A fascinating, but sad, story: Topics related to the Consultation Process in East Timor

(Draft – September 10,1999)

Antonio Jorge Rocha

Dept. of International Relations, Univ. of Brasilia

This text is an attempt to share with my colleagues part of the reflections I have initiated while observing the consultation process in East Timor. Far from exhaustive, it aims at informing and at encouraging other thinkers in the area to elaborate their analysis of specific features in current international relations that have become evident in the case of East Timor. It also calls for greater attention to the conditions underlying the process of creation of one more nation state in the post Cold-War Era. Conceived as the beginning of a dialogue, this text is divided in items, as this may facilitate the exchange of ideas with persons who may have particular interest in specific topics but not in others. As it represents only my personal view of the facts, I look forward to receiving as many comments as possible.
  1. East Timor: a very brief overview.



    The Indonesian Army invaded East Timor in December 1975, when, according to the Indonesian government, it became the country’s 27th province. Never recognized by the international community, this invasion received the approval of the U.S. government (it took place one day after an official visit of Secretary of State Kissinger to Indonesia) and at least the silence of other anti-Communist governments. At the time, the rationale was that an independent East Timor could eventually host a pro-Soviet government (as other former Portuguese colonies in Africa), a risk perceived as almost non-existent if it became part of Soeharto’s Indonesia. The bottom line is that there were no cultural, linguistic, or historical affinities to justify the invasion, and until months before the invasion, the Indonesian government itself had never considered East Timor as part of its territory. In fact, the Indonesia’s independence movement had reaffirmed the borders as they had been previously negotiated between the Dutch and the Portuguese colonial powers. Both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council have repeatedly condemned the invasion, since December 1975, and to date East Timor remains in the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories of the General Assembly.

    Since 1975, the Indonesian Army has taken the responsibility of administering the territory, producing very poor results in economic and social terms. Statistics are almost non-existent and usually counted as part of the aggregate Indonesian figures, which makes very difficult any attempt to produce an objective analysis of the territory’s economy. Local inflation rate is estimated in 5.8% in 1999, and the regional GDP reached 997,667 million Rupiahs in 1997. As a whole, infrastructure is very limited, particularly for transportation and communications. Subsistence agriculture and extractivism are the most important economic activities, besides the exploration of natural resources, usually run by businessmen of Indonesian or Chinese origin. Sandalwood is still found in reasonable quantities in the territory, but the coffee plantations and the tourist industry existent up to 1975 have decreased substantially. Oil and natural gas are potential industries, as the Timor gap (between Timor and Australia) has proved significant reserves.

    The level of repression is high, and until the UN-run consultation no anti-Indonesian gatherings were allowed. Well-known opposition leaders, like Xanana Gusmão and Ramos Horta, are either in exile or in jail. Others have disappeared. In the last decades, many people migrated to the mountains, were they can hide from the Army and from the local police, both of which are said to have created the pro-Indonesian militias in the last decades. It is certain that both do very little to prevent these militias from continuing the assassinations, estimated in approximately 100,000 persons in the last two and one half decades. At least other 100,000 people have died through this period due to shortages of food and water, particularly in the mountains. If one keeps in mind that the territory has now a population of 800,000 to 820,000 people, the figure can be evaluated in its real dimension: about one quarter of the Timorese population disappeared in one generation. Of the current population, about 20% are of Indonesian origin, most of whom have migrated from West Timor and Java, encouraged by governmental-sponsored programs. Another 2% have migrated from China. The ethnic division has appeared in the last two elections held in the territory: in the general Indonesian elections earlier this year, the turnout in East Timor was close to 22%. In the UN consultation, 21.5% of the registered voters have preferred the autonomy alternative. Before 1975, over 97% of the population were Timorese. As for the consultation, despite the climate of intimidation over 95% of the registered East Timorese voters turned out, voting overwhelmingly for their independence.

