IO – Exactly 20 years ago, in 1999, Indonesia experienced an extraordinary event: the Province of East Timor separated from the Republic of Indonesia, following a poll conducted by the United Nations. The disintegration of East Timor was accompanied by a human tragedy marked by riots, violence, killings, burning of houses and buildings, and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
It is a curious consideration that until now there has never been a comprehensive study reviewing the reasons why, after a lengthy period of integration, a majority of the East Timorese people finally chose to leave the Republic of Indonesia.
If you ask the Armed Forces, Police Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, State Intelligence Agency (BIN), National Defense Agency (Lemhanas), you will be surprised to discover that none of these state institutions ever compiled lessons learned from the East Timor experience, either separately or collectively – even though this was the first time a province had ever separated from the Republic of Indonesia.
Why is there no official study?
I do not know the exact reason, but it is most likely because in the Government and among security forces at that time there was a feeling of defeat, shame, and trauma – especially because of the violent atmosphere during separation, events which tarnished the image of Indonesia around the world.
Our political culture tends to look away from such painful experiences.
I am afraid there is a risk that our nation will experience an unhealthy historical amnesia.
There are many lessons we can learn from the episode of East Timor integration and opinion polls. Here, I present a few examples.
In 1999, we were too hasty in conducting a popular consultation.
An agreement to do so was signed in New York on May 5th, 1999, while an opinion poll was conducted on August 31st.
Indeed, in terms of Indonesia’s interests, this “accelerated” schedule was intended to catch up with People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) sessions at the end of the year, which were expected to validate the results of the popular consultation.
But there were in fact practically just four months to prepare a referendum that was so complicated, in terms of politics, security, logistics, and other factors.
In such a forced, narrow timeline, polarization between groups sharpened, horizontal conflicts on the ground became increasingly fierce and the situation heated up.
Finally, the fact that many calculations were wrong ended in tragedy. I think that the popular consultation in East Timor would have required at least 2 years to prepare – not just 4 months.
It turns out that economic development does not automatically generate political loyalty.
In the past, East Timor was the “youngest province”, one that was economically the most “spoiled”. The per capita development budget was the highest compared to that of other provinces – and was even said to have aroused cause jealousy in the regions.
The government always boasts of roads, schools, scholarships, buildings, and all the facilities we built, and always compares them to the economic conditions of East Timor during the Portuguese occupation.
However, all the money that was disbursed in East Timor over 22 years failed to change the political choices of the East Timorese people during the 1999 referendum, where the number who voted to separate from Indonesia was almost 4 times that of those who voted for autonomy within the framework of the Republic of Indonesia (78% compared to 21%).
Maybe development in East Timor was not on target, or was uneven, or led to social inequality and jealousy, or was marred by rampant corruption.
Whatever the reason, we were too quickly satisfied with an economic alibi, the impact of which turned out to be very limited to an increasingly boiling political conflict.
We also need to learn lessons about “militias”.
I remember Xanana Gusmao’s remarks to me while in Cipinang prison in early 1999: the formation of a pro-autonomy militia was dangerous for popular consultation. In subsequent developments, what Xanana Gusmao said proved to be correct.
Although many of them were good people, many pro-autonomy militias also intimidated and committed violence against the East Timorese in the campaign leading up to the popular consultation. Towards D-day, the position of the pro-autonomy increasingly hardened: many said that it was better to have war than to separate from the Republic of Indonesia. As a result, the polarization deteriorated, erupting in combat once the results of the poll were announced.
I am sure that while quite a number of East Timorese were in fact open to accepting autonomy, they turned around because they felt uncomfortably pressured by the militias. Here, we must honestly admit that the pro-autonomy group lost not because UNAMET (the UN mission that conducted the poll) was “cheating” but because the winning strategy was wrong and led to antipathy instead.
We also have to learn a lot of how to deal with human rights. Following integration, Indonesia’s legitimacy in East Timor continued to be questioned internationally, while world opinion was heavily influenced by reporting on human rights.
Here, we must be honest in introspection. Our attitude towards allegations of human rights violations tends to be defensive, closed, and only half-hearted.
Often, cases of violations of human rights that should be quickly resolved are long overdue because there is always something that is covered and then debated in public.
The most unfortunate follow-up was the fact that the security guarantees provided by the Government of Indonesia in the agreement at the United Nations failed to be fulfilled, as reflected in the chaos and scorched-earth tactics which caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to Atambua. This truly undermined Indonesia’s credibility and ruined our dignity in the international world.
World opinion was aroused even more than that in Indonesia when three innocent UNHCR staff were murdered viciously and their bodies burned at the center of Atambua.
I still remember the extraordinary shame when the UN Assembly in New York opened with a moment of silence for the UN staff killed by militia groups. This was one of the darkest moments in Indonesian history.
The lesson: in dealing with human rights in a political conflict, the Government and authorities must be both firm and transparent in responding to violations from any party.
We are also battered in public relations. We were left behind to build public opinion in the international world. Narratives delivered by our diplomats seemed stiff, unpersuasive, and full of bland economic statistics. On the other hand, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta and his colleagues were able to provide creative (though sometimes fictitious) and humane narratives, and create a perception that Indonesia had invaded and occupied East Timor, oppressing and violating human rights.
The counter -narrative by the pro-integration East Timorese also did not prove effective. The lesson: relatively poor public communication becomes a blind spot which ultimately harms Indonesia’s position.
Of course, there are many more lessons from the East Timor era, relating to identity politics, diplomacy, military strategy, local politics, culture, youth, education, as well as journalists’ and foreign NGOs’ behavior. These lessons should not only be used as informal sources but need to be researched and explored systematically, so that they become part of the Government’s institutional memory to be taught at Government Training Centers and also the National Defense Institute.
Too bad if this expensive lesson is exploited by others and forgotten by the nation itself.