Southeast Asia: “We’ve examined the progress of my mainland and peninsular countries into the 21st century. Most subcontinents consist primarily of a large landmass with just a few islands. However, I am unlike any other subcontinent in the world. I’m special, as a significant part of my territory consists of islands. Further two of my largest nations are archipelagos consisting of an uncountable number of islands – the Philippines and Indonesia.
Both of these archipelagos attained self-rule after being occupied by Japan during World War II. In the 1960s after a decade or so of a tenuous democracy, American/Cartel supported military dictatorships established control over each country – Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia. Bad decisions, corruption and social repression eventually provoked the citizenry into popular revolts that forced both dictators from power. Power to the People! Let’s see what happened to these countries after the dictators left, starting with the Philippines.”
Propped up by an abundance of US military aid, Ferdinand Marcos ruled the country as a ruthless and corrupt military dictator for over 2 decades, from 1965 through 1986. The peaceful and bloodless People Power Revolution initiated Marcos’ ouster. The People Power Revolution was a significant example of successful non-violent civil disobedience.
This series of popular demonstrations began in 1983 with the assassination of Aquino, the opposition leader. Over two million Filipino civilians, as well as several military groups and the Catholic Church led by Cardinal Jaime Sin, the Archbishop of Manila, participated in the protests. The sustained civil resistance exploded in 1986 after an obviously rigged election in which Marcos claimed victory. Due to the ensuing social turbulence, even his allies abandoned Marcos and he was forced to leave the country.
This non-violent protest was a clear case of how popular outrage against repression and corruption can actually take down a government. Of course, timing is of utmost importance. The military dictatorship pulse was ending and the democracy pulse was beginning anew after a 20-year hiatus.
Corazon, Aquino’s widow and the opposition candidate, became the 1st president of the renewed democracy. Although plagued by political instability and a huge international debt that hampered economic development, the Philippines has remained a democracy ever since. The turbulent course has been fraught with difficulty.
Recall that due to the colossal corruption during his regime, Marcos has the dubious distinction of being labeled as the greatest thief of all time by the Guinness World Book of Records. Part of Marcos’ stolen loot came from the international banking community, a significant branch of the Cartel. They loaned the Philippine government money that went into the private bank accounts of Marcos and his cronies. Of course the international bankers required that Aquino’s new government pay off these dubious loans. International debt was a huge burden upon the Philippine economy.
Marcos’ repressive measures along with the continuing corruption of the ruling class, the ilustrados, also stoked the fire of an active communist movement that was fighting for social reform, including worker rights, both industrial and agrarian. The separatist Islamic movement in the southern islands had not responded well to the military oppression of Marcos’ Catholic regime and had instead grown. Finally some Marcos-allied military groups formed active resistance movements. Besides international debt, the resurgent democracy led by Aquino also had to deal with the social instability generated by the revolutionary groups. Ultimately, she employed many of Marcos’ same techniques to maintain control, i.e. military suppression and cooperation with the ilustrados.
Immediately after Corazon Aquino assumed power, a new constitution was drafted that limited the ability of the president to declare martial law. This law was written to prevent the return of another Marcos style dictatorship. Further, steps were taken to grant limited autonomy to the separatist groups. However, the entrenched power of the ilustrados and the impatience of the revolutionary groups for justice hampered Aquino’s efforts to address the Philippines’ long-term problems.
An attempt was made to restore civil liberties and turn the country into a legitimate democracy. However the centuries-long political infection was deep. Several military coups threatened the new democracy and revolution continued in the countryside and the southern islands. On the positive side, the Philippine Senate terminated the nearly century long American military presence in their islands by assuming control of the US bases in 1991. On the cynical side, the US didn’t need these Philippine naval bases now that the Indochina debacle was finally over.
The following administration led by Fidel Ramos focused upon ‘national reconciliation’ as their primary goal. To this end, the government legalized the Communist Party, granted general amnesty to all combatants – communist insurgents, Muslim separatists, and military rebels, and laid the groundwork for peaceful negotiations. Ramos’ attempt to reconcile opposing parties was somewhat undermined by the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 90s.
