Subject: Tempo: Ali Alatas: "Santa Cruz Incident a turning point in our diplomacy."

Tempo Magazine Sept 18 - 24, 2000

Ali Alatas: : "Santa Cruz Incident a turning point in our diplomacy."

New York, some 16 months ago: Seated next to Portuguese foreign minister Jaime Gama, Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas smiles broadly. The veins in his countenance are no longer tense, his face more relaxed after long years of protracted negotiations on East Timor (now the Republic of Timor Loro Sa'e). Their encounter ends in a firm handshake. That day, toward the end of April 1999, amid the spring air that wafted above New York's skyscrapers, the two foreign ministers agreed on an autonomy package for Timor Loro Sa'e. The package was expected to pave the way for the 800,000 people of this tiny region to determine their own future. Ali Alatas' relief, however, proved short-lived.

New York, some 16 months later: Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan asks the representatives of 156 countries attending the Millennium Summit to observe a moment's silence for three workers of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees whom the refugees of Timor Loro Sa'e had slain and burned to death in Atambua, West Timor, two weeks earlier. President Abdurrahman Wahid, present at this event, bows his head. And the 68-year-old Ali Alatas, may also have been contemplating this tragedy in his own way.

The Atambua tragedy is inseparable from what has happened in Timor Loro Sa'e over the past two or even 20 years: the ups and downs of the endeavor of this tiny region to determine its own fate are a process very close to Ali Alatas. Every inch of Timor Loro Sa'e has, in fact, challenged the entire diplomacy and lobbying capability of Ali Alatas, one of the most skilled and talented diplomats our foreign ministry has ever produced.

When he became foreign minister in 1987, he was not only the person at the forefront of negotiations with outsiders on the fate of the former youngest province of the Republic of Indonesia. He was also the first person to endure the pressure of the United Nations and the international community every time Timor Loro Sa'e was discussed at the world's official forums. Then, when this region opted to secede from Indonesia - in the 1998 August referendum -, people considered Ali Alatas, foreign minister in four cabinets (1987-1999), a failure in pursuing the foreign policy, along with his predecessor, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja.

To some quarters, the shift of East Timor into the Republic of Timor Loro Sa'e could be viewed as bringing back all the endeavors that Ali Alatas and his team of diplomats had made to their nadir. "I don't feel that way. I have implemented what the government has decided and I have tried my utmost," he told TEMPO.

Diplomacy is Ali Alatas' world - in his childhood, though, this graduate of the School of Law of the University of Indonesia (UI), had an ambition to become a lawyer. He graduated from UI in 1956, married and left for Bangkok for his first diplomatic post as second secretary at the Indonesian embassy there. For over two decades, Ali Alatas showed his own distinctive class as a diplomat. In 1996, a number of Asian countries nominated him for the post of secretary-general of the United Nations.

Support for Ali Alatas wavered over an old constraint in Indonesia's diplomacy during the past 25 years: "a stone in the shoe," his term for East Timor. But Ali Alatas forged ahead. He ended his career as a diplomat in the no less prestigious position of foreign minister. He assumed this post during Suharto's era and held it until retiring under Habibie's administration.

What is Ali Alatas, now grandfather to seven children, doing in his retirement? He is advisor to Minister of Foreign Affairs Alwi Shihab. His childhood ambition to become a lawyer is now a reality. He is one of the solicitors at Makarim & Taira's Legal Office. Alex, his intimate name, can also now spend more time at his residence in East Kemang, South Jakarta, a house with cream-colored nuances, decorated with paintings, souvenirs and family pictures.

It was there that Ali Alatas received TEMPO reporters Arif Kuswardono and Fikri Jufri for a special interview on Wednesday last week. A few days afterward, he traveled to Singapore for an honorary doctorate from the National University of Singapore. Following is an excerpt:

What do you think of the international pressure on Indonesia after the Atambua incident?

The Atambua incident was a leftover of the settlement of the East Timor issue. In fact, all along we anticipated problems like this: how to protect the losing party, how to protect private property, how to transfer government assets and so forth. It is not only Indonesia, but also Portugal, the United Nations and the East Timorese themselves that are responsible for all this.

There are allegations abroad that a faction within the Indonesian Military (TNI) played a role in the Atambua tragedy. Is it true that some military forces beyond the line of command were behind the cases in Timor Loro Sa'e?

Pak Wiranto, former coordinating minister for political and security affairs and former commander of TNI, admitted there were some groups taking action beyond the line of command. I believe (these groups) still exist today.

Is this the reason why the United Nations Peace-Keeping Force has rejected a joint patrol with TNI in border areas?

They have their own reasons and technical difficulties. Before East Timor became part of Indonesia, border-area problems like this also often arose.

About the leftover you referred to earlier, do you think this will continue to burden our foreign policy?

