East Timor : Indonesia and its March Of Folly

Indonesia appeared to have offered East Timor independence on a platter, with President Habibie’s ‘autonomy or separation’ offer. DERWIN PEREIRA examines the developments up to, and since, this policy reversal and whether the former Portuguese colony can really go it alone.

American historian Barbara Tuchman published a book in 1992, titled The March Of Folly.

In that work, she tackled major government-policy bungles by examining four cases that later proved to be decisive turning-points in world history: the Trojan War, the breakup of the Holy See, the loss of American colonies and the United States’ defeat in the Vietnam War.

She does not deal with East Timor. But her thesis is eminently applicable to the troubled Indonesian territory. It could have been a sleepy, half-forgotten backwater; a place of little note, “nothing but rocks”, as described by Indonesian President B. J. Habibie recently.

Yet, for the last 23 years, this land of rocks has generated headlines around the world and consumed more diplomatic attention than it perhaps deserved.

The reason is simple: A dangerously limited tunnel-vision, or, to borrow a phrase from Tuchman, the “wooden-headedness” of government and individuals in pursuing a course of action, blind to its attendant consequences.

Such folly is a child of power.

The Portuguese, after 400 years of rule that the United Nations (UN) described as a “crime against humanity”, left this half-island without a functioning government, or even sufficient numbers of educated people to run its most rudimentary economy.

East Timorese leaders who rose to prominence in the mid-’70s fell into two categories: people who were manipulated by Jakarta easily, or firebrands who dallied with a half-baked Marxism that incurred the wrath of the staunchly anti-communist armed forces (Abri) and provided the raison d’etre for Indonesian intervention in 1975.

As the new ruler of Timor, the Indonesian government also found its hands covered in blood, perhaps even more so than its predecessors.

Through misguided neo-colonial policies, human-rights atrocities and a complete lack of empathy with the East Timorese, it succeeded – probably in a matter of months, but certainly over the last two decades – to alienate the predominantly Catholic population.

What might have been a relatively benign integration of the territory with its giant neighbour – perhaps along the lines of Goa with India – turned, instead, into South-east Asia’s second-worst killing fields after Cambodia, and a human tragedy on a grand scale.

It became an albatross around the neck for Indonesia, clinging on for years as an ugly spectre, the single most damaging blot on its international image.


THE Portuguese arrived in Timor in 1512.

Like the Chinese traders before them, they found the island a plentiful source of sandalwood, prized in Europe then for its aroma and medicinal qualities derived from its oil.

In the mid-17th century, the Dutch occupied Kupang, Timor’s best harbour, beginning a long conflict with the Portuguese for control of the sandalwood trade.

The two colonial powers decided to split Timor a century later. Portugal got the eastern half, plus the enclave of Oekussi on the north coast. Holland pocketed the rest.

Until the 19th century, Portuguese control over its half of the island was tenuous. The native Timorese rulers or liurai opposed them often. The Dominican missionaries were also involved in revolts against the government.

Eventually, a series of rebellions between 1893 and 1912 led to a bloody “pacification”. The colony slipped into decline as the sandalwood trade fizzled out. When Portugal fell into a depression after World War I, East Timor drifted into an economic torpor.

It was notable only for its modest production of high-quality coffee and as a distant place of exile for opponents of the Portuguese regime. No attempt was made to develop it.

When Indonesia won independence in 1949, the Dutch left West Timor, but Portugal still held on to the eastern half. The turning point came in 1974, when a military coup in Portugal overthrew the Salazar dictatorship.

The new government sought to discard the remnants of its colonial empire as quickly as possible.

Faced with the possibility of East Timor becoming an independent state, two major political groups, the Timorese

Democratic Union (UDT) and the Timorese Social Democrats (known later as the Fretilin), formed quickly in the colony. A third group, known as Apodeti, was a minor player, but its stated preference for integration with Indonesia turned it intolittle more than a front for Jakarta’s goals eventually.

Both the UDT and the Fretilin advocated independence for East Timor. The former adopted a more gradual approach, calling for autonomy first. The latter gained an edge because of its more radical social policies.

Indonesian leaders had had their eyes on East Timor since the ’40s, but they disavowed any interest officially.