Joseph Estrada was elected president in a landslide victory in 1998. He pledged to help the poor through social reform with a special focus upon the agricultural sector. He could be termed a populist president, as he was widely popular, especially amongst the working poor. Unfortunately, the deck was stacked against him.
Despite efforts to assuage Muslim separatists, an Islamic revolt broke out in the south in 2000. Estrada pledged to crush the rebellion in order to bring peace. The military brutally suppressed the uprising.
Charges of corruption were brought against Estrada in 2001. The conservative elements in government, i.e. business interests, military, the Catholic Church and the landed elite, the ilustrados, attempted to impeach Estrada. When that technique proved unsuccessful, they arranged massive street protests and the military withdrew its support. Estrada was forced to resign.
The US along with its allies described this political movement as a popular revolt and immediately recognized the new government as legitimate. However, critics describe the 2001 revolution as a conspiracy by the power elite to remove a populist reformer from power. Foreign commentators described the revolution as "a defeat for due process of law", "mob rule", and a "de facto coup".
Confirming this analysis, the following administration headed by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001–2010) was plagued by charges of corruption, graft and political scandals. The worst scandal came at the end of her decade-long rule – the Maguindanao massacre of 2009.
A political convoy was ambushed on the way to file election papers in the province of Maguindanao. 58 people were killed execution-style. 34 of them were journalists. It has been called the single deadliest event for journalists in history. It is suspected that the dominant and ruling Muslim clan was responsible for the carnage.
However, even before the Maguindanao massacre, the Philippines political climate discouraged freedom of speech. The Committee to Protect Journalists labeled the Philippines the second most dangerous country for journalists, second only to Iraq. The ruling class must do what is necessary to maintain their privileged position in society.
As to be expected, the economy also experienced stable growth. Did the elite classes just become wealthier or did economic growth actually increase the general prosperity of the nation?
The first decade of the new millennium was business as usual for the Philippines, i.e. corruption, press censorship and de facto rule by the entrenched ruling elite. The second decade has begun on a bright note. Benigno Aquino III, the son of former Philippines president Corazon C. Aquino, was elected to the presidency, after a heated campaign.
His administration has focused on major reforms that would bring greater transparency in government, reduce corruption and alleviate poverty. In this regard, he formed the Truth Commission to investigate allegations of graft during the former administration. Despite threats of excommunication by the Catholic Church, his administration passed legislation that would distribute contraceptives to couples in order to reduce the birth rate and thereby the innate problems of excessive population.
Aquino has also attempted to alleviate the country’s persistent ethnic problems through peaceful negotiation and accommodation. In 2013 an agreement was reached with Muslim separatist forces that is expected to bring peace after decades of warfare. Because of social reform, the communist insurgency has virtually disappeared. For his efforts, TIME magazine named Aquino one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2013.
The Aquino administration has also seen a booming economy, one of fasting growing in the world. Goldman Sachs investment group labeled the Philippines as one of the Next Eleven. The Next Eleven are countries that have a high potential of becoming the world's largest economies in the 21st century. The criteria that Goldman Sachs used were macroeconomic stability, political maturity, openness of trade and investment policies, and the quality of education. The countries include Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, South Korea and Vietnam. Note that Vietnam and Indonesia are also included in the list.
Due to these many social reforms and a bright future, it seems that the Philippines is certainly in a better place than it has ever been, at least as far as the general populace is concerned.
Most of Southeast Asia’s long-term dictators fell from power in the late 1980s. Indonesia’s Suharto was the one exception. However, every dictatorial pulse eventually comes to an end. And normally it seems to have to do with some type of crisis. Marcos arranged the assassination of his political rival and Ne Win ‘demonetized’ Burma’s currency. While these were poor personal decisions, the East Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s took Suharto down.
In 1997 and 1998, the inevitable convolutions of the unregulated global ‘free market’ economy led to a severe devaluation of the rupiah, Indonesia’s currency. Suharto’s questionable economic policies, which of course favored his family and cronies, came under scrutiny by international lending institutions, primarily the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States. They uncovered widespread embezzlement accompanied by protectionist policies. The infusion of large amounts of international assistance had hidden government corruption for decades.
