Timor Leste on Aug. 30 celebrates the anniversary of a historic referendum that resulted in a landslide vote for separation from Indonesia 16 years ago. The euphoria of independence was, however, short-lived following the announcement of the UN-administered ballot results on Sept. 4, 1999 as violence, which had marked the run-up to the plebiscite, escalated.Thousands of East Timorese fled their homes or were displaced to the hinterlands and to West Timor.
Between 1,400 and 2,000 people were killed or disappeared in a series of atrocities.
East Timor’s independence could not be separated from rivalry between then Indonesian president BJ Habibie, who took over from long-time ruler Soeharto, and his inner circle, the military and civilian political elite. When then foreign minister Ali Alatas presented the grant of special status to the province of East Timor with wide-ranging autonomy in 1998, the Cabinet approved without much debate.When Habibie told his Cabinet ministers early in 1999 that Indonesia should move straight to a choice between autonomy and independence for East Timor, there were no voices of open dissent, not even from the military members of the Cabinet. Gen. Wiranto, the defense minister and Armed Forces commander, did not object to the proposed second options per se, according to Alatas writing in 2006.
Why did Habibie’s policy go unchallenged?
Whatever the answer, the military and other opportunist political elites would possibly take advantage of Habibie’s risky action.“Some of Habibie’s stronger Islamic ministers were happy ‘to be rid of 600,000 Catholics’, as one put it,” Richard Woolcott, the Australian ambassador to Indonesia from 1975 to 1978, wrote in 2003. He wrote that Wiranto would not oppose Habibie in the belief that the latter’s policy would fail, as would his attempt to be elected the president.
“This would keep Wiranto’s own political ambitions alive,” Woolcott concluded.At the general session of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) in October 1999, President Habibie delivered an accountability speech, which was rejected because, in part, of the breaking away of East Timor from the Unitary State of Indonesia.In addition, the UN Serious Crimes Unit in 2003 charged, among others, Maj. Gen. Zacky Anwar Makarim (Jakarta), Maj. Gen. Adam Damiri (Denpasar) and Col. Tono Suratman (Dili) with crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in the violence surrounding East Timor’s 1999 independence referendum.
While the local media blamed the supervising United Nations and Australia for pressuring Habibie for a resolution, criticism was mounted by a few Indonesian ministers, politicians, intellectuals and military officers of Habibie’s decision, although they were originally silent on East Timor’s independence option.It remained a mystery why Wiranto did not overcome the widespread violence and unrest in East Timor. Perhaps he was aware all of these were orchestrated and designed by his rivals within the Army. Shortly after Habibie was replaced by president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, pressure shifted to the new leader to suspend Wiranto from his Cabinet, pending an inquiry into human rights violence in East Timor.
Then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan repeatedly urged Indonesia to prosecute those found guilty of violence and warned that the United Nations would try to set up an international war crimes tribunal if Indonesia did not take the necessary steps. It was hard for Gus Dur to oust the general, but international pressure was mounting too. This “zero-sum game” and its aftermath finally came to an end after those figures were no longer in power.Today, a new chapter of hope has started. Gen. (ret) Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, a powerful and new Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has announced that the government’s team is still discussing the solution mechanism, as well as determining the priority cases that it will aim to resolve by the end of Jokowi’s five-year term.
The discussion involves seven gross human rights violations, including the atrocities in East Timor. Both Timor Leste and Indonesia formed the Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) 10 years ago, for which its mandate included establishing the truth about human rights violations that occurred prior to and immediately after the Aug. 30, 1999 popular consultation. The report was endorsed by then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, making it the first recognition of the Indonesian government’s complicity in human rights violations in East Timor. However, according to Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 published by the US Department of State, recommendations from the commission regarding a national reparations program have not materialized yet.
The writer, Kristio Wahyono a guest lecturer in Yogyakarta, is former Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) co-director and Indonesian representative to the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).