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Tuesday, 7 September, 1999, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Analysis: Jakarta's long-term concerns
The image of the Indonesian army is crucial for the government
The image of the Indonesian army is crucial for the government
By Regional Analyst Nick Nugent

Indonesia's failure to control anti-independence militia groups in East Timor and the military's role in arming these groups in the first place suggests that Jakarta is playing a double game.

Initially, President BJ Habibie offered the East Timorese a vote on greater autonomy.

He hoped that by granting the country's newest and smallest province more control over its own affairs he would end its internal rebellion and - just as important - lift the international opprobrium that followed Indonesia's annexation of the former Portuguese-ruled colony in 1975.

But pressure from both Portugal and the United Nations, which has never accepted the annexation, forced Jakarta to agree to a second option on the ballot paper, that of full independence.

That concession, agreed in a UN accord signed last May, was made by a government that badly needs international support both to recover from its severe economic straits, and to help usher in its fledgling democracy.

Army incensed

Not everyone was happy with this concession by President Habibie's government.

Many suspect that General Wiranto is behind the arming of the pro-Jakarta militias
Many suspect that General Wiranto is behind the arming of the pro-Jakarta militias
In particular the Indonesian army, which has borne the brunt of the task of enforcing Indonesian rule in East Timor since 1975, was incensed that its efforts should have been in vain.

Quite who decided that the military should arm the pro-Indonesia militias is a matter for speculation.

Some people believe it was the decision of defence minister and army strongman General Wiranto and that he engaged in a deliberate move to undermine the ballot or prevent it from taking place.

Others believe that General Wiranto was acting on Preisdent Habibie's instructions in a misguided attempt to prevent Indonesia losing the vote and thus the province.

Double game

Either way Jakarta is now seen to have been playing a double game.

It wanted to restore its international reputation by removing the stain of its past repression in East Timor, yet it badly wanted to hang on to the province for three main reasons:

  • The first is economic, based on the belief, shared by Australia, that there are rich deposits of oil and gas in the seas that separate Timor from Australia.
  • The second is strategic. Jakarta fears that a power vacuum in East Timor might allow a potentially hostile power into the Indonesian archipelago.
    This may have been more valid in the mid-1970s. But even today it is a fear that Australia shares with Indonesia. That explains why Australia is the only country to have recognised Indonesian rule in East Timor.
  • The third reason is the most important for Jakarta. Its paramount fear is that by granting East Timor independence it would encourage separatist movements in other parts of Indonesia.

Separatist concerns

Rebels in the northern Sumatran province of Aceh have been saying: "East Timor should not be allowed to break away. We have been fighting Jakarta for our independence for much longer."

Megawati is no flagwaver for Timorese independence
Presidential hopeful Megawati is no flagwaver for Timorese independence
The separatist movement in the mineral-rich West Irian province will also regard the granting of independence to the former Portuguese colony as a boost to its own campaign.

In an attempt to thwart such separatist movements Jakarta is preparing to give greater political and economic autonomy to its larger and richer provinces.

Some analysts believe this may not be enough to prevent a gradual break-up of the archipelegic nation which has been held together by a mix of nationalism, including a well-established national language, and strong-armed military rule.

That military rule has been 'on trial' in East Timor and in troubled Aceh.

The disenchantment - even hatred - of the army that it has engendered among the people of those provinces will have an impact on the future standing of the Indonesian armed forces.

Wider implications

Similarly, the vote for independence by the East Timorese people also has significant implications for the rest of Indonesia, including for the formation of the country's new government.

No government has yet taken office following the elections in June.

When Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly convenes in early November it will have two key tasks:

  • The first will be to select Indonesia's new president. That is widely expected to be Megawati Sukarnoputri, who for the same nationalistic reasons is unhappy about allowing East Timor to break away from Indonesia.
    General Wiranto's chances of being appointed her vice president, in an effort to maintain the loyalty of the army, may have been undermined by the role of the military in arming the East Timor militias.
  • The Assembly's second key task is to endorse the result of the East Timor ballot and set in motion the process for the province to become a fully independent nation.
    Indonesia's new president will have a delicate balancing act to perform in honouring the result of the United Nations ballot and ensuring a peaceful transfer of power, whilst holding the rest of the nation together.
Links to more Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.


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