Instead of requiring the abatement of these corrupt practices, the IMF demanded austerity measures. In order to receive more international candy/IMF loans, Suharto cut public services and subsidies. The prices for kerosene, rice, and education rose dramatically. Compounding the unrest, the country experienced a severe drought accompanied by some of the largest forest fires in history. Indonesians must have felt that the national spirits had abandoned Suharto. As such, they lost confidence in Suharto’s ability to lead.
Outraged by the exposed corruption and the austerity measures, the citizens of Indonesia began protesting. Despite these protests, the parliament rubber-stamped a new term for Suharto. This insensitive move sparked increased protests and riots throughout the country. Perceiving the country sinking into social chaos, even his army cronies abandoned the aging Suharto. With the spirits pointing in a new direction, Suharto finally relinquished power in 1998, after being in charge of Indonesia for over 30 years.
His deputy, Jusuf Habibie, replaced him as president. To stabilize the country, he released political prisoners and lifted controls on freedom of speech and association. He also approved multi-party elections for 1999, the first in a half-century.
The party led by Sukarno's daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, won the most votes in the 1999 election, while Suharto’s party, previously the only legal party, came in second. However, the Assembly, which consists of 500 elected members plus 200 appointees, instead elected Wahid president and Megawati vice president for a 5-year term.
Wahid’s government continued to pursue democratic reforms. Encouraged by this new openness, the Parliament increasingly challenged presidential priorities and policies. However, Wahid was an old school party man. East Timor’s bid for independence in 2000 was met with a ferocious military onslaught that was comparable in impact to Suharto’s devastation of the late 1970s. Further, corruption persisted unabated and the economic malaise continued to be hard on the poorer elements of Indonesian society.
Early in 2001 after discovering that Wahid was involved in many corruption scandals, thousands of student protestors stormed the parliament and demanded his resignation. Megawati Sukarnoputri finished the term. Although popular, Sukarno’s daughter was not an insider and had a hard time bucking the political establishment that had been in place for decades. Plus, her inexperience made it difficult for her to deal with regional, interethnic, and inter-religious conflicts that regularly plagued the Indonesian political scene. More importantly, she seemed to view herself primarily as symbol of national unity and rarely involved herself in the politics of running a nation. As such, her term in office was viewed by most as ineffectual.
However, the increasing democratization of the country led to both the secession of East Timor and direct elections for the president in 2004. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won both this election and the following election in 2009. Let us examine his life in more detail.
Born in 1949 into a military family, Yudhoyono craved a career in the military from an early age. He was a multi-faceted individual: a brilliant student, athlete, and a musician. He also had a knack for languages. After joining the military, he was sent to train in the United States, partly due to his proficiency in English. Upon his return, he commanded military forces in East Timor in the late 1970s during the massacre. He was charged with war crimes, but never convicted.
Due to his intelligence and his alignment with the military regime, he gradually rose in the political establishment, eventually becoming a leader in Suharto’s political party. He was even Indonesia’s chief military observer in the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia in 1995-96. As the economy and Suharto’s control on power began unraveling, he entered into negotiations with other pro-reform leaders, including officers in the military establishment and a secular Muslim leader. Although unwillingly to make a public call for Suharto’s resignation, Yudhoyono allowed the rotting leadership to fall under the weight of its own corruption.
As an influential member of the fallen regime, Yudhoyono was given a place in Wahid’s new government. His popularity and influence grew as he offered ideas for social and military reform combined with security and stability. Because of his careful planning and his extensive education including a doctorate in agricultural economics, he became known as ‘the thinking general’.
One of Yudhoyono’s prime agendas was to separate the military from politics. He felt that the role of the army was to protect, not govern. For Yudhoyono, military reform primarily consisted of the gradual elimination of the political function of the army. In support of this ideological position, he resigned from the military in 2000.
When Wahid came under fire due to corruption charges, he asked Yudhoyono, as Minister of Security, to declare a state of emergency with the purpose of declaring martial law. After Yudhoyono refused to follow this desperate course of action, he was dismissed. After Wahid was impeached, Megawati reappointed Yudhoyono to his prior position.
