Habibie regime reneging on East Timor

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Habibie regime reneging on East Timor

MAX LANE is the national coordinator of Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor. He spoke to Green Left Weekly about recent events in those countries.

Question: Is the Habibie regime looking for a way to renege on its January concession to allow the East Timorese to choose independence?

The collaboration between the Indonesian military and the pro-Jakarta landlord gangs in East Timor to terrorise the people must be seen as a complete lack of good will on the part of the Habibie regime.

Justice minister Muladi's threat to put Xanana back in prison because of Gusmao's call to the resistance to act in self-defence is another sign of this. Jakarta has also postponed the next scheduled meeting with Portugal and the UN.

Question: Some people say that it is ABRI rather than Habibie that is backtracking.

There is no doubt that Habibie's January announcement was a manoeuvre by Habibie and his clique to win international support for himself. Ali Alatas and ABRI did not like what Habibie did. But Habibie himself cannot escape responsibility for what is happening in East Timor now.

There is nothing stopping him ordering that all the landlord terror gangs be disarmed and all troops be confined to barracks. In fact, there is nothing stopping him ordering ABRI's withdrawal from East Timor now.

Question: Why doesn't he, then?

His main concern has never been the East Timorese people, but what he can get out of the situation. His concession on East Timor was a way of making it easier for Washington to sell to the public the idea that the US should prop up the regime. But now he is watching what he needs to do to keep the army on side as the political situation changes.

Question: What are those changes?

Habibie's concessions in January unleashed class conflict in East Timor. A small but wealthy new class of landowners has developed under the Indonesian occupation. These landowners are at risk of losing their lands if East Timor becomes independent.

There were statements by East Timorese resistance leaders attempting to reassure people that had amassed property during the occupation that their property rights would be respected. But clearly they don't believe these assurances; no doubt they have very justified fears of popular wrath. These people are now fighting desperately for their lives and their privilege; they are the ones who are organising the terror gangs.

This gives the regime and the military allies in East Timor who are desperate to keep the Resistance from coming to power.

The regime is also discovering that none of its political rivals are willing to act as allies of East Timorese independence. Amien Rais did visit Xanana Gusmao in prison, but that was mainly for photo opportunities, especially for the Western liberal media. He has done nothing whatsoever to put pressure on Habibie to push through on genuine self-determination. Megawati and Abdurahman Wahid, the other rivals for the presidency, have taken a position against independence.

The main supporters of East Timorese self-determination in Indonesian politics are the People's Democratic Party (PRD), the United Democratic Party (PUDI) led by Sri Bintang Pamungkas and key NGO lobby groups, such as SOLIDAMOR and FORTILOS. The latter two are doing a good job in distributing information but do not represent a political force. PUDI has taken a good stance has no mass base or political strategy.

The best hope is the PRD, which has a growing mass base and a strategy but who themselves are now under attack again from the ultra-right.

Some of the ultra-right are calling for the PRD to be barred from the elections because it has joined the revolutionary novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Many of the rightists participated in the mass killing of leftists in 1965 and helped put people like Pramoedya in jail. They are very frightened of the left making a comeback.

The PRD is also under attack inside the National Elections Commission for refusing to participate in swearing in an East Timorese Provincial Electoral Commission. The PRD does not recognise East Timor as a part of Indonesia.

Question: So the regime has regained some confidence in Suharto era policies?

For the time being. A lot now depends on how quickly the radical forces in Indonesia can grow and the response in East Timor to Xanana's call for popular insurrection.

Question: Are the radical forces going to grow quickly?

The prospects are very good. The PRD has set a perspective of increasing nationally organised protest actions. The first actions took place on April 6, with mainly worker protests in cities like Jakarta, Solo, Semarang and Menado.

There will be more later this month and in May. It is likely that a national organisation of militant workers will be also soon be formed.

The PRD's media profile is also improving rapidly.

The PRD has been able to carry out joint activities with East Timorese activists. There are signs that the student activist coalitions are reviving as they become more disgusted at the antics of the likes of Megawati Sukarnoputri, Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid. The reactivation of the broad student movement and the linking up of students with workers and urban poor will be absolutely necessary if the regime is to be defeated.

Question: And in East Timor?

From the information we have, the atmosphere even in places like Dili is very fearful. The landlord gangs and ABRI have gained the initiative over the last several weeks, and the now the resistance will have to find an opening to swing the population back into political mobilisation.

The urban mass actions, which started back in 1989 with the pope's visit, have always been the most powerful weapon of the East Timorese. These, combined with successful publicity actions in Jakarta, imposed a lot of political costs on the Suharto regime. Finding a way to resume them in Dili, Bacau and other cities will be key to taking back the initiative.

Question: Isn't international pressure going to be more important? Isn't getting the UN into East Timor the key question?

The key question is taking back the initiative from Habibie, ABRI and the landlords. That can be done only by putting more mass pressure on the regime.

The disarming of the militias and the withdrawal of ABRI from East Timor will be done by Jakarta only under pressure. International pressure on Jakarta from Washington, London, Tokyo and Canberra will only happen if those governments are frightened that mass pressure in Indonesia and East Timor is going to cause instability for their investments. That's all they care about.

Even getting Jakarta to let in the UN, which of course would be totally unnecessary if ABRI could be forced to withdraw altogether, requires the political initiative to be taken back. Again, that requires building the mass movements in both Jakarta and East Timor, with solidarity actions overseas as well.