This changed with the Fretilin’s emergence, giving Jakarta’s military elite a reason to step in.

Indonesian intelligence officers pursued a non-military strategy of annexation initially. They pinned their hopes on Apodeti and began describing the Fretilin as a communist party and the UDT as “neo-fascist”.


JAKARTA’S concerns appeared to have been two-fold. It feared that the territory could become a “Cuba on the doorstep” and be used as a base for incursions into Indonesia by unfriendly powers.

It was also worried that an independent East Timor within the confines of Indonesia’s national territory would spark secessionist sentiments elsewhere in the archipelago, notably in Aceh and Irian Jaya.

Major powers like the US and Australia accepted these fears at face-value and gave tacit support to Indonesia.

Its generals got their opportunity in August 1975. The UDT staged a coup in Dili, the capital of East Timor, which led to a brief civil war between it and the Fretilin.

Military superiority lay from the outset with the latter; by the end of August, the bulk of fighting was over and the UDT withdrew to the western half.

The Fretilin proved surprisingly effective in getting things back to normal. But by the end of September, Jakarta had already decided on a takeover.

On Dec 7, 1975, the military moved in. East Timor and the Fretilin faced Indonesia alone. A preoccupied Portugal kept at a

Jakarta declared East Timor the country’s 27th province on July 16, 1976, but the Fretilin put up a strong resistance and kept up regular attacks on the Indonesians until at least a year later.

But gradually, Indonesia’s military strength and the Fretilin’s lack of outside support had their effect. The UN condemned the intervention and refused to acknowledge Indonesia’s claim. It recognised Portugal as the administering power of the territory.

East Timor bled considerably during the takeover. International humanitarian organisations estimate that about 100,000 people might have died in the hostilities and from the disease and famine that followed.

Large sections of the population were relocated for “security reasons” and lost contact with ancestral sites.

By 1989, the Fretilin had been pushed back to just a few isolated hideouts in the far east of the island, and Indonesia was confident enough to open up East Timor to foreign tourists.

More than 20,000 troops were on the island and the government pumped in money for development projects to achieve a degree of “pacification”.

But any hope of nullifying the issue on the international stage was short-lived. In perhaps Indonesia’s biggest foreign-policy blunder, it agreed with Portugal to deal with the East Timor issue under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General, rather than face an annual resolution on the General Assembly floor.

In retrospect, the strategy might have worked, but Abri destroyed any hope of an easy foreign-policy win.Human-rights abuses continued at an alarmingly high level year after year, guaranteeing an international focus on the issue.

The Dili massacre in November 1991 was the height of folly and thrust the East Timor issue firmly onto the international stage.

About 1,000 East Timorese had staged a rally at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, where they had gathered to commemorate the death of an independence-activist. Security forces opened fire on the crowd.

The embarrassed Indonesian government admitted to 19 killings, but other reports put the death-toll much higher.East Timor was once again in the world’s headlines, and the shots of that fateful day were to resonate many years hence.The next eight years were filled with further violence. A new class of young East Timorese graduated from schools paid for by Jakarta.

They were taught an Indonesian curriculum but, nevertheless, emerged as more anti-Indonesian than their parents.The only way Jakarta maintained its rule was through military repression and the cultivation of some East Timorese in the public service by providing largesse.

During the last term of former President Suharto, many Indonesians, including senior Abri officers, realised that their hold on the troubled province was precarious and unsustainable. They proposed autonomy. But Mr Suharto rejected such plans.


PRESIDENT HABIBIE stunned the world on Jan 27 by saying that Indonesia would allow East Timor to separate, if autonomywas rejected. The island was “nothing but rocks” and a burden to the country’s battered economy.

In effect, his new stand reverses 23 years of policy, under which Indonesia had claimed that East Timor’s integration was the will of the 800,000 people there and absolutely irreversible.

What brought about this volte-face? The answer lies in a number of sources.

The most important is Dr Habibie himself. He is anything but a conventional politician.

Accounts from Cabinet and diplomatic sources suggest that one of his concerns was to record his place in Indonesian history as an intellectual, courageous and worthy of international praise.

