Companion to East Timor - Habibie's offer of a referendum

Habibie's offer of a referendum

Under pressure from all sides, Habibie consulted his confidants. His close ideological ally was the minister for cooperatives, Adi Sasono. Like Habibie, Sasono was an engineer by training and had also been secretary-general of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI). He had supported a referendum in East Timor for many years, and had informed Habibie of this many times. He had visited East Timor on several occasions and felt ashamed of what Indonesia had done. On pragmatic grounds too, Sasono concluded, Indonesia was worse off for having invaded Timor. It was paying a high diplomatic price, and would continue to do so indefinitely. The younger generation of East Timorese, who had grown up under Indonesian rule and spoke Indonesian, were implacably opposed to remaining within Indonesia.

The new politicians in Habibie's cabinet had played no part in the decision to invade East Timor. They resented having to bear the burden of a policy for which they were not responsible, with which they did not agree, and from which they derived no benefit. Ginandjar Kartasasmita, the Coordinating Minister for the Economy, also believed that East Timor should be given the right to self-determination. Another Habibie adviser, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, was similarly opposed to the retention of East Timor. She had publicly expressed criticism of the occupation, and had become irritated at the frequent questions she was facing at international meetings and press conferences, where she was forced to defend a policy she did not support.

Habibie had been harassed by the East Timor question during his overseas visits prior to becoming President. He had never had much involvement with East Timor. His career as a technocrat in Indonesia's industrial system had never required him to invest much political capital in the politics of the occupation, which was a heavily infantry-based, low-tech affair. He discussed the idea of offering the East Timorese a referendum on independence with a few key personnel, two of whom were senior figures in the military: Major General Sintong Panjaitan, who had been relieved of his command following the Santa Cruz massacre; and Lieutenant General Feisal Tanjung, the Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security. He then discussed the referendum idea at the 25 January 1999 meeting of cabinet's Political and Security Committee, and two days later at a full cabinet meeting. Most cabinet members were of the view that Indonesia would win the referendum. The vote in East Timor for the ruling party Golkar had always been higher than the national average in previous elections.

Panjaitan and Tanjung had both been members of the military team that had manipulated the fraudulent Act of Free Choice in West Papua in 1969. Feisal Tanjung described his role in his authorised biography, noting that although he had led 150 troops in a campaign to win the referendum, he had kept the operation hidden from UN observers in order to maintain the fiction that the referendum was fair. Although the East Timor voting process was qualitatively different, Tanjung assumed that the army's power over society was sufficient to guarantee an Indonesian victory. The military hierarchy was also succumbing to the usual characteristic of authoritarian regimes – they typically underestimate the extent of popular hostility. In his biography, Feisal Tanjung said that the military first estimated that about 75% of East Timorese would vote in favour of integration. He and his fellow officers interpreted the fact that 80% of the East Timorese electorate participated in the Indonesian election of 7 June 1999 as confirmation of their estimate: 'This was a strong indication that the majority of the East Timorese were siding with Indonesia.'

The fact is that the June election in East Timor was highly misleading; local authorities were too busy to conduct it properly, and many East Timorese had not bothered to register to vote in these elections. It mattered little, therefore, that Indonesia's ruling party Golkar won 49.1% of the vote in East Timor compared with the 34.9% won by Megawati Sukarnoputri's opposition PDI-P. Nevertheless, the Indonesian authorities took the fact that Golkar won in East Timor – even though it lost elsewhere in Indonesia – as an indication that a referendum would deliver a favourable result. Much later, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas would point out that most members of cabinet 'were then very convinced we would win the referendum. Everything was painted with optimism.' He said, 'Up to the balloting, the reports we got from our people, of the pro-integration people, including Lopez da Cruz and so on, is that we were going to win.' Many in the military believed that they would win a ballot on autonomy. An internal Indonesian document, written after the decision to hold a referendum had been taken, showed that some in the military believed they would win. Its author, Major General Garnadi, noted that the government had been initially optimistic that 'autonomy would be the people's choice.' Another example of Indonesian thinking at the time was provided by the Indonesian military officer in operational command of the dirty tricks campaign, Major General Zacky Anwar, who later said, 'In our prediction, we would either lose or win by a slight margin. … But only 21% voted in favour of Indonesia's continued rule in East Timor. … It was really disappointing.'

On 27 January 1999, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and Information Minister Yunus Yosfiah announced that the East Timorese would be granted a referendum on independence. This was the opposite of John Howard's suggestion of 'a substantial period of autonomy before a decision is taken on East Timor's final status.' Habibie himself told the Australian Ambassador to Jakarta, John McCarthy, that he was going to move very quickly on East Timor and was interested in solving the problem soon – not in postponing it as Howard had proposed. McCarthy conveyed this unwelcome piece of news to the Australian government, which moved into opinion-management mode. A senior Australian diplomat in the Jakarta embassy was instructed to leak the letter to an Australian newspaper reporter based in Jakarta.1 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer then called a press conference to announce what he termed a 'historic policy shift.' Of course, the historic shift had been made by Habibie, not Downer or Howard.


1Confidential source.