Indonesia: the divide deepens

Heavy-handed rule didn't keep E. Timor province. Others also want to

Indonesia's campaign to win the allegiance of East Timor was in large part undermined by the use of force. Too much force.

Consider a young man who bears a lilting name that evokes East Timor's history as a Portuguese colony: Cesaltino Nasario dos Reis de Carvalho. Now a student at an Indonesian university, his higher education might have given him some reason to believe that East Timor should remain part of Indonesia.

But he remembers the day, in 1992, when Indonesian soldiers passed through his family's village on their way back from fighting East Timorese guerrillas. The soldiers raped his cousin, then killed his uncle so he could not report them, Mr. dos Reis de Carvalho says.

He and his father returned to the village from the rice fields a short time later and buried their relative. "That's how brutal the Indonesian military was," he adds, explaining why the results of an Aug. 30 referendum in East Timor favored independence by a margin of 4 to 1. "If you ask any East Timorese person, everyone would have a different story of how they suffered."

Indonesians, told for years that most East Timorese were happy to join their sprawling and diverse nation of some 13,000 islands, are now recognizing what went wrong. "We have failed to solve the problem by force, especially military force," says Sulaiman Abdalmanan, spokesman for Indonesia's Department of Foreign Affairs. "We failed to win the hearts and minds of the local people."

Although it is remarkable to hear such on-the-record candor about East Timor from an Indonesian official, it is doubtful that the country's powerful military is reaching the same conclusion.

"I'm worried that some in the military are drawing the opposite lesson," says Adam Schwarz, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, who is visiting the Indonesian capital.

Among the generals who have long been in charge of policies toward East Timor and other rebellious provinces, the bottom line may be that civilian oversight is the major problem, not that brutal force makes flawed policy.

In a country struggling to build a more democratic and more civilian government and where other regions are itching for independence, a military that thinks it knows best may find itself increasingly at odds with those determined to bring change. In just the past few days, seven people here have died in protests initiated by students angry about the military's role in Indonesia's political life.

President's role

Civilian President B.J. Habibie unveiled the idea of a referendum for East Timor in January. These days domestic critics are mainly attacking him for the "loss" of the territory, and condemning the military less harshly despite the vote's bloody aftermath.

When the results of the ballot were announced Sept. 4, anti-independence militia groups partly backed by the military struck back in anger, killing hundreds or more Timorese and displacing a majority of the population of 850,000.

Now Australia is leading a multinational effort to restore peace to East Timor, and relief agencies are struggling to help some 200,000 refugees in neighboring West Timor.

The military's enhanced standing is partly due to foreign criticism over the militias' violence and the sight of foreign peacekeepers on what was once considered Indonesian soil - many here are rallying around their nation and its soldiers.

"The East Timor thing was designed to win Indonesia international credibility that would redound to Habibie's benefit," says Mr. Schwarz. "And the effect has been the exact opposite."

All of this is important because East Timor is not the only part of Indonesia that thinks it might do better on its own. Most notable is the region of Aceh, at the very western tip of the archipelago, which is agitating for a referendum.

The last region to submit to Dutch colonial rule, the fervently Muslim Acehnese have a strong sense of identity and resent how the central government has stifled their political aspirations and siphoned off the wealth of their natural resources, including oil.

Ever since Indonesia began to emerge from authoritarian rule last year, analysts have wondered whether the country's national boundaries would begin to fray. A breakup of Indonesia - coming on top of what has happened in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union - makes many people uneasy. Disintegration would hurt Southeast Asia's economic prospects for years and make it easier for China to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy in the region.

"Indonesia cannot risk allowing the Acehnese to have a referendum," says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a foreign policy adviser to Habibie who was involved in the decision to grant East Timor a vote on independence.

The distinction, she says, is that East Timor was not part of the Dutch colonies that became Indonesia when independence was declared after World War II. Were Aceh to go, says Ms. Anwar, other provinces would have the right to opt for independence, and "before you know it, there would be no more Indonesia."

So the government is allowing regions more local powers, a greater share of revenues from their natural resources, and in the case of Aceh, some opportunities to introduce Islamic law.

But the military is also using a heavy hand in the region, where it has long been guilty of massacres and other human-rights abuses.

Anwar says the military must be more "sensitive," but adds: "Clearly the military cannot simply be pulled out of Aceh, or otherwise the Acehnese would simple declare their independence, which would ... force the military to drop a bomb on Aceh, because [it] cannot allow Aceh to be independent."

Negotiating this dilemma will be a crucial issue for Indonesia in the months and years ahead. But first, this country's leaders must find a way to fill a vacuum of power.

On Thursday and Friday seven people - six protesters and one policeman - died in clashes in Jakarta over the military's role in government. The issue at hand was a new internal security law, but the mainly student demonstrators were objecting to the perception that the military was manipulating the political process.

A promise not to sign the measure into law for the time being has eased tension created by two days of rioting, but student leaders say they are determined to resist a "military government."

The problem is that Indonesia's generals have long been guaranteed a political role, and they are loathe to give it up. They say they are a vital force for stability and unity in a potentially fractious country.

Splits in military

But where the military used to be seen as a unified force, analysts now see signs of internal divisions. Some generals and top officers are known as democracy-minded reformists, while others are seen to resist moves toward democratic opening.

"I think it's the military that [could] bring more problems to Indonesia," says Mr. Abdalmanan, the foreign ministry spokesman, in another once-heretical statement.

He speaks for many Indonesians when he says, "We need to have a new government, much stronger, more legitimate, one trusted by the people."

Following national elections in June that produced no single victor, politicians here are angling behind the scenes in advance of a People's Consultative Assembly that will elect a new president in November, or perhaps late October. With a guaranteed 38 seats in an assembly of 700, the military is already playing the role of kingmaker.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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