  3. Will the UN succeed a generation later?



    As the Carnation Revolution eroded the capacity of the Portuguese government to maintain its colonies, pro-independence movements emerged in these territories, most of which have bargained for the U.S. or for the Soviet support, or both, according to the possibilities offered by each super-power circumstantially. In the case of East Timor, the annexation by Indonesia (announced in July 1976) created a different pattern: instead of an endemic civil war, as observed by Angola or Mozambique, the fight for independence remained in the territory. As it had happened during World War II, with the Japanese invasion, the Timorese thought that they had then to fight against a new colonial power. An issue of interest in this whole process is that the UN Committee for Decolonization simply played no role at all, once again failing in its mission to help maintain the conditions for peace in the international system. The specific situation of East Timor was never clearly established, as a revolutionary movement has claimed the territory’s independence in 1974, which, until the invasion, has not been recognized by any state.

    Despite the repeated condemnation by the UN, the Indonesian government kept controlling the territory through the years, which expressively illustrates both the UN strengths and its weaknesses. On the one hand, it provides governments with a forum where they can openly repudiate acts of violence and disrespect to international law such as the alleged transformation of East Timor into Indonesian's 27th province. On the other hand, the cost of a direct intervention in the territory (particularly the problems that this may engender with the Indonesian government) has apparently prevented the international community from going beyond rhetoric initiatives. In this sense, the sole case that can be comparable to the East Timorese in terms of complexity is Cyprus. No wonder both remain unresolved. The economic crisis faced by South East Asia in the last two years has made the whole issue even more complicated. In the case of Indonesia, if it created the "window of opportunity" that eventually led to the May 5th agreement, it also created a deep sense of social instability for most people in the country, which, one may recall, has the world's 4th largest population.

    So far, most influent governments within the UN have not considered necessary, or have considered too costly, to initiate a peace-keeping operation in East Timor. As for the UN bureaucracy itself, it has not elected this issue as a priority, as it happened, for instance, in the process that eventually led to the international mission to Somalia. Running a consultation process in the territory is undoubtedly a step forward, but it is clear that this issue is essentially different from other operations centered in the promotion of democracy. East Timor is not emerging from a civil war, as was the case of countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador when the UN helped promoting their transition to democracy. The organized militias active on East Timor are neither ideologically motivated nor are they struggling for parts of the territory where the most important economic activities can be developed, as in Angola. Backed by the military and by the police, currently at least with their omission, these militias defend the integration of the territory to Indonesia.

    As a result, the UN faces a dilemma, as any effective action to avoid a genocide (and this is not an exaggeration!) requires a major intervention, which implies hurting the interests of part of the core Indonesian political actors in the territory. It is possible that now, after the failure of the Indonesian military and police to guarantee the security during and after the consultation, as agreed on May 5th 1999, the UN will have an argument to back a possible decision to send peace-keeping troops to the territory. On the other hand, some analysts argue that the same argument can be used by the Indonesian military to increase their presence in East Timor. Back in 1974-75, the political circumstances did not favor a UN intervention in the territory, through the Decolonization Committee, as commanded by the Charter of San Francisco. Now, even after Kosovo, it is still not clear if the political circumstances will allow a peace-keeping operation to take place, despite the violations of human rights observed in East Timor in the last months.

