Following yesterday’s cabinet announcement on the deployment of up to a full battalion of New Zealand troops to peacekeeping duties in East Timor senior New Zealand officials provided journalists with an off-the-record briefing on their assessment of the situation.
The bottom line is that the New Zealand government does not know a great deal about the situation on the ground in East Timor. Nor for that matter about the political situation in Jakarta.
Officials observed that the absence of foreign journalists in East Timor meant that they had very little information on what was going on in both East and West Timor.
Asked what assurances had been given by the Indonesian military – who after-all have now invited our peacekeepers in and might be expected to be keeping our military planners informed - a senior official observed wryly that, “the Indonesians are as you might expect rather grumpy at the moment”.
And so Australian and New Zealand troops, who are expected to be on the ground possibly as early as this weekend, do not know a great deal about the situation they are about to enter into.
So what do we know?
We know that Indonesia has begun to withdraw its forces from East Timor. But we do not know how many, or who, have left.
We know new Indonesian troops have been brought in, but again we do not know how many, nor what their loyalties are. (New Zealand officials commented that one of the issues in relation to this was whether the troops were “elite” or “garrison” troops – however follow-up questions failed to elicit any further details.)
We also know what New Zealand officials think has happened over the past two weeks.
Senior New Zealand officials said the following was their assessment of how the East Timor Crisis developed:
1. When B.J. Habibe announced the referendum he thought it would be a close run thing and Indonesia would be able to – on the basis of the ballot – justify a decision to keep the territory;
2. then, approximately three months ago, elements in Jakarta realised that the referendum would not go the way it had initially been expected to go and the “militias” operation was commenced (numerous reports indicate that in fact the TNI militias operation began in January);
3. the turning point then came – according to New Zealand officials anyway – when US President Clinton made his statement on the White House lawn before departing for New Zealand (Clinton announced an end to military cooperation and threatened economic sanctions), and was reinforced when the Foreign Minister’s meeting in New Zealand last week – prior to APEC – was attended by all of Indonesia’s fellow ASEAN countries.
Finally we know the official version from the Indonesian authorities, namely;
1. The Indonesian army was unable to deploy extra troops in Indonesia prior to the referendum because the May agreement stipulated that only extra police could be deployed in Indonesia;
2. that there have been problems with “rogue elements” in the Indonesian Army (TNI) who have “psychological” problems with dealing with the out of control militias;
3. that six battalions of Indonesian troops were brought into East Timor following the imposition of martial law last week;
4. that Indonesia is now in the process of withdrawing many of its units from the territory;
5. that the commander of the Indonesian military General Wiranto after visiting Dili this past Saturday decided it was a good idea to accelerate the deployment of international peacekeepers;
1. that the political establishment in Jakarta – including the opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri – are appalled at the events in Indonesia;
7. and, that the President of Indonesia has accepted calls for a war crimes inquiry over events in East Timor.
For its part at the weekend Scoop speculated on what might have happened in East Timor last week in… Indonesia's Triumph - Operation "Restore Order".
The thesis in this analysis (which with the benefit of hindsight is clearly flawed as many Scoop readers have pointed out) was that the Indonesian military could not have moved as quickly as it did to restore order in Dili unless it had been prepared and had planned to do so.
It further argued that if this was the case, then it was not particularly plausible that the Indonesian Military were uniformly the “bad guys” in the rapidly unfolding drama and that there were in effect two Indonesian military’s in operation in East Timor.
So what does all this mean?
Firstly the role of General Wiranto is probably the most murky aspect to the East Timor crisis.
In the past week there has been widespread speculation concerning his political aspirations – which have since been denied by the official spokesperson for the TNI.
There have been reports that he is moving against some of his own generals, and there have been the incongruous pictures of him crooning “Feelings” kareoke style to an audience of Indonesian army wives.
Clearly General Wiranto is the key player in this drame and so when it comes to discussing the end-game in the Crisis it seems logical to ask the question: What is General Wiranto trying to achieve?
Pursuing this line of analysis leads to some conclusions as to what is really going on.
Firstly, it is illogical to assume – as many commentators have – that this is an elaborate public relations exercise designed to scare other would-be independent Indonesian territories from pursuing independence. This is so because the TNI could not be expected to tolerate a war crimes investigation in circumstances where they are doing what they were supposed to do.
Secondly, clearly General Wiranto wants to come out of this whole affair with clean hands. He has political aspirations which while officially denied are clearly shown in his crooning. If this is so then – given Gen. Wiranto’s influence – it is improbable that the President of Indonesia would have approved the concept of a war-crimes tribunal if there was any chance that he [Gen. Wiranto] would be implicated.
From this point on the official explanation of “rogue elements” in the TNI begins to make some sense.
While it is sheer speculation – and Scoop has no direct evidence to suggest this - it seems likely that the plans to destabilise the referendum in East Timor had very senior support within the Indonesian military in Jakarta.
In this context reports that Gen. Wiranto is in the process of moving against some of his generals (See “Scoop Wirewatch” in the News Monitor wire) suggest that he is in the process of a clean-out of hard-line elements within the Indonesian political/military establishment.
Also supporting this theory is the fact that last year during the student riots that led to the overthrow of Suharto, General Wiranto was the calm hand that guided the transition.
By all accounts there were many elements within the Indonesian Military who were not happy with his actions at that time – nor with his subsequent decision to allow the TNI’s influence within the Indonesian Parliamentary Assembly to be substantially reduced. And thus it seems probable that even after the Indonesian “golden revolution” many of the dissenters remained in place.
On their face the excesses of the “rogue elements” in East Timor provide a perfect excuse for General Wiranto to complete his clean-out of the hard liners under his command. This also provides a plausible explanation for the otherwise confusing decision of President Habibe to allow a war crimes tribunal to be convened.
Finally the fact that the Indonesian military is not telling the Australian or New Zealand defence force what is going on would suggest that whatever General Wiranto is up to is not yet finished. Though the fact Australian and New Zealand troops are apparently to be allowed to enter East Timor does suggest that Wiranto is confident that he has control over the central elements to this puzzle.
And what does all this mean for the New Zealand soldiers about to be deployed in East Timor?
What it means is that they need to keep a close eye on who they are dealing with on the ground. There are clearly wheels within wheels in this crisis. Finally it means that the ANZAC military planners ought to keep a very close eye on General Wiranto.