It seems that the leader, who, after all, had spent two decades in Germany, had his eye on the international audience, rather than the domestic one.

“He wanted to leave his mark as the one who solved the East Timor problem,” says a senior Indonesian Foreign Ministry official involved in the deliberations.

“That is why he has pushed forward the time-frame to resolve the issue. It must be solved during his term as President.”Probing deeper, psychologically, he and his closest supporters, like state intelligence chief Z. A. Maulani, foreign-policy adviser Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Cooperatives Minister Adi Sasono and other young Muslim civilians, carry no baggage on East Timor.

They had no part in its integration and, in fact, would have preferred it if it had gone its own way.

A ministerial source tells Sunday Review that after Dr Habibie’s announcement, Mr Sasono sighed and told other ministers around him: “It was all for nothing. It was just all for nothing.”

He and retired Lieutenant-General Maulani were critical in shaping the President’s perceptions of East Timor.But Dr Habibie’s decision and the venom of his subsequent comments on the matter were influenced more by personal reasons.

Besides his desire to leave an international mark, he was hurt by the refusal of East Timor’s Bishop Carlos Belo, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize-winner, to see him for another round of talks after their first meeting last year.

Noted the foreign ministry source: “He took it personally, the refusal of an East Timorese to see the President of Indonesia.”

It all manifested itself in his quixotic policy-making style. By all accounts, there were no policy papers or detailed analyses of options, but rather this quick, almost off-the-cuff decision, triggered perhaps by the jolt that Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s letter gave the Indonesian policy elite.

The Australians had proposed in January a scheme along the lines of the settlement in New Caledonia, where, after a 10-year autonomy period, a referendum was held. The result of that was that New Caledonia would remain part of France for 20 more years.

On paper, this should have been attractive.

But Jakarta reacted in a surprising way. It insisted that there were only two choices: permanent autonomy or independence. If the Timorese rejected autonomy, they would be thrown out of the republic.

It was a black-or-white approach to finding a solution. There was no middle way. Indonesian diplomats suggest that it was a response born of “political lethargy”, the wish to end something that had dragged on for years.

The reaction was also one that might be expected from a government and bureaucracy steeped in the values of Javanese statecraft.

Notes a Cabinet Minister: “We have reached a threshold where this nation has to calculate beyond cost-benefit analysis. It is the question of facing political realities that over the last two decades, we lost the battle to win the loyalty of East Timorese to this notion of being Indonesian.

“Call it Javanese arrogance or pride. It was a fait accompli we gave them. Take it or leave.”

They could not countenance the public humiliation of having the East Timorese walk out on them. They would much rather have the country’s highest legislative body, the People’s Consultative Assembly make that decision.

Just as Mr Suharto in May preferred to throw the game away rather than see his power diminished or shared with others, so too the current power elite seems to want a clean break, rather than a system under which Indonesian sovereignty would be diluted.

This may account for Jakarta’s last-minute qualms about granting East Timor full-fledged autonomy, given concerns that it
could set a precedent for other provinces to follow.

Linked to the issue of sovereignty is the length of a UN presence in East Timor during the transition period. At issue here in the draft autonomy package being worked out by Jakarta, Lisbon and the UN now, is whether to conduct a referendum inEast Timor.

Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said in New York last week, after the two-day talks, that a referendum, which would ask East Timorese to make a choice between autonomy or independence, was “fraught with risks”.

Insiders said that the government was concerned that a lengthy registration of voters and intense and perhaps violent campaigning for the two choices by pro-independence and pro-integration groups could lead to UN monitors “staying on indefinitely” in East Timor.

Says the Foreign Ministry source: “Indonesia can tolerate six months to a year of UN presence during the transition phase.After that, the UN must pull out and allow the new government to operate on its own.”

With referendum as a no-go, Indonesia, Portugal and the UN decided on a “direct ballot” plan as a compromise. The source says this is a “watered-down approach” to the referendum proposal.

It involved assessing only East Timorese acceptance of Jakarta’s wide-ranging autonomy proposal, instead of presenting them with stark choices of permanent autonomy or independence.