    With the decision of establishing Martial Law and suspending all civil liberties in the Territory (September 07, 1999), the Indonesian government made any decision of a peace-keeping operation far more difficult, for at least two reasons. The first is that the military were already supposed to maintain the security in the territory, a mission they deliberately failed to accomplish. There is little doubt that, despite its internal divisions, the Army could have controlled the violence and stopped the local militia, if there was a clear determination to do so. The Indonesian military have experience, are more numerous and better equipped than the militia they were supposed to combat. Moreover, the chain of events that created the impression of a social chaos, or, as the military like to portray, "a civil war", is clearly part of a strategy (announced, by the way) to justify increasing the military presence in the territory. The strategy began with the numerous incidents during the preparation for the consultation and went through the campaign, as well as through the voting day, with attacks to specific poll centers. It ended with the attacks to Bishop Belo’s house and to the Red Cross compound, both of which have been clearly planned, and implemented, in a manner that leaves no doubt about the purpose of extinguishing any "sanctuary", which ultimately could force pro-independence activists to choose between leaving the territory or dying. In any event, the military have moved quickly, deploying more troops in the territory (over 15,000 plus 8,000 policemen) and making any effort to send peace-keeping troops more complex. After all, now the military have an argument that they are trying to reestablish order. The Martial Law itself, publicly opposed by President Habibie, was presented as an answer to the demands of the international community to restore order in the territory. More importantly, any decision to send UN troops, even approved by the Indonesian government (and the requirement is still needed from a legal point of view), will have to consider the delicate balance inherent in the coexistence of international and national troops allegedly responsible for the same purpose: maintaining the security in East Timor. It goes without saying that such a force would have to combat militias that know very well the mountainous territory of the island, which would be a logistic nightmare.

    In other words, the cost of an international armed intervention is now much higher than it was before the increase of the military presence in East Timor. And this leads us to the second reason why a decision to send international troops is now more difficult: apparently the risk of genocide in the territory has not increased the will of Western governments to promote such an intervention in East Timor. So far the UN reacted by sending a mission to Jakarta with the objective of checking with the government the steps it will take to reestablish order in the territory. The U.S. government, whose leadership has been determinant for all international peace-keeping operations in the last decade, has already announced that it cannot be considered the world’s police and that it will not make any move without the approval of the Indonesian government. As the time passes, the military consolidate their presence in East Timor, advance their position internally with other core Indonesian political actors and, helped by the conditions in place in East Timor, push both international observers and the media out of the territory, diminishing the level of attention dedicated to this issue. As other disasters emerge in the international scene, including some natural ones, it will be increasingly more difficult to maintain the attention of the public opinion around the world focused on the chance of the East Timorese. Whatever is the case, despite the reaction of Foreign Minister Alatas (or precisely because of it), the moves advanced by Mr. Wolfesson, on behalf of the World Bank, and the U.S.-led suspension of military cooperation and of the invitation to General Wiranto to go to an APEC Defense-Minister conference next month (both on Sept. 9) are signs that the international community is now taking the subject more seriously. At the end of the day, only the mobilization of the international public opinion (whatever one means by that…) can help convincing the members of the Security Council to initiate a peace-keeping operation in East Timor.

  5. The violence engendered by the imperfection of the May 5th Agreements



    A further interesting point of discussion for IR students raised by the East Timor consultation pertains to the relationship between diplomatic agreements and their consequences. The May 5th Agreement results from the perception, particularly by the Portuguese government, of a window of opportunity that could be used to change the status quo in East Timor. The perception is not entirely wrong, but the way the agreement has been crafted is far from perfect. Put differently, the agreement was the product of the interaction of different political actors, whose structures of objectives were broader than the East Timor issue. Different actors were playing different games simultaneously and the agreement was part of their global strategy, not an end in itself. President Habibie used it to advance his position within the Indonesian political system, particularly in regard to the military, and to gain international support. The Indonesian military, less tuned with Habibie than with Soeharto, could partially maintain their position by assuring that the security of the territory would remain in their hands through the consultation process. The groups connected with former President Soeharto still remain in the territory (only on September 8Th the military commander in East Timor has been replaced), particularly the Kopassus forces. Any real intention to provide security for the consultation process would necessarily involve the substitution of local officials, both at the higher and at the medium levels, which only started several days before the vote and very timidly. Once the process that led to the Indonesian national elections was initiated, other political parties and movements also marked their position in relation to East Timor. Ms. Megawati’s ambiguous declarations, a mix of solidarity to the East Timorese people and silence about what would be the position of her possible government on the issue, illustrates how consultation process became a product for "domestic consumption". Brief, in the vacuum created by Soeharto’s unexpected fall, different political actors tried to advance, others to maintain, specific positions in relation to East Timor. For those who still insist in dividing the realms of foreign and domestic policy, this is one more example of the extent to which these things are now part of a continuum.

