A Mirror of Suppression: how the Indonesian Solidarity Movement took East Timor as the case against the Indonesian dictator, Soeharto
Pocut Hanifah Centro de Estudos Sociais - Universidade de Coimbra (CES-UC), PORTUGAL
The causes of the conflict between Indonesia and East Timor (1975-2002) are widely explained in academic literature. Still, how these causes were interpreted by different Indonesian actors is often overlooked. In this talk, I will focus on how the Indonesian solidarity (Solidaritas) movement interpreted the conflict as a symptom of the dictatorial regime of Suharto. In their view, the East Timorese were but of one of the many communities suppressed by the New Order. Clearly, the Acehnese and Papuans faced similar aversities, but so did many people on Java who were not part of the nepotistic network of Suharto and his clique. The press censorship made it difficult for the Solidaritas activists to address their concerns to a national audience. They did have connections with foreign journalists, but needed to group together to maintain these international networks. Their voices became heard in Indonesia itself after the fall of Suharto in 1998. Still, even when enjoying increased freedom of expression, most could only get their treatises and memoirs printed at small publishing houses. Reviewing their work and conducting interviews with some of these activists taught me that they might have advocated different forms of protest against the violence in East Timor, but they did wish for a singular outcome; to use the international attention for the conflict in East Timor to not only end the Indonesian occupation of the former Portuguese colony but also to undermine Suharto’s dictatorship. They seemed to have shared a belief that tackling the most visible human right violations could set off a chain reaction which would inhibit Suharto and his cronies in other regions too. This was difficult to achieve during the Cold War given that Suharto was a strategic ally in Southeast Asia for the United States which together with other Western countries turned a blind eye to his cruelty in and outside East Timor. The end of the Cold War brought new hopes amongst Indonesian activists. By addressing bloodshed like that occurring in Santa Cruz they hoped to bring the Javanese dictator to a downfall. The atrocities in East Timor were easier to put in the limelight than those in Aceh, Moluccas or Papua. This had to do with the fact that Portugal still laid claims to the land that was occupied by the Indonesian army. The Netherlands had left most of Aceh to its own fate during the Indonesian Independence War in 1945-9 when it decided to aim all its arrows on the heart of the Indonesian Republic in Yogyakarta and the plantation regions in Java and North Sumatra. The Dutch did hold on to Papua (Nederlands-Nieuw-Guinea) after Indonesian Independence but they were pressured to relinquish control over their last Asian colony to the United Nations in August 1962. East Timor was different. It was largely forgotten during the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in April 1974 and had not yet been formally decolonised when the Indonesian army invaded the colony one-and-a-half year later amidst a civil war between numerous Timorese independence movements over which Portugal had lost control(1). Numerous senior Portuguese politicians who had kept a powerful position despite the Portuguese transition from a dictatorial regime to a democracy, still laid claims on the former colony during international gatherings and in the international press. All this combined made East Timor the perfect case to bring down Suharto. Still, because of their hostility towards this powerful military dictators, the solidarity movement faced suppression and was rarely able to express themselves. Instead, they were and still are stigmatised as traitors to Indonesia.
(1) Richard A. H. Robinson, “The influence of overseas issues in Portugal’s transition to democracy” in Stewart Lloyd-Jones and António Costa Pinto, ed. The Last Empire: Thirty Years of Portuguese Decolonization (Bristol: Intellect, 2003), 12 and 15; António Costa Pinto, “The transition to democracy and Portugal’s decolonization” in Lloyd-Jones and Pinto,The Last Empire, 30-1.