He says: “The process is much shorter, maybe just a day. It reduces the chance for groups to campaign for independence or autonomy, as we have somewhat narrowed the focus to just the autonomy package. It is an indirect way of asking East Timorese whether they wanted to be part of Indonesia.”

It was a face-saving measure for the republic. This is understandable, given that Jakarta would have been very embarrassed if it “lost” in a conventional referendum. Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama described the breakthrough in talks as “a turning-point”. But other areas are still in need of consensus.

The most critical is the length of a UN presence in East Timor. Jakarta wants it to be as short as possible.

Besides this, a deal has yet to be struck on how to share the oil revenues from the Timor Gap project.

The 68-clause autonomy agreement, which has to be accepted by the East Timorese population by July this year, stipulateswhat one government official describes as “benefits for life with little strings attached”:

* East Timor will have its own flag and language. Bahasa Indonesia will cease to be the official language.
* It will have its own police force responsible for internal security.
* It will continue to get subsidies from Jakarta, making up 93 per cent of the annual East Timor budget. The local government can decide how it wants to use the funds.
* Jakarta will have control only of foreign policy, external defence and finance.

The stark choices the Indonesian government has set for itself and for the East Timorese could happen only because of thedifferent and more benign strategic environment in the late ’90s.

International-relations expert Michael Leifer from the London School of Economics and Political Science says that today, an independent East Timor would represent no threat to its security.

“The prospect of some kind of revolutionary government in Dili with links to the communist world is not a reality today,” he says.

“East Timor is no longer a dagger pointing at the heart of the archipelago, as it did in 1975.”

If a Cuba at the doorstep is a fallacy now, the same cannot be said for internal security that continues to dominate the thinking of Indonesian generals and nationalists.

Despite Abri chief General Wiranto’s public support for Dr Habibie’s plan, many in the military view it grudgingly.They worry that East Timor might set an example for other provinces.

Granting it autonomy, or even independence, could have a political knock-on effect for Indonesia.

It could challenge the integrity of the state at the margins, in provinces like Irian Jaya and Aceh.

It is unlikely that the government will tolerate calls for independence in these areas, given that their wealth of resources isinvaluable to Jakarta.

Says a three-star army general: “East Timor is a unique case and we will let it go. But that is the last line of defence. We won’t let it happen to other provinces.”


INDONESIAN defence-planners, whatever fears they might have of the “Balkanisation” of Indonesia, do not appear one bit concerned that East Timor could implode once the republic cuts its links with the former Portuguese colony.

The ministerial source says that any potential violence and the mass exodus that could follow “would be well-contained in the larger area of Timor”.

He says: “What will happen is that West Timor could act as a buffer zone for people seeking refuge. Indonesia will remain largely insulated to what happens there.”

Jakarta’s nonchalance flies in the face of a civil war looming in East Timor. Evidence suggests that the dogs of war may already be on the loose.

Since Dr Habibie’s announcement, fighting has escalated between pro-independence and pro-Indonesia forces.A worrying development is the emergence of vocal groups on the island supporting integration.

They see independence as an end to their livelihood and the beginning of a nightmare of retribution at the hands of their countrymen, who regard them as collaborators.

They do not hide their intention of going to war to maintain East Timor’s unity with Indonesia.

Pro-integration leader Joao da Silva Tavares says: “Those who want integration have the right to fight for their wish. No one, including the United Nations, can force their will on us.”

He leads a group called Halilintar (Lightning), which claims to have 2,400 supporters in East Timor ready to fight for their cause with basic weapons such as machetes, spears and arrows.

There are also similar paramilitary groups on the island: Makikit, Saka, Alpha, Mahidin, Kamra and Gadapaksi.Analysts believe that all of them are backed by military intelligence elements secretly.

On the opposing side are pro-independence groups like the Solidarity Council of East Timorese Students and Youth (DSMPTT), Ojetil and Fosarepetil.

Old wounds and latent rivalries remain embedded in the political psyche of the Fretilin and the UDT. It remains to be seen
how the two parties can reconcile their differences.

Insiders say that regular meetings are being held in Jakarta to draw up a possible peace plan and avoid civil war, if East Timor is thrust into independence.

The most recent meeting took place last week between Fretilin leader Xanana Gusmao and Mr Tavares.