    The Portuguese government showed a more coherent position, using the agreement to advance its presence in the international context, and within Europe, by defending an issue that is morally admirable. Simultaneously, a bit jealous of the increasing Brazilian influence over the Portuguese-speaking countries, it improved its presence among its former colonies, by leading such a loveable effort. By the way, this also helps preparing the terrain for future investments (also envisaged by German firms and indirectly supported by the German government) in the territory, in the case it becomes independent. As for the UN, the May 5th Agreement illustrates its concern with a situation whose awareness has increased worldwide, after the concession of the 1996 Nobel Prize to Bishop Belo and Ramos Horta, but does not involve any further commitment in terms of proceeding with a significant intervention. The hope of both the UN bureaucrats and the Portuguese diplomats was that a greater international presence in the territory would deter further violence. If it is true that the level of violence has decreased significantly between May and August, this has not been sufficient to avoid assassinations, plus a huge level of intimidation promoted by the militias and, to say the least, consented by the military and the police.

    Moreover, the May 5th Agreement was limited in its scope and misleading in its terms. By proposing autonomy, and by prohibiting the very use of the term "independence" during the campaign, the agreement aimed at creating an impression of good will by the part of the Indonesian government. Given the high rates of illiteracy in the territory, and of ignorance about the East Timorese situation abroad, the fact that the vote would be either for autonomy (a concession by the government) or against autonomy tended to create a positive image for the Indonesian government regardless of the result. The most important factor, however, has to do with the fact that the Portuguese side was apparently ready to pay any price to guarantee the international presence in the territory, and accepted all the Indonesian demands in relation to the security situation in the territory. It is hard to believe that the same military and police that in the last decades were responsible for the repression and had proved connections with the militias would by fiat change their behavior and become the protectors of the East Timorese. At least provisions regarding the substitution of local commanders should have been made explicit in the agreements. Finally, the text of the agreement focuses more on the procedures for the consultation than on the general security situation in the territory, based on the assumption that the Indonesian police is the sole responsible for maintaining the law and the order during the whole process. By so doing, the agreement appears as an effort to promote democracy, rather than an initiative to protect human rights or even self-determination, despite the fact that self-determination is implicit in the ballot and that the concept of "transition to independence" is in the text of in the agreement. By establishing that the UN presence in the territory will be tied to the ballot, and in the extension judged "adequate" by the Secretary-General, the agreement provides little room to arguments in favor of a peace-keeping operation.

    To sum up, it is true that some parties would defend this agreement as the "possible", rather than the "desirable" agreement, but this does not make of it an efficient tool to improve the security situation in the territory. Given its vague concepts, weak assertions, and, perhaps more importantly, its silences, the military could allegedly respect the deal while allowing a high level of violence and intimidation during the consultation process and can now reassess their presence in the territory, despite the overwhelming vote against the proposed autonomy.

  7. The Indonesian dilemma and the role of its Army



    Traditionally, the Indonesian Army has focused on maintaining the unity of the state, rather than preparing for war against potential foreign enemies. The enormous number of islands that integrate the archipelago and the profound cultural differences have been seen as threats to the unity of the state. In part, this is also the reason why Java has tried to impose its leadership and, in many cases, has been seen as too "imperialistic", in the sense that the Javanese rule does not respect the local and regional differences as much as many provinces would like. It is worth noting, however, that the case of East Timor is essentially distinct from the case of some provinces that claim for their independence, given its historical and cultural background. Whatever is the case, the military fear that many provinces will take it as an example and try to advance their own processes of independence. The situation in Arché, where a separatist movement has radicalized its claim for independence four months ago, is often quoted by the military as one reason to make no concessions in East Timor, despite the fact that both the civilian and the military leadership Indonesia portray the East Timorese question as unique.