We used to be burdened, but not any longer. I believe our diplomacy will develop better and more effectively. In future, the relationship between Indonesia, East Timor and Australia will be one of the most important and most sensitive parts of diplomacy. We must be sensitive. We must not wait until an incident occurs before we take action.

Are there cadres in the foreign ministry that you consider capable of carrying on with our diplomacy in the international arena?

Pak Nugroho Wisnumurti and Pak Hasan Wirayuda are among them. They are reliable and capable. But whether or not they will be given a chance will depend on the minister. Our President, Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid), because of his limitations, frequently needs and entrusts Pak Alwi Shihab, as foreign minister, to deal with a number of other problems. As a result, much of his time as a foreign minister has been taken up, a situation different from mine.

Wasn't your time taken up, too, when you were foreign minister?

Oh yes. But I wasn't a political party member. I didn't need to take care of the National Awakening Party (unlike Alwi Shihab). I could spend my time fully on my job. And in Pak Harto's (former president Suharto) era, the division of ministerial compartments was very strict. I, for example, would handle only foreign affairs. To some people, Indonesia's diplomatic failure in winning Timor Loro Sa'e was a failure in our foreign policy over the past 25 years.

Not quite. The government decided so. I implemented it. And I tried quite hard, and did my best.

How do you see the origin of problems in this region?

From 1975-1976 there was a crisis in East Timor. A process of decolonization was taking place. The Portuguese governor general in East Timor, Mario Pirez, had to flee to Atauro island because of a failure to settle the dispute. This crisis was the concern of Indonesia, and also Australia, because it could lead to regional destabilization.

A number of documents showing Australian and US support for the entry of Indonesian troops into Timor Loro Sa'e will soon be exposed. How far from this is the truth?

In fact, they did not openly support us. But we related what we were doing (the entry of the Indonesian troops into Timor Loro Sa'e) to Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam and U.S. president Gerald Ford when both were in Indonesia. They did not show their stance of opposition.

Without showing their opposition, could they be considered to have approved of Indonesia's action?

To Australia, East Timor and West Timor share a common race and culture. So, they believed it would be better for East Timor to join Indonesia. The Australian government itself did not want to be involved although it was under fire from its own people for letting the conflict flare up.

What led Australia to show its concern?

There is a lot of history between East Timor and Australia, dating back to World War II. East Timorese helped Australian troops, defeated by the Japanese, to go home. Well, about the documents soon to be exposed, this is an attempt by a number of groups in Australia to show their government's involvement in the East Timor issue.

Why was Portugal persistently opposed to Indonesia's entry into East Timor?

Because we, not they, carried out decolonization. Former Portuguese governor general Mario Pirez told TEMPO otherwise. He said it was Indonesia's invasion that ruined the decolonization process Portugal had started.

We carried out decolonization exactly as Portugal had planned it - through self-determination. But as the East Timorese were considered incapable of exercising self-determination under the system of one-man-one-vote, a method of representation through liurai (local kings) was adopted. So, we completed the process but (the international community) has never recognized it.

If we indeed undertook decolonization and integration, why has the allegation of annexation been so loudly voiced in the international forum?

We did not subject East Timor to annexation. And there was indeed integration. What did Portugal try to do to oppose Indonesia's entry into East Timor?

Portugal tabled a draft resolution to the Security Council of the United Nations before it was later moved to the General Assembly. Thanks to our diplomacy, Indonesia's position became stronger. In 1981, 48 countries supported Indonesia, against 50 countries on Portugal's side. This development discouraged Portugal from proceeding with this process for fear of losing face. Finally, with the help of the United Nations secretary-general, Indonesia and Portugal began to negotiate.

Then, why did international support drop after 1991?

Because of the Santa Cruz Incident in November 1991. That was a turning point in our diplomacy over the East Timor issue. Pictures were circulated abroad showing our soldiers shooting protesters and beating up reporters. Since then, international political support had been on the wane. Countries that formerly supported us were shocked. In simple terms, they said, "What has happened to Indonesia? We have given our support, but why this action? Get it right, then!" Since then, we had suffered a setback. If the incident had not occurred, our diplomacy would have scored more success.

What did our diplomats face with the outbreak of the Santa Cruz Incident?

International networks of non-governmental organizations cashed in on this issue to strongly pressurize Indonesia. It was as if we had been besieged. The 1996 Nobel Peace Prize (for Bishop Belo and Ramos Horta) showed how seriously we had been besieged.

Is it true that former president Suharto left the Timor Loro Sa'e issue entirely to the diplomats at the foreign ministry?

At first, yes. Later on, in my early years as foreign minister, he played an active role. In early 1983, we began tripartite negotiations on the East Timor issue. Why didn't Indonesia make use of its position as the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (1992-1994) to improve the image the Santa Cruz Incident had ruined?

In 1994, I proposed to Pak Harto that in the position of chair of the Non-Aligned Movement we begin to settle the East Timor issue through a compromise.

What kind of compromise did your propose?

