From the December 2000 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 47, No. 12)


Loose Grip

Debora Kuan, World Press Review assistant editor

Intense international pressure on Indonesia’s President Abdurrahman Wahid to take control of his conflict-ridden country has long been met with indignation and obfuscation. But recent reports indicate that Wahid’s government is finally taking measures, albeit weak ones,  against militiamen in West Timor responsible for the deaths of three United Nations relief workers. A month of violence—from the Sept. 9 murders of the U.N. relief workers to mid-September’s Jakarta stock-exchange bombing, which killed 15 people—has earned it the name “Black September.” But the Indonesian government has been dragging its feet in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Apparently, Abdurrahman’s regime is resentful of the international community’s interference and lack of trust in its ability to govern.

Is the call for action finally being heard? Hard to say. In an Oct. 2 report in the independent Jakarta Post, the attorney general’s office named pro-integration militia leader Eurico Guterres “a suspect in its investigation into human-rights abuses in East Timor” in August 1999. Two militia members and a lieutenant colonel in the army also were named in the summons, the report said.

Guterres was the shady figure described by Michael Maher in a Sept. 19 editorial in Sydney’s centrist newsmagazine The Bulletin as a man whose “currency” is “terror,” and whose “wanton sprees of unadulterated thuggery bear all the hallmarks of the notorious (and late) Arkan, who led death squads on rampages through Bosnia during the conflict in the Balkans.” But until recently, not only was Guterres not punished: He was rewarded—specifically, he was appointed to the leadership of Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s youth wing, the Banten Pemuda. Maher wrote, “If Wahid continues to vacillate, he may well find that international human-rights tribunals are forced to do the job for him.”

Wahid did, however, respond to widespread criticism and began to make changes to his army in early October when he dumped army chief General Tyasno Sudarto, “who has paid the price for the army’s failure to resolve the sectarian conflict...and to rein in the militia in West Timor,” said an Oct. 10 editorial in the online version of Sydney’s centrist newspaper The Australian.

But while this and other changes were made in the Indonesian armed forces, the editorial called them a “staged reshuffle” and remained pessimistic on the armed forces’ ability to overcome a variety of security threats. “It is doubtful...that the changes to the top of the armed forces will make much difference to the security situation....Some analysts warn the deeper problems stem from a defense budget that is too small to meet the security challenges and the lack of resources for units in the field,” the editorial said.

Asian neighbor China supported Indonesian efforts to right the situation in West Timor, saying that it “is equally concerned about the political stability in Indonesia and does not want to see any turbulence stemming from a Security Council move,” stated a Sept. 14 report from the government-owned Xinhua news service in Beijing.

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