    Indeed it is a very particular situation, but East Timor has not been the sole part of the territory where the Indonesian military have helped developing local militias, loyal to Jakarta, based on the old, still effective, notion of divide and rule. Although there are doubts about the extent to which these militias are loyal to the military, the fact that no particular militia could extend its influence over regions dominated by other groups is interpreted as a clear division of the territory, which makes more difficult any attempt to create an autonomous movement. Moreover, the most influent militia have publicly stated their most important objective: to guarantee the annexation of East Timor to Indonesia, as its 27th province. Finally, any analysis of the incidents that occurred through the campaign period cannot fail to recognize that there was some order in the eruption of violence. For instance, the western cities of Suai, Maliana, Balibo and Liquica have never been under control, and in all of them the militias said they would get together to annex this strip of the territory to West Timor, in the case the consultation produced a result against the proposed autonomy. Another example was the simultaneous, and sudden, eruption of violence in cities that were apparently tranquil and under control: Oecussi and Los Palos. Curiously, in the same evening, five days before the vote, these two cities have observed very similar events, which began with disorders in the local markets, evolved to attacks to the CNRT office, followed by the burning of houses and attempts to block and control the main access to the cities. Two interesting points: these cities are the extreme limits of the territory (Oecussi is the East Timorese enclave within West Timor, where the violence was greater and the roads have been effectively controlled by the militia) and Los Palos is the most important city in the Eastern part of the territory. It is hard to believe that only by coincidence such similar events took place simultaneously. They were initiated with a couple of hours of difference in cities so far apart and until that evening marked by relatively peaceful campaign. The result was an increased perception that violence could explode anywhere and any time.

    Through the campaign period, observers have witnessed soldiers distributing arms to militiamen, which may not be the result of a deliberate current policy of the Indonesian Army, but certainly is related to the lack of serious attempts to cut the alleged former links between the military and the militia. Personally, when I left Dili in August 31st I witnessed armed Aitarak militiamen enter Dili’s airport, give an interview to western televisions saying that they would check every passenger willing to get out of the country (in order to make sure that the East Timorese elite would not leave the country), and actually carry on this determination, despite the fact that the Indonesian police and the Army were in the airport. In fact, the militiamen chatted and exchanged cigarettes with the military, who, according to the May 5TH agreement, were supposed to provide the security to the East Timorese. In other words, though anecdotal, this example represents an universe of countless observations of what can be characterized as at least the refusal of the Indonesian military and police to follow the order of controlling the militias, an obvious pre-requisite to improve the security situation in the territory.

    If until the beginning of the campaign period the military had done nothing to improve the security in East Timor, the pressure engendered by the presence of the UN in the territory has forced the substitution of local officials. This process has now been carried further, as doubts about General Wiranto’s capacity to control the Army are raised by the contrast between the official discourse and the actual situation in the territory. The problem is that the military cannot be seen as completely unified in regard to this issue either. If most of the special forces, such as the Kopassus, are still loyal to former President Soeharto, who is said to have personal (economic) interests in East Timor, Wiranto could remain as the leader of the Army by making concessions to other political groups, including Habibie. The fear that East Timor would be ‘the first domino’ in a series of other separatist provinces is real, and enhanced by both the economic crisis and by the political indefinition in regard to the next President. On the other hand, it is clear that the Indonesian Army is not prepared to face international troops, which, by the way, does not interest anyone.