But the impression in the international media is of a hopelessly-divided community perched on the edge of a civil war and heading towards becoming another Kosovo.

The influential Bishop Belo tells Sunday Review that internal war was “a possibility” if old rivalries resurfaced.

“We have to get all the factions to sit down and talk. They need to understand that East Timor’s future is at stake. It cannot be a zero-sum game. It has to be a win-win solution for all the parties.”

The enigmatic Mr Gusmao, now under house arrest in Jakarta, is more sanguine about what is to come.

He says: “The people of East Timor have learnt to bury their hate for their enemies. There will be no more hate. Reconciliation is a political must for us.”


FOR the East Timorese, Indonesia’s offer of permanent autonomy or separation is an unexpected boon.

As the Indonesian saying goes, it is like finding a fallen durian. Indonesia, in effect, is giving them independence on a platter. All they have to do is say “no, thank you” to the autonomy offer.

It could not be easier. On paper.

But the East Timorese will have to ponder their future with sharper lenses, devoid of ideological underpinnings. It is bleak. They have few resources and war could break out.

Former East Timor governor Mario Viegas Carrascalao put it aptly when he told D&R magazine in an interview: “I tell my friends that we must try to be realistic. We must not dream too much. Just accept autonomy. Let the Indonesian government eat the bones. The people of East Timor will eat the meat, the better part.”

Indonesia’s plan may yield a solution. But a number of things need to happen first.

First, Jakarta has to be more consistent in word and deed. It has to stop elements in the military from distributing arms to civilians to destabilise the putative state.

Second, it has to allow the UN to conduct a fair consultation with the East Timorese on autonomy. This means allowing a substantial UN presence as soon as possible. It has to accept the outcome of the consultation and work actively to enable a smooth and orderly transition.

On their part, the East Timorese have to patch up their differences and develop a consensus on the way ahead. If they cando all this, there will be little violence.

There are some encouraging signs, especially last week’s breakthrough in the UN.Indonesia and Portugal are edging closer to resolving the East Timor problem as the clock ticks for negotiations to conclude by next month.

But even then, an agreement is not guaranteed, given that there are other sticking points to resolve.The situation on the ground too gives little reason for confidence. The security situation continues to deteriorate and thousands are leaving the island for fear of civil war.

East Timor leaders are talking but a ceasefire between warring groups is still a distant reality.

Perhaps historian Tuchman is right, after all. Even when solutions are close at hand, it is in human nature to allow folly to reign and for wisdom and goodwill to be defeated.

Why should East Timor break the pattern of so much of history?

HISTORY: Written in blood

1512: The Portuguese land in Timor after capturing Malacca. 1859-1913: Portugal and Holland agree to divide Timor and the Portuguese get the eastern half. 1941-43: Australian troops land in East Timor after learning that Japan will use it as a base to attack Australia. Between 40,000 and 60,000 East Timorese die supporting the Australian war effort. Aug 11, 1975: The Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) launches a coup. A civil war with the Fretilin ensues. Aug 27, 1975: Portugal withdraws from East Timor. Nov 28, 1975: The Fretilin declares East Timor independent. Dec 7, 1975: Indonesians troops invade. An estimated 100,000 people die during the military crackdown and famine that follow. July 16, 1976: Indonesia declares East Timor its 27th province. The United Nations does not recognise its claim. 1983: The UN Commission on Human Rights adopts a resolution affirming East Timor’s right to independence. Nov 12, 1991: The Indonesian military opens fire on protesters at the funeral of a separatist sympathiser in Dili. Jakarta says 19 died. Human-rights groups claim 100 to 180 were killed. August 1992: The UN General Assembly adopts its first resolution condemning Indonesian human-rights violations in East Timor. November 1992: The Indonesian military captures Fretilin leader Xanana Gusmao, who is sentenced to life imprisonment. Oct 11, 1996: East Timor’s Bishop Carlos Belo and independence-advocate Jose Ramos Horta are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Aug 8, 1998: Indonesia withdraws combat troops from the island. Jan 27, 1999: President B. J. Habibie is willing to allow East Timor to separate if it rejects Indonesia’s autonomy plan.

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