Wide-ranging autonomy with a special status. The proposal, however, was rejected. According to Pak Harto, the form of East Timor was final. In 1998, I proposed it again to Pak Habibie and it was accepted.

What was the concept of the autonomy proposal?

That it could have its own political parties, elect its own governor and have its own police force. We would take care of only a few things such as finance, foreign policy and defense against outside forces. There are a number of regions successfully adopting this model, like Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Also Hong Kong and many other places.

Why did Habibie accept this concept?

To him, it was the best solution to the East Timor issue. Portugal also agreed to accept the offer.

But, then, Portugal disagreed to autonomy as the final solution, didn't it?

Yes. They wanted this stage to be interim settlement. In the final stage of autonomy, they wanted an act of self-determination to reassess if East Timor would stay within Indonesia or secede.

How was the decision on the referendum option finally made?

It all began with a letter from Australian Prime Minister John Howard to Pak Habibie in December 1998. We were then negotiating in New York a proposal for wide-ranging autonomy for East Timor. The tripartite negotiations involved Europe and the United States, both wanting to see wide-ranging autonomy implemented gradually over 5-10 years toward independence.

Did the letter support Indonesia?

At a glance, yes. Australia had been supporting us all along. The letter was very good, but after careful reading, particularly of its final part, it showed that Howard was against our plan. He preferred gradual autonomy (toward independence). If only the letter had come from another country, it could have been easily understood. But this was from Australia, our all-time supporter.

If our concept was opposed, why did Habibie accept Howard's proposal?

This set Pak Habibie thinking. "True indeed. We must have an alternative if our proposal (on wide-ranging autonomy), which is the best option for us, is rejected," he said. His logic was, "Why must Indonesia take care of East Timor for the next 5 or 10 years if finally they want their independence?" Besides, we would have to fund all this. So, we would have to bear the expense. Finally, a decision was made on the second option (if wide-ranging autonomy is rejected, Indonesia gives a chance to East Timor to secede).

Was there another reason, in your opinion?

East Timor was indeed a source of criticism of and pressure on Indonesia. Pak Habibie did not seem used to a problem like this.

Members of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) criticized Habibie's decision because it was made without consulting the House of People's Representatives (DPR). Do you know the reason?

In fact, this matter was brought up during the president's consultations with the then leaders of the MPR/DPR. Only, Pak Habibie took it upon himself to account for this decision before the MPR, resulting from the new general election.

And how did you personally respond to this decision?

Personally, I considered the government's decision premature on the second option.

Why didn't you try to prevent it?

I did, at least by postponing the decision. In a plenary meeting of the cabinet on political and security affairs (January 27, 1999) I stressed the decision was too premature. The process of negotiation on the first option (autonomy) was still going on (started in October 1998) and Indonesia's proposal, a settlement through the granting of wide-ranging autonomy with a special status, had just been negotiated.

Why did we have to give the status of an alternative settlement by giving up East Timor in January?

How did other cabinet members respond?

Shortly before the meeting ended, a minister raised his hand. "Pak President, the draft concept of the second option is circulating among the media," he said. Someone must have leaked it to them. Finally the option was discussed again and approved. (The original text of the decision made in this cabinet meeting was later brought to the tripartite meeting involving Indonesia, Portugal and the United Nations secretary-general in New York, April 21-23, 1999.)

Which minister raised his hand?

I'm afraid I don't remember. Did Habibie pressurize the cabinet to accept the second option?

There was no pressure from Pak Habibie. The cabinet meeting went on quite democratically. But the prevailing mood then was like that so my view (on wide-ranging autonomy) did not quite get the support. After the plenary cabinet meeting (February 5, 1999), I gave an explanation on the special option in a working meeting of House Commission I. A few days after this decision, I flew to New York.

Why were ministers in the cabinet meeting on January 27, 1999, which Habibie chaired, so sure about the second option?

We were then very convinced we would win the referendum. Everything was painted with optimism. This conviction left us unprepared for the result of the referendum. (The referendum was held on August 30 and the result announced on September 4, 1999: East Timor opted to secede.)

You have frequently said referendum was not the best solution for Timor Loro Sa'e. Why?

The crux of the East Timor issue is that there are two opposing camps: one wishes to be free while the other to integrate. If they are suddenly given a chance to confront each other and make a choice, one will be the winner and the other the loser.

So, what is your objection?

I have long predicted that whichever side lost would not be able to accept defeat. If the proindependence camp lost, they would return to the mountains and East Timor would be back to ground zero. But the second option made the referendum inevitable. In fact, from the very start, the negotiations were aimed at negotiating and compromising.

Any regrets?

Not really. "Don't cross the bridge before you are there," as they say in English. Cross the bridge only when you are really there. Never imagine having to cross it while you are still far away.

Can't the separation of Timor Loro Sa'e be construed as the failure of our entire diplomatic efforts?

Diplomacy is like playing cards. Don't show all your cards. And play them one by one. This is what the then government didn't understand.

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