  9. A sad story… and the need of a peacekeeping operation
By all accounts, we are facing a tragedy. A quarter of the East Timorese population has been sacrificed in the last 24 years and at least another third is now in serious danger. If the international community is really concerned with the protection of human rights, there is no alternative to a peace-keeping operation that involves the deployment of troops. Religious people and disarmed idealistic civilians cannot deter violence with their presence, but armed personnel have a chance of doing so. They may not have to use their arms, as most militias are neither well armed nor prepared to face a force supplied with adequate command and control capabilities and material resources that can allow it to promote order in the territory.

Arguably (and this was the argument that ultimately led to the May 5th agreement), the Indonesian Army could do so, but its behavior through the consultation process has proven that its commitment with maintaining the security situation in the territory, if there is any, is far from genuine. Even if one assumes that from now on the Indonesian Army will carry on such a determination, its internal divisions on the issue would make any effective action very difficult. It would certainly require the substitution of most officials and soldiers that are now in the territory, most of whom have been involved in previous actions against the East Timorese, either directly or through the militias. Obviously, such an action cannot be accomplished overnight. And one shall not forget that dozens of persons are being killed every day in East Timor.

On the other hand, more than the traditional ties between Western governments and the Indonesian ruling elite, it is in no one’s interest to press the Indonesian government to a point that would create further instability in the country. We are talking about a depressed country, both in the economic and in the moral sense. The economy shrank around 15% last year and is now dependent on foreign aid, as well as on a responsible macroeconomic management, to recover its strength. Its banking system is now better structured and its financial markets more transparent, but the Rupiah is certainly too weak in relation to its real purchase parity power in relation to the U.S. dollar. Clearly, there is an extremely high spread, caused by the risk premium, associated to the country’s exchange rate and to its financial assets. People’s expectations about the economic recovery are as important as those associated to Habibie’s successor, if any. In other words, East Timor remains merely one term in the equation, only part of the main concerns of different political groups in Jakarta. It is possible that an extremely strong pressure over the government can leverage the position of the more radical, nationalistic groups. In brief, if this issue has been a sensitive part of Indonesian domestic politics since 1975, now it will help determining the extent to which the country is committed to a transition to democracy (as invoked by the student movements that ultimately led to the fall of Soeharto), while redefining its insertion in the international context. The U.S. and other countries’ insistence in having the formal acceptance of the Indonesian government to any international operation is in part the realization of the consequences that such a move could have to further destabilizing the Indonesian government and compromising the economic recovery and the social stability in the country. Furthermore, there is the fear that this could provoke instability throughout South-East Asia, despite the fact that the positive reaction of the markets to Malaysia’s recent liberation of capital flows has helped diminishing such fears.

This said, there is little time to act. There is no regional organization with the capability or legitimacy to take an effective action, as would be the case of the OAS in the Americas. For a generation, the world has passively witnessed the sacrifice of over 200,000 East Timorese, who gave their lives for the creation of their national state, apparently ignoring the bright analysis of some IR scholars who say that national ideologies belong to history. The legal framework to an international intervention exists on the basis of the vague terms of the May 5th agreement, if they are interpreted conveniently. Given the provisions that the UN should remain in the territory in the case of a clear rejection of the autonomy proposal, the UN can increase its presence, though only unarmed, to the extent that the Secretary-General judges adequate. Meanwhile diplomatic initiatives like those of the World Bank can be effective, but without a clear decision of the UN Security Council to act (remember that the Charter of San Francisco, which the Indonesian government has signed, allows the UN to intervene militarily wherever there is a threat to international security) is paramount. President Clinton has pointed to the need for Indonesia to invite an international force, which is a timid beginning; still a positive move. China has publicly announce that it has an "open-mind" in relation to this case, partially helped by the violence suffered by Chinese citizens in Indonesia in the last decades. Yesterday (Sept.09), the Brazilian government decided to request a special session of the Security Council to discuss the situation in East Timor. The most promising sign, of course, came from Australia, which already has 2,000 troops prepared to land in East Timor within 24 hours. All these initiatives are positive, but lack the sense of urgency. They may produce results when there will be no one to save, only corpses to bury.