INDONESIA, a large Southeast Asian nation often targeted in Congress for its brutal occupation of tiny East Timor, showed unusual restraint during recent riots on the island, Western diplomats say.
The Army, long criticized for rights abuses, appeared to have gone "by the book" in ending the latest strife in the former Portuguese territory, they say.
The new restraint toward dissent in this nation of 192 million people may be due to Western-trained generals having risen up the ranks, eager to avoid blame for bloodshed caused by low-ranking soldiers. Even broader, say Jakarta-based envoys, the Army may be shifting from a day-to-day political role in Indonesia to a more professional defense role.
The shift may be due partly to Indonesia trying to improve its international image. But also the Army is anticipating President Suharto - himself a former general - possibly ending his long rule.
"My impression is they're willing to allow greater democratization, bring the Army out of politics, and allow politics to be handled by civilians," says Marzuki Darusman, a former parliament member belonging to Golkar, the ruling party, and now vice chairman of the government-sponsored National Commission on Human Rights.
East Timor has been in relative turmoil since 1975, when Portugal abandoned the colony and the Indonesian Army, fearing a leftist takeover, responded with an invasion that killed thousands. Since then tensions have simmered and the 700,000 predominantly Roman Catholic residents have resented the influx of Muslim migrants from the rest of Indonesia. "The tension is certainly there, and when you take the lid off, it doesn't take much to ignite it," a Western diplomat says.
All it took on Sept. 8 was for an Indonesian justice official to drop an anti-Catholic slur in a speech (details of which are unclear) to inmates at Maliana Prison near the East Timor capital of Dili. For two days, angry mobs torched houses, schools, and police cars around Dili. Soldiers and police responded by arresting more than 100 people and releasing all but 10 "masterminds."
But in a departure from what was once standard procedure in Indonesia's youngest province, they did not open fire on the crowds, according to Dili residents and Western diplomats in Jakarta. Among those arrested was the justice official, Sanusi Abubakar, who police say will face charges and stand trial.
That incident would follow a recent pattern. In June, a court martial sentenced 1st Lt. Jeremias Kasse, an intelligence officer, and Priv. Rusdin Maumere to 4-1/2 years in prison for the murders of six villagers in the remote district of Liquisa, East Timor, last January.
The trial followed an investigation by the National Commission on Human Rights, which overturned earlier findings by Army investigators that the six victims were guerrillas of the separatist Fretilin (a Portuguese acronym for Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), who had been killed in a firefight. The commission determined that a summary execution had taken place and that the victims were unarmed and innocent.
Military officials confirmed that in mid-1992, in response to the killing of unarmed demonstrators at Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili in November 1991, 10 soldiers, including four second lieutenants, were given prison sentences ranging from eight to 17 months, and six officers were dismissed or demoted.
"Now 18 months may look ... light given the nature of the crime, but that's more than Lt. Calley got for doing My Lai," says a Western diplomat referring to the American soldier who led a unit accused of massacring a group of Vietnamese civilians.
The courts-martial brought out the little-known fact that often the troops implicated in the most appalling human rights violations are native East Timorese.
Army generals hope that cracking down on their own troops - and letting the world watch - will put an end to the cruelty for which the entire Indonesian military establishment and Suharto himself have taken the blame. They see this as essential for Indonesia's political system to become acceptable to the tens of millions of increasingly vocal, middle-class Indonesians.
"The only way [the generals] feel they can still enjoy public recognition is to adjust to the new reality," says Mr. Darusman.
The Army is painfully aware that East Timor has tarnished Indonesia's international image. And it overshadows Suharto's role as an elder statesman of the third world and champion of free trade.
Still, Suharto has ruled out suggestions from the military that the province be granted limited autonomy, and has categorically rejected calls for a referendum on independence. The military occupation is symbolic of the president's 30-year-old campaign against ethnic strife in a country of 13,700 islands and 300 ethnic groups.
The Army recently bowed out of this debate and marked its distance from day-to-day politics by agreeing to reduce the number of parliament seats reserved for active generals from 100 to 75 at the end of the current session in 1997.
The diplomats say this could play into Suharto's hands in the next presidential vote in parliament in 1998 - and could well be intended to shore up his popular support. Despite ruling for 30 years, Suharto has yet to name a successor and is known to harbor ambitions of ruling until well into the 21st century.
"The one thing that Suharto does not lack is confidence," says a Western diplomat.