[ED. NOTE: Robert Hefner, an anthropologist who has studied Indonesia intensively, returned in December 1999 after a year there during which he interviewed national leaders, politicians, and intellectuals in conjunction with research projects which have focussed since 1991 on pluralism and democratization in Indonesia. His newest book, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia will be published in 2000 by Princeton University Press.]
The plebiscite in East Timor in August 1999 was the immediate result, not of UN efforts, but of shifting political currents in Indonesia. In mid-May 1998, the long-standing dictator of Indonesia, M. Soeharto, had been forced from power and replaced by his vice-president, B.J. Habibie. Although Habibie was no friend of East Timor, he had never served in the armed forces and had tenuous ties to the military in general. Among his advisors, there were several moderate reformists, including, most notably, his special advisor for foreign affairs, Dewi Fortuna Anwar. In the fall of 1998, Ms. Dewi managed to convince Habibie that Indonesia could improve its battered international image by allowing a plebiscite in East Timor. In early 1999, Dewi told me that she was fully aware that the East Timorese might well choose independence. When, several weeks later, Habibie announced his intention to hold a plebiscite, it caught both the Indonesian military and the United Nations by surprise. The military leadership reluctantly resigned itself to the plan, but on the condition that conduct of the plebiscite not compromise what the military regarded as the territorial integrity of Indonesia - which is to say, without a withdrawal or scaling back of Indonesian forces in East Timor. Convinced of Habibie's good will but unaware of his tenuous ties to the military, the UN agreed to these conditions.
In the early months of 1999, Indonesian military officials began to increase their shipments of arms to their militia supporters in East Timor. Angered by Habibie's failure to consult with them prior to announcing plans for the plebiscite, the military command was intent on using the East Timorese paramilitaries to achieve a vote favorable to continued integration with Indonesia.
By February and March 1999, there was evidence indicating that the Indonesian military was providing arms and logistical support to the pro-integration paramilitaries. Some may ask: where did they come from and why? The invasion of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975 led not only to massive death and devestation but to social dislocation, forced resettlement, economic desperation and diminished traditional village social control. The greatest development of the militias was in the mid 1980's under General Prabowo. The desperate economic situation attracted marginal your men to join the militias which afforded them income and prestige.
In the spring of 1999, the flow of arms increased tensions in East Timor and led to several bloody incidents. Although some foreign observers speculated at this time that the Indonesian military may have intended to so destabilize East Timor as to make a plebiscite impossible, in historical retrospect (and based on my interviews in Jakarta in August and November 1999) it seems clear that the armed forces leadership was confident that, if they could contain and intimidate pro-independence forces, they might well achieve a vote in favor of integration. For more than twenty years, Indonesian military intelligence had grossly misperceived the strength of public support in East Timor for integration with Indonesia.
The reaction of the international community, including the United States and Australia, was constrained by two factors. The first was the continuing hope that, through quiet, behind-the-scene contacts with the Indonesian military, the U.S. and Australia could exercise greater influence than by challenging the Indonesian authorities directly. American, European, and Australian observers remembered all too well that, in his last days in power in April-May 1998, the dictator Soeharto had attempted to play the "nationalist card" by presenting himself as the victim of Western (especially American) meddling. This anti-American campaign had almost succeeded in turning back the prodemocracy movement against Soeharto. In the first months of 1999, military hardliners had begun to air similar charges of Western meddling in East Timor. Western governments hoped to contain this anti-Western sentiment by quietly appealing to military officials regarded as Western-friendly. These efforts were ultimately to prove unsuccessful.
A second, related factor shaping Western governments' perception of events in Indonesia was that, in the months following Soeharto's downfall, the leader of the Indonesian military, General Wiranto, had led a campaign against the hardline Lieutenant General Prabowo. The son-in-law of Soeharto, Prabowo was the mastermind of some of the most awful violence in East Timor and Aceh in the 1980s and 1990s. He is also thought to have played a key role in military violence against prodemocracy activists in early 1998. During the summer and fall of 1999, General Wiranto removed Prabowo and his supporters from key positions in the military. This action led many Indonesian and Western observers to conclude that Wiranto was at the very least a moderate reformist. Unfortunately, events in East Timor were to show that Wiranto had never intended to carry out a far- reaching reform in the military, but was intent on consolidating his own power. In early 1999, having secured his base in the military, and intent on launching a campaign for the presidency or vice-presidency, Wiranto quietly brought back several of the discredited hardliners, giving them strategic assignments in East Timor. He did so so as to unite all factions of the military behind his candidacy for national office. In doing so, Wiranto effectively gave a green light to the hardliners in East Timor, and to the use of military force to achieve an outcome in the plebiscite favorable to Indonesia.
Yet, both Australia and the US changed their policies in September 1999. [Ed. note: On September 12, Pres. Habibie "capitulated to international pressure today and invited the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to the troubled territory" (New York Times, September 13, 1999, 1). Two days earlier Pres. Clinton had condemned Indonesia, holding them responsible for the violence, and said they must let in an international force, having previously suspended US aid.] The change-of-policy in Australia was above all a response to a growing pro-Timorese peace movement in Australia that had helped to bring about a fundamental change in public opinion. The fall of Soeharto in May 1998 had also emboldened Australian officials, convincing many that Indonesia had changed and, with Soeharto out of the way, Indonesian authorities might be gently prodded to recognize that it was in their own interest to change their policy on East Timor.
The slow response of the United States reflected the influences noted above: the conviction that behind-the-scene efforts would yield greater influence than confrontation, the hope that General Wiranto was committed to reform, and the fear that excessive pressure might be used by military hardliners to cancel the plebiscite, topple Habibie, and scuttle Indonesia's own democratic elections, scheduled for June 1999. American officials' confidence in these assessments were deeply shaken by the violence that swept East Timor in April and May 1999. But these officials feared that forceful action against Indonesia might be used by military hardliners to scuttle the plebiscite and cripple Indonesia's own transition to democracy.
While the Western media reported vividly on the violence unleashed by the pro-Indonesian paramilitaries in early September 1999, the Indonesian military exerted enormous pressure on the mass media in Indonesia. The result was that in Indonesia the violence in East Timor was at first portrayed as the result of spontaneous clashes between pro-independence and pro-integration forces. It was not until early October 1999 that Indonesian journalists and civilian politicans began to challenge the military's version of events. They were able to do so in part because they took heart from international condemnation of the Indonesian military. Equally important, reports of military violence in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago, especially the troubled province of Aceh, emboldened many reporters and civilian politicians to speak out against military repression in general. Under these circumstances, in October and November of 1999 a wave of anti-military sentiment swept the Indonesian public. This shift in opinion diminished the capacity of military hardliners to rally the Indonesian public to the cause of the East Timorese paramilitaries now resettled in camps in West Timor. The shift has decisively increased the prospects for peace in East Timor. At this point, direct intervention by the Indonesian mililtary in East Timor seems highly unlikely.
However, as the forced detention of refugees and continuing paramilitary activities in West Timor indicate, the plight of displaced East Timorese in West Timor is far from resolved. Having lost the contest in East Timor, the only political resource the paramilitary leaders control is the refugees. Their determination to keep tens of thousands of refugees hostage in West Timor is not supported by all members of the Indonesian military, but for the moment the Indonesian command does not have a united view on the refugees and is resisting efforts by the new government to repatriate the refugees. As this standoff indicates, it is unclear whether Indonesia's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, has sufficient support in the military to carry forward the program of reform and human-rights investigations he has promised to carry out. In a two hour interview with Wahid (a man I have known for 10 years) in late November, the president made clear his determination to bring to trial military officials responsible for rights violations in Aceh and East Timor. Political observers in Jakarta say that for the moment, however, Wahid lacks the support in the armed forces required to carry out such bold reforms. Indeed, some Jakarta observers express the fear that if Wahid pushes too hard to reform the military and repatriate Timorese refugees, some in the military may take direct action against him.
It is evident that Indonesia is still in an initial and highly uncertain stage of transition to democracy after thirty-two years of dictatorship. President Wahid is an ardent democrat determined to extricate Indonesia from East Timor and bring about the peaceful repatriation of refugees. His support among the military leadership, however, is still thin, and there is a hardline faction opposed to human-rights investigations or any concessions on East Timor. At the same time, a number of developments -- media discussion of military violence in Aceh and East Timor, the military's failure to contain ethnoreligious violence in eastern Indonesia, and evidence linking segments of the military to mass violence during Soeharto's final days -- have all discredited the military to a degree unprecedented in recent history. This has strengthened the hand of reform-minded military officers willing to support Wahid. For the time being, however, the balance-of-power in the armed forces, and between the armed forces leadership and President Wahid, is unstable, to say the least.
Under these circumstances, the United States and other donors must strike a careful balance in their actions toward Indonesia. On one hand, they should signal to the Indonesian military that any action, overt or covert, against the duly-elected representatives of the Indonesian government is utterly unacceptable. Consistent with the program for restoring military aid recently approved by the U.S. Congress, donors should also make clear that any restoration of military assistance depends on the repatriation of refugees, a comprehensive investigation of human-rights abuses in East and West Timor, and the trial and punishment of those responsible for the violence. On the other hand, donors and the Western public must be sensitive to the struggle unfolding in Indonesia between government reformers and military hardliners. Western donors should take care, then, not to initiate actions that hardliners can use to discredit democratic reformists like President Wahid and reverse Indonesia's democratization process. Events in East Timor, Aceh, and eastern Indonesia indicate that hardliners are willing to unleash awful violence to achieve their ends. A full and final resolution of the East Timor violence is going to require months or even longer, dependent as it is on the consolidation of democratic reform in Indonesia.