In charge of national security, Yudhoyono oversaw the hunt for and arrest of those responsible for the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali. In the years to come, Islamic radicals subjected Indonesia to more bombings – Jakarta in 2003, 2004, and 2009. In each case, Yudhoyono took strict measures to bring the terrorists to justice. Separatist groups in Aceh also attempted to secede from Indonesia. He established martial law to prevent the revolt. Because he dealt with these social disturbances effectively and even-handedly, Yudhoyono gained a reputation as a leader who was going to maintain social stability. As a social and military reformer who was also able to preserve the peace, his popularity broadened across all spectrums of society.
In anticipation of the open presidential election of 2004, Yudhoyono formed his own political party to distance himself from both Suharto’s discredited political party and Megawati Sukarno’s party, which he claims had excluded him from the decision-making process. To indicate its dual nature, he registered the party as the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.
To assist the populace in understanding his political agenda, Yudhoyono wrote a book titled "Vision For Change", which was distributed free of charge during the campaign. His manifesto for the future of Indonesia was built upon 4 pillars: prosperity, peace, justice and democracy. The prosperity was to extend to all social classes, including small and medium sized enterprises. To achieve economic growth, his intent was to improve credit lines, cut red tape, improve labor laws, and root out corruption from the top down. He was quoted as saying:
“If we are to reduce poverty, create jobs, increase purchasing power and rebuild infrastructure, then we will need new capital. Of course, to be able to invite investment, I have to improve the climate – legal certainties, political stability, law and order, sound tax policies, customs policies, good labor management. I will improve the guarantees to encourage investors to come to Indonesia.”
Presumably due to his integrity, his vision for the future of Indonesia, and his proven effectiveness, Yudhoyono was elected president claiming over 60% of the vote in the country’s first direct multi-party election. As he had promised, his cabinet included members from each political party as well as 4 women.
Shortly after he was elected, a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami devastated the northern part of the Sumatra, especially Aceh. A Muslim separatist movement had been operating there for decades. Due to their need for assistance, the leaders entered into negotiations with the government. Rather than offering independence, Yudhoyono offered greater political autonomy in the midst of the greater Indonesian state. He also offered amnesty as long as the rebels turned in their weaponry. Due to his accommodating stance, international agreements were eventually signed that ended this long-term conflict.
Yudhoyono made good on his campaign promises. His administration increased funding for education, took steps to provide health care for the poor, reformed the police, and improved the business climate for small enterprises. He even made an attempt to eliminate poverty by setting aside government funds for the purpose of providing cash assistance, healthcare, and education for the poor. The amount increased from 11 trillion rupiah in 2004 to 51 trillion in 2007.
His administration also ensured price stability for rice, the Indonesian staple and restored the country to agricultural self-sufficiency for the first time in two decades. As an indication of his long-term commitment to the poor, his doctoral thesis was entitled “The Rural and Agricultural Development as an Effort to Alleviate Poverty and Unemployment: a political economic analysis of fiscal policy”.
To combat bribery, he provided civil servants with a healthy pay raise. He also established a commission to crackdown on corruption. To indicate its integrity, the commission even prosecuted one of Yudhoyono’s relatives. Further due to Yudhoyono’s initiative, the eight nations that contain 80% of the world’s rain forests met in Jakarta to join ranks to deal more effectively with the threats of global warming.
Yudhoyono became increasingly popular due to his negotiated end to the long-running Aceh conflict, and his attempt to alleviate poverty and address corruption. His administration was also able to avoid the worst of the global financial crisis of 2008. Because of these accomplishments combined with relative economic prosperity, Yudhoyono was easily elected to a second term in 2009.
Due to these efforts and more, TIME magazine named him one of World’s Most Influential People in 2009. Then in 2014, just as his 2nd and final term was almost at an end, he was awarded Singapore's highest honor for a foreign leader:
“… in recognition of his valuable contributions to regional cooperation and stability, as well as the substantial and vital friendship [between neighbors]. … During his 10 years in office, President Yudhoyono consolidated Indonesian democracy, restored political stability, and fostered steady economic growth.”
Why was Yudhoyono so effective at transforming Indonesia from a military dictatorship with multiple inter-regional armed conflicts into a legitimate democracy that was relatively peaceful internally? Simply speaking, he was a military insider. He was with Suharto’s regime from the beginning. He was a commanding officer in the East Timor slaughter. He received state-of-the-art training in multiple anti-communist and anti-terrorist classes taught in the US and Europe. He rose quickly in the hierarchy presumably due to talent and implicit cooperation with the administration’s corruption. During the period of the military dictatorship, he must have developed some intimate and long-term relationships with members of the business community as well as the conservative Muslim leaders. To become a leader, he must have developed a similar mindset to the rest.
