On Aug. 30, barring further delays, the people of East Timor will vote on whether they wish to remain part of Indonesia as an autonomous region or form an independent state. Virtually all eligible voters, almost 450,000, have now registered, despite violence and intimidation from Indonesian army-backed groups to prevent them from doing so. But there are worrying signs that violence could yet mar the election and its aftermath.
The government of President B.J. Habibie is putting international goodwill at risk by using proxy militias and other methods to try to rig the ballot in favor of autonomy. Indonesia's donors, including Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Europe, should make clear that any attempt to derail the election by Indonesian forces will jeopardize international assistance earmarked for Indonesia's democratization and economic recovery process.
There are several ways the government can derail the election. One is to cause violence during the campaign period, now scheduled to end on Aug. 27. Another is to step up militia violence on the day of the vote itself. A third is to have the losers, almost certainly the pro-autonomy side, contest the vote in a way that delays official endorsement of the results by Indonesia's highest legislative body, the People's Consultative Assembly. Finally, the army may try to spark civil war or create a movement for partition, with a few districts in the west rejecting incorporation into the new state.
Why would Indonesia risk its international standing and relations with aid donors to keep East Timor? There are three main reasons:
-- The Indonesian army is worried that if East Timor becomes independent, separatist movements in Indonesia proper will step up their struggles. A long-simmering insurgency in resource-rich Aceh on the island of Sumatra has spiraled out of control in the last six months, with guerrillas in control of more territory and commanding more popular support than ever before. It is true that in both Aceh and Irian Jaya armed and unarmed independence movements have been encouraged by developments in East Timor to think that a referendum might be possible for them as well.
But it is a fundamental misreading of the dynamics of both movements to think, as the Indonesian government seems to, that if East Timor votes to remain within Indonesia, popular grievances that have been fueling political violence in Aceh and Irian Jaya will evaporate. People there harbor deep grievances against Jakarta, from failure to prosecute massive human rights abuses to systematic stripping of natural resources. The army is wrong to think that separatist movements elsewhere will go away if it rigs the vote in East Timor.
-- The Indonesian army and parts of the bureaucracy may also be trying to wreck the ballot because the United Nations presence represents a major national humiliation. It is proof that a 24-year effort at integration has failed. When Indonesian Foreign Ministry officials signed the agreement with Portugal and the United Nations on May 5 authorizing the ballot and the creation of the U.N. Assistance Mission in East Timor, they may not have realized how galling the presence of close to 1,000 foreigners in East Timor would be to the army, particularly to the officers in direct control of operations there. This may be one reason that Unamet offices and staff have become the target of militia attacks.
-- Many senior Indonesian officials outside the military claim that there is substantial pro-Indonesian sentiment in East Timor and that it is the pro-independence forces, not army-backed militias, that are causing the bulk of the intimidation and harassment. They say the primary conflict is not between the Indonesian government and the people of East Timor, but between warring groups of East Timorese. They argue that the pro-independence forces have an unfair advantage in support from the West, the Catholic Church, and now the United Nations. It is therefore incumbent upon Jakarta to establish a level playing field by helping the East Timorese who want to stay in the fold.
But the core of the Pro-Indonesia side may not be more than 10% to 12% of the voting population concentrated in the western districts near the border with West Timor. It consists primarily of three groups: local officials whose authority stems from their links to the Indonesian bureaucracy; a few hundred former guerillas who changed sides through coercion or persuasion and who may fear retaliation when Indonesia leaves; and a tiny group of intellectuals who believe that East Timor stands no chance of survival as an independent state.
Money, however, has swelled their ranks. Funds from Jakarta have enabled local officials to recruit thousands of unemployed East Timorese into pro-integration paramilitary groups. The notion that the conflict in East Timor is among East Timorese rather than between them and the Indonesian state ignores the fact that for the last 10 years Indonesian policy has been to create these paramilitary groups precisely to pit East Timorese against each other. If East Timor is a house divided, it is largely the Indonesian army's doing.
Likewise, the charge that pro-independence groups are responsible for widespread intimidation and terror against pro-Indonesia civilians is simply not supported by evidence. It is true that such intimidation was common in late 1998, when a wave of attacks on non-Timorese migrants took place, and there have been sporadic attacks on suspected militia members since. But the vast majority of people displaced by violence -- at least 40,000 at last count -- fled pro-integration militia attacks, not terror from the pro-independence guerrilla army or its civilian supporters.
Moreover, whereas Indonesian officials have shown no hesitation in arresting suspected perpetrators of violence from the pro-independence camp, not a single militia member was arrested from January to July, despite well-documented attacks with identifiable perpetrators that caused hundreds of deaths. It was only after international outrage at a militia attack on a humanitarian convoy on July 4 that seven suspects, all in their teens or 20s, were arrested and put on trial. Militia commanders remain immune from prosecution, and army and police as of early August were continuing to stand by or actively participate in militia attacks.
Despite the surprising success of the registration process, there are strong indications that the army and its proxies will pull out all stops to sabotage the ballot. Indonesia's major donors need to send a strong message to the government that any such action would cause irreparable harm to their relationships. The heads of state of Japan, Australia, Germany, Britain and the U.S. should communicate directly not only to President Habibie, but also to opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and General Wiranto, that a record $5.9 billion pledged to Indonesia in a donor consortium meeting last month in Paris will be at stake if state-supported violence continues. So will all military-to-military links, already damaged in many cases by Indonesian army behavior in East Timor and elsewhere. Indonesia badly needs some political and economic breathing room to get its own house in order. It only hurts itself if it continues its current course in East Timor.
Sidney Jones is Executive Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.