter of the workforce is unemployed. At least 130 million people are living in poverty, their lives worsened every month by the imposition of IMF budget cuts.

    The strength of popular feeling expressed in the 1998 protests forced the government to try and curb some of the army's influence. The response of some of the military leadership has been to retrench and fight back. Other sections, however, favour accepting some reforms in exchange for their continued partnership in government.

    The military is still a formidable power. The only force that can challenge its power is the movement from below. Unfortunately, that movement is greatly weakened by the main 'liberal' opposition figures--Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid, the leaders of the two main Muslim organisations. They are too scared to challenge the military and all have dampened popular protests.

    Last November the frustration of students, workers and sections of the middle class with the slow pace of change since May 1998 exploded into demonstrations involving millions of people. The protesters called for Habibie's resignation, the end of the military's role in politics and the prosecution of Suharto. The 'liberal' leaders rejected these demands and warned against anarchy. They then issued a joint statement supporting the continued rule of Habibie until the elections and reaffirming the 'dual function' of the military.

    This gave the military the green light to repress the demonstrations. On 13 November Habibie and his right hand man, General Wiranto, ordered the troops in, who fired into the crowds in Jakarta killing at least 18 people. In the months that followed there were fewer protests, largely because of a fracturing of the student and opposition movement in face of the electoral process.

    The confidence of the army has been further boosted by Megawati's position on East Timor. She topped the elections in June and is likely to be elected president by the people's consultative assembly in November. She has sucked up to the military, saying she opposed the calling of the referendum. The Jakarta Post reported that Megawati was 'close to tears when she spoke of widows and children of the thousands of servicemen killed to defend Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor'. Clearly she is aiming at some kind of power sharing with the military, with General Wiranto as her vice-president.

    Opposition to the left of Megawati is still weak. However, the splits within the ruling class and army offer many opportunities for the millions of Indonesians who want more radical change. Thousands of them demonstrated this in September, when they staged violent protests against proposed new security laws that would strengthen the military. The revolutionary period Indonesia entered in 1998 is far from over.

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