But then the Wheel turned. Suharto’s regime fell and the Reform Era began. However, the only way that the Reform Era could begin was via the cooperation of the military. Recall that both Myanmar’s military government and Cambodia’s Hun Sen refused to relinquish power after legitimate elections showed that they had lost. To prevent further democratic losses, both administrations then restricted freedom of speech and rigged future elections through force and downright fraud.
In contrast, the Indonesian Army following Yudhoyono’s lead actually led the way to social, military and democratic reform. As a long-time insider, Yudhoyono’s credentials were impeccable with the conservative and established business, military and Islamic leaders. These credentials made him equally suspicious to those who wanted to transform Indonesia into a modern democracy. Yet, Yudhoyono, the ‘thinking general’, played his cards cautiously, careful not to push his luck.
To indicate his commitment to the reform of all aspects of Indonesian society, he regularly proposed and supported plans that were dedicated to the common good, rather than the elite class. Just as important, he consistently acted with complete integrity in all his doings. He was never charged with the types of corruption that afflict most military regimes. In fact, he worked hard to counter corruption.
Because his credentials as a military insider were so good with the Establishment, he was able to push through reforms that could have easily been blocked had an outsider initiated them. Conservative elements regularly block social reform in all societies, including the US. However, he was on good terms with these same conservative elements. He was one of them.
Luckily for the people, Yudhoyono had a good heart. He felt compassion for his fellow humans and wanted to relieve their suffering. Although only a decade, his rule completely transformed Indonesia. Prior administrations had ignored the plight of the poor and the needs of the populace. In contrast, his administration made an honest attempt to eliminate poverty and provide social services for all classes of society.
Whoa! A truly elevated individual. We must put Yudhoyono in the category of the classic Southeast Asian devaraja or Bodhisattva king. It seems that he was truly devoted to creating a political and social environment that was conducive for realizing one’s full potentials and earning merit. Finally the government was acting as a friend rather than an enemy to the poorer and more desperate elements of society. Hats off and a low bow to this amazing man.
We’ve examined nearly every country in Southeast Asia from the vantage point of the new millennium. There is only one to go. What happened to East Timor?
Recall that the Portuguese had ruled East Timor for over 4 centuries, while the Dutch had ruled the rest of the Indonesian archipelago for over 3 centuries. Because East Timor had developed different traditions during the long colonial period, they preferred self-rule to incorporation into the larger Indonesian nation. Unfortunately, the Indonesian government preferred to include East Timor in their island empire. Although both spoke languages in the Austronesian language family, they had one fundamental and essentially irreconcilable difference. The East Timorese were predominantly Catholic, while the majority of Indonesians were Muslim.
After the Dutch reluctantly withdrew troops from their Southeast Asian colonial possession in the early 1960s, Indonesia under Sukarno moved in to establish control over the thousand islands. Still a Portuguese colony, East Timor was gratefully ignored in this assimilation process. In the early 1970s, Portugal experienced a popular revolution in which the people seized control of the country from the monarchy. After assuming power, they ‘freed’ or ‘abandoned’, depending upon perspective, most of the Portuguese colonies.
After ‘liberation’ from colonial rule in 1974, three different East Timorese factions vied for power. The majority faction desired self-rule, while the minority faction favored assimilation with Indonesia. The other faction wanted to stay connected with Portugal. Almost immediately, the 3 parties came into armed conflict.
In support of the minority faction, perhaps 3% of the population, Indonesia under Suharto’s rule invaded. To suppress the East Timorese resistance movement, they brutally slaughtered from 10% to 30% of the population. The US government/Cartel supplied Indonesia with most of their weaponry, including bombs and aircraft, to achieve their diabolical ends. In fact, they doubled military assistance to Indonesia immediately after the invasion. In recently declassified documents, it was also found that the Ford administration represented by US, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, actually gave a ‘green light’ to the invasion.
