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The East Timor referendum crisis and its impact on Indonesian politics

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The 1997 Asian economic crisis, the emergence of the popular reformasi movement, and the 1998 fall of President Suharto set in motion an uneasy process of political change in Indonesia that has been accompanied by violent challenges to the state’s territorial integrity and to the military’s role in society. The widespread perception in much of the Indonesian and international media is that the reformist camp has won. Suharto’s chosen successor, B. J. Habibie, first lost East Timor in the August 1999 referendum and then his own presidential position in the October 1999 elections. He was replaced by the well-known moderate Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), who within a year installed Indonesia’s first civilian defense minister and ended the military’s guaranteed seats in the House of Representatives, Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR). Democracy, it appeared, had finally gained a foothold, not least because of the pressure exerted by the outside world and the United Nations (UN) arising from the East Timor crisis. Yet in Indonesian politics things are rarely what they appear to be. The referendum in East Timor and the patterns of violence surrounding it reveal a number of different agendas that may have been obscured by Gus Dur’s reform policy but that remain far from resolved as evidenced by the striking similarity in the patterns of violence in the on-going conflict in Maluku. Thus, a closer analysis of the agendas pursued by the respective political and military players shows that the “democratic” victory may not necessarily translate into a defeat for the military or a more pluralist political culture. Indeed, it could be argued that the loss of East Timor was necessary to preserve the military’s role in society and that Gus Dur’s government, in that sense, is only the refashioning of a new consensus.

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