Betrayal in East Timor (11/99)

As East Timor descended into chaos in September, with militia thugs and Indonesian troops burning buildings, killing thousands, and forcing at least 200,000 people to flee into the countryside, an obvious question arose. How could Western powers have entrusted security during the August 30 referendum on independence to the police and, for good measure, leave 15,000 government troops in place?

After all, it was abundantly clear to anyone with even a basic knowledge of Indonesia’s army that leaving it in charge would put the inhabitants in grave peril. This is the same military force that spent the past quarter-century terrorizing, killing, and torturing the East Timorese. It certainly showed no inclination to let them opt for independence. Well before Indonesia and Portugal signed the accords in May this year – under UN auspices – to hold a referendum, the newly created militias were already running riot through the territory with the army’s connivance.

Why, then, did Western nations and countries friendly to Indonesia, such as Australia, commit such a blunder? It’s simple, actually. Since Indonesia came under military rule with Suharto’s seizure of power in 1965, the country has offered investors unlimited facilities to exploit its natural resources, tap a huge market in the world’s fourth most populous country, and sell weapons to the armed forces. It mattered little that up to a million people were slaughtered in the six months following Suharto’s rise to power, or that murder and massive human rights violations were the hallmark of the regime throughout the 32 years he remained.

The same nations shut their eyes to the reign of terror from 1989 to 1998 in Indonesia’s northern-most province, Aceh, which is abundant in oil and natural gas. Thousands were tortured and killed – their bodies dumped in mass graves, women raped, and thousands of children orphaned. Nor did the West seem troubled by the goings-on in West Papua, at the eastern edge of the country. Tribal people there have been robbed of their ancestral lands in order to make way for US mining companies eager to exploit its copper, gold, and silver. Together, these two provinces account for as much as 70 percent of Indonesia’s foreign exchange earnings.

Despite heavy repression in both places, the spirit of resistance has remained strong, and, like the people of East Timor, the inhabitants also have demanded the chance to secede by means of referenda. Armed liberation movements have taken root, seriously threatening Jakarta’s hold.

In Western capitals, however, the Suharto regime was considered a safe and legitimate destination for military aircraft, water cannon, and sophisticated assault weapon systems. Even when his government was on the verge of collapse in early 1998, with huge student demonstrations swirling around Jakarta, both the US and Britain were reluctant to call for his removal. When the British Foreign Office published its annual report on human rights in April 1998, only weeks before Suharto was forced from power, Indonesia was still being lauded as a country with which Britain could engage in constructive partnership on human rights. A photo of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, published in the report, showed him in a warm handshake with the dictator.

Suharto’s removal has done little to rein in the armed forces. They continue to insist on exercising a "dual function," which includes 38 designated seats in Parliament. This gives them a critical say in who becomes the country’s president. It’s also been up to the army to keep East Timor and Aceh under control. Yet, this hasn’t stopped the US and Britain from trying to cozy up to the post-Suharto regime, their eyes firmly focused on yet more lucrative deals.

Thus, when the authorities insisted that they would agree to a referendum in East Timor only if security was fully under Indonesian control, the West – and, at their behest, the UN – agreed. In early September, the results were announced: Almost 80 percent of voters want independence. What followed was another shameless betrayal. As the militia and army ran riot with impunity, the West procrastinated. And the people of East Timor again paid the price.

Carmel Budiardjo directs the Tapol and Indonesia Human Rights Campaign. A former activist in Indonesia, she was imprisoned by the Suharto regime from 1968-71.