From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the official US policy was to accept Indonesia’s de facto rule of East Timor even though no international documents had been signed granting them possession. Occasional massacres, programs of forced sterilization, and attempts at cultural annihilation characterized the years of occupation. In general, the international community ignored these human rights violations because Indonesia and its ally the Cartel-controlled US were too powerful and aggressive to challenge.
Then in November of 1991, foreign journalists filmed what was deemed the Santa Cruz Massacre. Armed with American-made M-16 rifles, Indonesian troops gunned down more than 270 Timorese civilians. This outrageous act of aggression sparked a global outcry and focused attention upon the plight of East Timor.
However, it was evident that the East Timorese resistance movement was helpless against Indonesia’s superior firepower. It was equally obvious that international pressure upon Indonesia would have no effect, as long as the US implicitly supported the genocide by supplying them with 90% of their armaments. Even the United Nations could do nothing as they were dominated by the Cartel’s political branch, the US. Recall that the UN initially expressed outrage at Indonesia’s original invasion of East Timor in 1975, but then quickly fell silent due to US pressure combined with the realization that the US was the sole sponsor Indonesia’s military dictatorship. In fact, Indonesia was nothing without US military assistance. However, because the powerful international business community supported the alliance, it was futile to challenge the arrangement.
The only way to have a chance at relieving East Timor’s plight was by altering the head of the beast – the US government. After the highly visible Santa Cruz Massacre, 52 Senators wrote to President Bush asking the US to reverse its official policy “with an eye toward a political solution that might end the needless suffering in East Timor and bring about true self-determination for the territory.” This was the first of many bipartisan letters from both houses of Congress asking the US to support East Timor’s right for self-determination.
In the years following the Santa Cruz massacre, an increasing amount of legislation was passed to limit the power of the executive branch in this regard. After Indonesian officials justified the massacre as standard policy, Congress began the process of cutting off military aid to Indonesia. Of course, the Bush administration, the Pentagon, and certain American corporations opposed the cutoff of military funds, claiming that Indonesia was a key ally in our fight against communism. When that old excuse was dismissed as inappropriate to East Timor, the entrenched powers simply circumvented the intent of the law by exploiting loopholes.
After Clinton replaced Bush as US president in 1993, the political climate regarding East Timor changed dramatically. In his campaign, Clinton repeatedly claimed that the U.S. approach to East Timor had been "unconscionable." When in office, he rejected the notion that pressuring Indonesia regarding East Timor would be bad for US business interests, saying that they were unconnected. Further in every meeting with Indonesian officials and Suharto, Clinton repeatedly challenged their human rights record in East Timor. This attitude was entirely opposite from prior administrations, which had supported and condoned Indonesia’s genocidal policies.
After Congress began suspending military aid to Indonesia, the Pentagon began acting unilaterally to supply Indonesia with armaments and training even without official approval. (Note: the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) that were trained in the US have been implicated in some of worst atrocities against both East Timorese and Indonesian civilians.) The rest of the 90s was consumed with legislation restricting military assistance to Indonesia and closing the many loopholes that were employed to resist complying with the letter of the law.
The Clinton administration began tying military assistance to a country’s human rights record. One amendment specifically targeted Indonesia’s human rights record in East Timor. Under congressional pressure, the State Department in 1993 even blocked a transfer of US F-5 fighter planes to Indonesia, citing their human rights record. After years of unrestricted military assistance, this was a shock to the Indonesian military dictatorship, as it was a sign that the political situation was changing.
Justifying their anxiety, Congress banned all sales of small and light arms to Indonesia in 1994. Further they restricted the use of any type of weaponry solely for self-defense, not military aggression. In 1995, even more limitations were placed on Indonesia, until its human rights record in East Timor improved.
These legislative acts set an important precedent in the US as well as Indonesia. It was one of the first times that the American Congress had effectively placed human rights above the unrestricted sale and transfer of armaments. A definite slap in the face to the military-industrial complex. The proactive and independent Congress of the 1990s stood in stark contrast to the rubber stamp Congress of the 1960s and 70s.
