Subject: Who's to blame for Timor Leste's 1999 chaos? [JP Op-Ed by Aboeprijadi Santoso]

The Jakarta Post Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Who's to blame for Timor Leste's chaos?

Aboeprijadi Santoso, Amsterdam

Former president B.J. Habibie has often been synonymous with unpredictability. For a decade he was seen as Soeharto's crown prince loyalist, yet, as president, he introduced press freedom, freed political prisoners, initiated real autonomy for the regions, held free elections and presided over an orderly succession of head of state.

Most surprising was his decision to offer the referendum that led to East Timor's independence in 1999. Now he blames former UN secretary general Kofi Annan for the violence that was unleashed after the vote. Why?

Habibie's contention before the Indonesia-Timor Leste Truth and Friendship Commission recently that Annan's decision to announce the ballot outcome two days earlier than planned "had escalated violence", is dubious. It avoids the need to investigate the behavior of the security apparatus and the militias.

At issue is whether the UN's earlier announcement triggered extensive violence.

Let's recall the dramatic turn of events on Sept. 4, 1999, the day the UN announced the pro-independence victory. Within a few hours, fear pervaded society as the euphoric and joyful morning at the Mahkota Hotel, Dili, where people flocked in to hear the UN's statement, changed into fear and people went into hiding. Shots were heard, tensions increased, yet there was little destruction. Dili was a dead city. Fearing the occupying army, people resisted by fleeing eastwards -- most did it immediately after casting their ballots on Aug. 30. They had done so since the invasion and the great Matebian tragedy in the 1970s, and did it time and again since in response to threat and oppression.

While roughly half of the inhabitants went eastward, the other half was forced to run away or was deported to West Timor. But this was only possible after extra troops arrived by Hercules planes at night between Sept. 4 and 6 and the militias were deployed to guard the city ports. I was among a group of Indonesian activists and journalists led by Yeny Rosa Damayanti and Mindo Rajaguguk who witnessed a scene in Dili with visible tension until, that is, the carnage occurred. Those were the days when persecution, attacks on Bishop Carlos Belo's diocese, killings, infernos and deportations had just began at some places or were about to begin elsewhere.

In other words, the mayhem could only start between Sept. 4 and 6 as the Army organized the militia violence more extensively.

Meanwhile, hundreds of locals and foreigners, including UN staffers, were hiding at UNAMET (United Nations Mission in East Timor) compounds while most Indonesian officials, observers and journalists had left East Timor the week before Sept. 4, including liaison officers, who were supposed to safeguard the UN administered referendum. Many were clearly aware of the coming mayhem. Some had even been warned by the military authorities in Jakarta to leave the territory in particular after the UN changed the announcement date. This suggests some planning on violent actions.

Rumors about the pro-independence victory on the eve of Sept. 4 had shocked Jakarta. It might have caused some panic and moved the military authorities to act quickly -- possibly to implement the so-called Garnadi Plan B. But to say that because of the UN changing the announcement date, the troops were "totally unprepared" to face "riots" and, therefore, as Habibie and some officers indicated, could not control the militias, is turning logic and reality upside down. A scapegoat was thus sought and found in the need to act sooner than planned.

The truth is there were no "riots" except sporadic incidents -- let alone big clashes. The National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), led by Xanana Gusmao from the British Embassy compound in Jakarta, who commanded the Falintil guerrilla and led the pro-independence group, had instructed their supporters not to respond to any provocation.

Armed, transported and financially supported by the Army, the militias were not autonomous units. This obviously was the Army's strategy of using proxies. But there is a problem of political language here. From the outset, Jakarta's intervention in East Timor was constructed a political and military response to a "civil war", despite the fact that the bloody war among the Timorese (Fretilin vs. the Timorese Democratic Union) had ended in 1974.

Twenty-four years later, in November 1998, this paradigm was reactivated and the militias revived as the Habibie administration moved toward a wide-ranging autonomy option. Jakarta wanted to put the pro-Jakarta Timor militias on equal footing to the Falintil and attempted to provoke the guerrillas, while military chief Gen. Wiranto came to Dili on the critical day of Sept. 6, claiming to be there to reconcile the warring Timorese factions -- rhetoric then resistance spokesman Jose Ramos-Horta likened to "Jack The Ripper pretending to reconcile the women he raped".

However, the project failed. The Army commanders not only failed to provoke the Falintil and, as a consequence, found it harder to find motives to discredit and intimidate the pro-independent supporters. The latter's victory and the UN's earlier announcement only made the humiliated officers more desperate.

But the language -- the myth of the Timor "civil war" -- remains. Instead of looking at the modus operandi of the orchestrated carnage, i.e. the conduct of -- not the policy on -- the security apparatuses (who according to a UN Agreement of May 5, 1999, should guarantee security), Habibie took the "civil war" for granted and blamed the UN chief and UNAMET; neither did he explore them in his recent book. "His" generals -- Zacky A. Makarim, Adam Damiri, Tono Suratman -- sung the same song. Gen. Wiranto, who is to testify at the next commission hearing, is also likely to deny his responsibility and replay the blame game.

Rather than contributing to impunity by blaming outsiders, former president B.J. Habibie should analyze the tragedy that shamed the country -- just as he made a cost-benefit analysis following the pro-Timor protests in Dresden, Germany, in 1995 that, as this writer witnessed, humiliated him and Soeharto. For wasn't it the post-Dresden analysis that led to his decision to offer a self-determination vote and earned him international respect?

The writer is a journalist with Radio Netherlands. He covered the East Timor referendum in 1999.

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

Back to April menu 
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu