A Lesson From Timor: Don't Coddle the Indonesian Military
International Herald Tribune
Thursday, July 6, 2000
By Karen Orenstein
KUPANG, Indonesia - More than nine months have passed since East
Timor's overwhelming vote for independence from Indonesia was followed by
an organized campaign of retribution. In the violence after the voting,
some 250,000 East Timorese were compelled, most at gunpoint, to move to
West Timor and other parts of Indonesia.
As pro-Indonesian forces left, they burned and looted systematically.
This campaign of deliberate devastation was planned by nationalist
hard-liners in the Indonesian army and police, and carried out in many
areas by militia groups that were organized, directed, armed and trained
by the Indonesian military.
Around 100,000 people who left East Timor then remain in camps in West
Timor. Most want to go home but are afraid to do so. Despite repeated
pledges by the Indonesian government to disarm and disband the militias,
their leaders, who were responsible for mass murder and rape in East
Timor, still control refugee camps in West Timor.
Indonesian military units that were made up mostly of pro-Indonesian
East Timorese are still intact in West Timor. They and the militias have
access to modern weapons. There are reports that military-style training
Cross-border attacks from West Timor by armed militia members against
United Nations peacekeepers in East Timor have recently intensified.
Not a single militia leader has been arrested in West Timor and charged
with crimes in East Timor. International and Indonesian aid workers in
West Timor are threatened and harassed by militias. Contrary to
international norms, the refugee camps themselves remain highly
Militia leaders, the Indonesian armed forces and the West Timorese
press continue to conduct a mass disinformation campaign alleging horrific
conditions in East Timor and abuse by international forces.
The Indonesian government refuses to provide funds to pay the pensions
of former civil servants and police officers who served under the
Indonesian regime should they decide to return home. This is a
disincentive to repatriation.
Sporadic food distribution, inadequate health care, widespread
tuberculosis and increasing malaria are creating a new humanitarian crisis
in the camps. Flash flooding in West Timor some weeks ago, which killed
more than 60 refugees and displaced thousands more, worsened conditions.
Despite this deplorable situation, the U.S. government recently eased
President Bill Clinton's September suspension of defense ties with
Indonesia. The United States has started a phased re-engagement with the
A military training exercise is planned for the summer. This
large-scale operation simulates an amphibious invasion of Indonesian
islands. In the past, some Indonesian troops went directly from a similar
exercise to East Timor, where they took part in the systematic destruction
of the territory.
The U.S. government maintains that the joint exercise planned for this
summer is an acknowledgment of change for the better in the Indonesian
military. But renewal of Indonesian participation will not encourage
reform; rather, it implies tacit acceptance of last year's scorched earth
atrocities in East Timor.
Some in the Clinton administration argue that by engaging with the
navy, marines, and air force the United States shows support for
Indonesian military units with cleaner human rights records than the
army's, but this is a dubious distinction. Marines distributed weapons to
militia members and themselves participated in last September's
destruction. The navy and air force provided ships and planes to forcibly
transport tens of thousands of East Timorese from their homes.
If the United States is serious about encouraging reform, it should
strengthen development of democracy in Indonesia while continuing to deny
the military the legitimacy it has come to expect from the American
As leaders of Indonesian civil society and human rights activists have
pointed out, the military's fundamental flaw is not a technical one that
can be fixed by any amount of training or assistance from abroad. It is a
political problem of long-standing and deeply entrenched military control
over civil society.
Until the Indonesian military is completely out of politics and faces
the full force of the law for any abuses of power that its members commit,
no matter how senior they are, the United States should continue to
The writer, who works for the East Timor Action Network in
Washington, recently returned from Indonesian West Timor where she was
co-leader of a congressional staff delegation on a fact-finding mission to
refugee camps. She contributed this comment to the International Herald
See ETAN's press release on West
See ETAN's detailed trip report