Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: Asia-Pacific
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

"Can Indonesia remain united?" - Listen to a BBC World Service Assignment special programme
 real 28k

Friday, 5 November, 1999, 17:32 GMT
East Timor's brave new world

child lifted over fence at docks Thousands of East Timorese have returned home

By regional analyst Catherine Napier

Twenty-four years after Indonesia invaded East Timor, the final soldiers have left, slipping out under cover of darkness in ignominious retreat.

East Timor
They leave behind a territory in ruins, destroyed in a last desperate act of revenge after the Timorese voted for independence and an end to Indonesian rule.

Now both sides must count the cost:
  • an estimated 200,000 East Timorese dead from war, famine and disease in the years directly following the invasion in 1975
  • hundreds more killed, disappeared, tortured and dispossessed under Indonesia's military occupation
  • and, in the past few months, two-thirds of the population terrorised and forced to flee under an army-backed reign of terror aimed at spoiling the UN supervised referendum.

No one knows how many were killed, or how many will live out the rest of their lives in exile, forced to resettle in Indonesia.

Human rights abuses

UN peacekeepers UN peacekeepers are protecting the Timorese
There is little glory in any of this for Indonesia and it too has paid a terrible price for its occupation of East Timor.

Up to 20,000 soldiers have been killed, the public standing of the military has plummeted as knowledge of its abuses in East Timor and elsewhere has emerged, and Indonesia has invited comparisons with the worst regimes in existence, and come perilously close to pariah nation status. On top of that, other regions of the republic have called for independence, threatening the integrity of the nation as a whole.

So why did Jakarta let it happen? And what lessons have been learned?

Timor was a Portuguese colony for hundreds of years, with the western half of the island ceded to the Dutch early this century.

When the Indonesian Republic was born at the end of World War II, the army took a leading role in all aspects of national life - a development which militarised society as a whole, and gave the generals extraordinary power.

Having thrown out their own colonial masters - the Dutch - it rankled some that another European colonial power should hold on to a slice of territory at the end of their archipelago.

But it was the fall in 1974 of the dictator Marcello Caetano in Portugal's Carnation revolution that galvanised them into action. Decolonisation began and as the Timorese prepared for the future, the generals devised a covert plan to subvert ideas of independence.

John Taylor, an expert on East Timor, believes the military was worried that if East Timor became independent and managed to survive, it would set a bad example to other areas of Indonesia. The army had just brought the country together and won its own freedom from colonisation. It was not about to see that victory destroyed.

Western inaction

army parade The Indonesian army enjoyed great influence on government
Australia also worried about this and about Fretilin - the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, the most popular political party. With communism sweeping through the South East Asian countries of Vietnam and Cambodia, Australia was not alone. The United States knew about the invasion but did nothing to prevent it.

The military victory was hard won. The army calculated that the invasion would be over in two weeks, but it took years before the territory was pinned down, if not pacified.

The Timorese never gave up, and leaders such as the guerrilla commander Xanana Gusmao proved themselves more than a match for Indonesia. After sustained bombing in the late 1970s, Fretilin told the people to go down from the mountains and save themselves, or risk genocide. The war against Indonesia was abandoned and replaced by an underground resistance and lobbying abroad.

Xanana Gusmao Xanana Gusmao kept up the fight for independence
The army countered with intelligence operations carried out by special forces designed to turn the people against each other. Timorese were recruited to spy on fellow Timorese and regular campaigns of intimidation silenced the population.

Few knew at first what was going on inside a territory declared off limits. When news did leak out, it was studiously ignored. Western governments did not want to upset Indonesia. It was large, it was anti-communist, and it controlled highly-strategic waterways. Under strongman President Suharto, the economy was growing, promising a big market for exports and lucrative contracts for foreign bidders willing to pay the appropriate inducements.


Indonesia poured money into the territory, building roads to facilitate the movement of troops, and schools and clinics. Literacy rates rose dramatically. Some East Timorese even went to university.

Ex-president Suharto Ex-President Suharto faces a corruption probe
But the clinics were never quite what they were cracked up to be, teaching was mostly in Indonesian, not native languages, the military controlled the most lucrative industry - coffee - and the Suharto family got its share of what was going. The civil service was corrupt and inefficient and at the end of more than two decades of development, there was not a lot to show for it.

Ordinary Indonesians had little idea of the reality in East Timor. Their own papers could not print it, even if they wanted to. Government propaganda ensured that the Timorese were perceived as ungrateful second class citizens, semi-savages who, like the Irianese, needed to be civilised - or else they would tear each other to pieces.

But then events conspired against Jakarta. The Asian financial crisis toppled President Suharto. Indonesians found out about wide-scale military abuses across the country, especially in the north Sumatran province of Aceh where troops had attempted to crush a separatist rebellion. Indonesians - overwhelmingly Muslim - learnt about the killing of ulemas, the rape of women, villages peopled only by widows.

The lame-duck President Habibie, a Suharto protege, attempted reform. The first democratic elections for more than 40 years were held earlier this year. The military's role was scaled back further.

But ethnic and religious violence was spiralling out of control across the archipelago. The military, demoralised and weakened, could not or would not control it. And out of the blue, the unpredictable Mr Habibie offered East Timor first autonomy, then independence, without consulting the army.

Civilian rule

So the end of Indonesian rule turned out to be as traumatic as its beginning, with army backed militias surrounding United Nations officials and thousands of terrified refugees in the UN compound in Dili, and virtually every building reduced to ashes. Soldiers even burnt their own barracks.

Wahid and Megawati Indonesia's new governement has aproved East Timor's independence
So will the armed forces continue a law unto themselves - risking, instead of defending, the security of the nation? Perhaps one lesson about the military has been absorbed. Although it remains a powerful institution, it has to bow to civilian control.

A new democratic government is now in power in Jakarta and, for the first time, a respected civilian is defence minister. There will be a renewed drive to professionalise the service, now separated from the police.

The new attorney-general has promised a probe into human rights abuses in Aceh and Mr Suharto's alleged corrupt activities. "People power" - Indonesian style, which includes the ever potential threat of street disorders - has transformed Indonesian politics. Indonesians eventually did what the Timorese had been doing for years - and resisted tyranny.

It is a brave new world for Indonesia, but there is no guarantee it will last, because if the government cannot hold together, hardliners in the army could still resort to the old methods.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
Asia-Pacific Contents

Country profiles

See also:
29 Oct 99 |  Asia-Pacific
No short cuts for East Timor recovery
20 Oct 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Refugees begin return to East Timor

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Links to other Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories