Tuesday, October 12, 1999

Playing the East Timor mind game

The Nation 

CAMBRIDGE -- You are supposed to be a patriotic leader. And your task is to safely bring the tiny island on the northern coast of Australia to be an independent state. 

Think about building democratic institutions and establish a market-oriented economic mechanism. It is a challenging mission as the world has rarely seen the birth of a new state over the past two decades. 

In fact East Timor will be the first new of the new millennium. 

Think of your role as something akin to that of American statesman Thomas Jefferson more than 300 years ago when he was preparing the Declaration of Independence. 

Here is some historical background. 

East Timor is expected to be an independent country very soon, 78 per cent of East Timorese having voted in August for independence rather than an autonomous state of Indonesia. The ballot organised and monitored by the United Nations is accepted internationally. 

But today, East Timor is still the Indonesian province it became in 1975 when the military-backed Suharto regime invaded the former Portuguese colony. With the brutal invasion, the saga of East Timor has gone from brutality to brutality to brutality. 

Andreas Harsono 1998
East Timorese were interrogated, tortured and killed, their women raped and brutalised by Indonesian soldiers. So it is nothing new that a few days after the UN ballot ended a decisive shout for self-determination that Jakarta-backed militias began terrorising the whole area, burning houses and hunting down and killing pro-independence leaders and sympathisers. 

When president General Suharto was forced to step down last year in an uprising by Indonesian students fed up with the old man, it was not necessarily because of East Timor. Suharto also treated Indonesians like slaves. 

The reputation of the military was heavily eroded and denied the same backing in many western countries, including the United States. 

Back home, mothers refused to allow their daughters to marry soldiers. The newly-established democratic parliament is more than prepared to officially let East Timor go in the next two weeks. 

This mind game is easier if you pretend you are Xanana Gusmao! 

Xanana is a poet-turned-journalist-turned-teacher-turned-guerrilla fighter-turned-political prisoner-turned diplomat. The 53-year-old gentleman and charismatic leader is tipped to be East Timor's first president! 

Xanana was released from Jakarta's prison only last month. Some even compare him to South Africa's Nelson Mandela although typically, Xanana humbly fended off such a comparison. Xanana repeatedly says that his main immediate agenda is reconciliation and reconciliation. 

War-torn East Timor has more than just two opposing factions. The pro-independence camp, itself, has long-standing rivalry among exiled groups in Mozambique, Portugal and Australia. The pro-autonomy camp also has its own factions, ranging from the moderate to the violent militias. 

Reconciliation, within each camp and then together, is not going to be an easy task. 

Some intra-East Timor meetings were organised internationally over the past few years. They went nowhere. An independent East Timor should also try to figure out what kind of mutually beneficial relationship it is going to forge with Indonesia. 

How will it deal with the Indonesian army whose business interests -- coffee plantations, construction companies and oil exploration -- are in East Timor's sovereign area? 

How will it view the democratisation process in Indonesia? 

How could Xanana use his friendships with many Indonesian leaders to build a healthy link between the two countries? 

Xanana befriended most of the Indonesian democracy leaders while they were all inside the Cipinang prison in Jakarta. 

What does one do about Australia? It is a neighbour to be courted, even though when Indonesia invaded East Timor, Australia and big brother, the United States, gave the green light and even provided the weapons and military training to Indonesian soldiers. 

Successive Australian governments, both Labor and Liberal, kept supporting the Indonesian occupation of East Timor until January this year. 

Prime Minister John Howard made the U-turn because of a weak and an unpopular administration of President B.J. Habibie in Jakarta. Such a drastic change does not necessarily means a change of heart. Indonesia economically and politically is still too big and too important to be compared with the tiny East Timor. 

Last but not least for you to consider in your mind game is the United States of America. 

The future of your country partly depends on what Washington decides. It recently endorsed the gist of a proposal by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the UN to take control of all government functions in East Timor and rebuild the infrastructure in the battered province. The plan is pretty similar to the Cambodian model. 

In March 1992, the UN took over administrative functions in Cambodia after an international agreement ended years of civil war. The operation lasted until September 1993, involved 19,000 troops, police officers and administrators, and cost US$1.66 billion. But Cambodia today is not as democratic and institutionally as strong as many have expected. 

Critics said many UN officers had no commitment to build a democratic Cambodia. Many simply wanted to make a living out of Cambodia, pocketing the large $130 daily allowance and even keeping Khmer mistresses. 

Why does the UN need to have such a massive presence in East Timor? 

The New York Times provides a clever explanation. It editorialised that the forces opposed to East Timor independence, Indonesia's military and its allied militias, "were too slow to let go of East Timor". By contrast, "Indonesia's civil administration -- the police, the judges, the officials who ran the water and electric utilities -- disappeared too fast". 

The question is to what extend you could minimise the presence of UN officials in East Timor? To what extend could the leaders of East Timor have a wide-ranging discussion on the future democracy with minimum supervision by the UN? What is going to be the philosophy of an independent East Timor? 

Is it going to be a parliamentary or a presidential system? How many political parties? What is the political threshold? What about the protection of civil liberty? 

You have to think economy. During the Indonesian rule East Timor produced about 10 per cent of its gross national product. But East Timor is a relatively small country of 800,000 people. 

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are very likely to assist. In a Washington meeting earlier this month, the international money lenders invited Xanana and his comrade-in-arms Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel peace laureate, to meet world financial chiefs for talks about rebuilding their devastated nation. 

The meeting ended with pledges from 18 countries and 10 aid agencies expressing strong support for a plan to jump start reconstruction and development. Easier said than done. But let's play the game! Who knows, you might have a good scenario and the perfect solution to this complex set-up. If so, you should send your advice to either Annan or Xanana, their minds are on these very issues right now.

Andreas Harsono is The Nation's Jakarta correspondent who is currently on a Harvard Fellowship in Cambridge.