In 1998, Congress passed laws demanding transparency from the Pentagon. In other words, they wanted to know who was being trained, which groups were being supplied with military assistance, and what their human rights record was. "The executive branch must understand that when Congress says to halt military assistance to murderers, torturers, and thugs, we mean what we say," said one Senator. Then finally in 1999, Congress wrote legislation banning military assistance and training to countries that were engaged in blatant human rights transgressions. These laws were passed in direct response to Indonesia’s violations.
Besides the attempt to reduce US supported atrocities, these legislative actions also recognized East Timor’s right to self-determination. In contrast, Indonesia continued to claim that East Timor was part of their island empire. From initially enthusiastically supporting the invasion, the US was at last attempting to reign in the excesses of the international business community and take a definitive stand for basic human rights. Hooray!
In May 1998, Habibie became Indonesia’s leader after a popular revolt forced Suharto to resign after being in power for over 3 decades. Suharto's ouster opened the door to a new attitude towards East Timor. Sensitive to the changing propensities of Indonesia’s relationship with the US, Habibie began responding to pressure from the Clinton administration.
The year 1999 was a roller coaster for East Timor, encompassing the best and worst of times. It started well. In January 1999 due to increasing US pressure, Habibie agreed to an East Timorese referendum regarding their political future, i.e. whether they would remain part of Indonesia or become an independent nation. This potential loss of Indonesian territory angered Habibie’s allies and contributed to his falling from favor.
In May, Indonesia signed an international agreement that established August 30 as the date of the East Timorese plebiscite, the ‘popular consultation’. To prevent fraud, a UN team would be allowed on the island to both conduct and observe the referendum. As an indication of the change in attitude, the US administration, instead of supplying military aid, contributed $10 million to the election.
However, the old guard, who was still in charge of Indonesia despite Suharto’s departure, was not letting go of East Timor willingly. Immediately after Habibie’s decision, the military government began attempting to sabotage East Timor’s referendum process. The Indonesian police, who were still in charge of East Timor until the election, joined with paramilitary groups and the Indonesian military to institute a reign of terror. In violation of the subsequent UN agreement, the militia and military regularly threatened the East Timorese with internal destruction and death akin to the atrocities and annihilation of 1975 should they vote for independence. Despite repeated calls from the UN for a cessation of the paramilitary mayhem, the violence continued unabated.
Under this intense anxiety-provoking climate, an overwhelming number of East Timorese went to the polls on August 30. On September 4, the UN announced that 78% of the populace had voted for complete independence despite months of terror and threats. Even during the five days it took for the UN to count the ballots, the violence escalated. In response, thousands of civilians fled to the hills and mountains.
After the results were announced, the carnage accelerated. In retaliation for withdrawal, the Indonesian military fulfilled their barbaric and savage threats. Buildings were systematically dismantled; 70% of the country's infrastructure was destroyed; upwards of 100,000 East Timorese were forcibly relocated to other parts of Indonesia; hundreds of women and girls were raped; and as many as 2,000 of their political and religious leaders were simply executed. This systematic annihilation of East Timorese culture took less than 3 weeks.
In response to the brutality, Clinton suspended military ties with Indonesia on September 9, a little over a week after the results were in. This included the suspension of all international funding and loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Due this immediate and coordinated international reaction on September 15, Indonesia agreed to withdraw in connection with the deployment of an Australian-led peace keeping force. On September 20, the Australian troops began to arrive and the Indonesia finally began removing its troops after their brutal occupation of East Timor for over 20 years. September 1999 was a month to remember for the East Timorese. A vote, cultural annihilation, and independence. Whoa! What an intense journey.
After these turbulent beginnings, the sailing has been relatively smooth for East Timor. On October 20, Indonesia renounced all claims to East Timor. The UN took over administration until the country was back on its feet. The US along with the international community has supplied the government with millions of dollars in economic assistance to rebuild the tattered country.
In August 2001, the East Timorese had their first democratic, multiparty election. Those elected wrote the country’s first constitution. Then in April 2002, East Timor held its first-ever presidential election. Against all odds on May 20, 2002, East Timor finally became an independent country. With independence, the UN began to withdraw.
As to be expected with a country that was depopulated and its infrastructure destroyed, the new nation faces major challenges. However, at least they are free at last to begin the rebuilding process without the threat of external subjugation and destruction. Hooray! Hoorah!