Blog: How quickly we forget: Wiranto and human rights

By Gerry van Klinken

President Jokowi is popular enough to do without military support. Yet New Order-era soldiers have always been close by his side. Now he has gone one further. Who is Wiranto?

In a cabinet reshuffle on 27 July he appointed retired General Wiranto as Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law, and Security Affairs. This powerful security ministry oversees many other ministries and state organs, including the Attorney General. Human rights organisations in and outside Indonesia immediately condemned the appointment. But many others may have forgotten. (Wiranto himself seems to have forgotten. At the handover ceremony he asked journalists to point out his alleged wrongdoings. ‘I want them to clearly point out when and where exactly my involvement was. Only then will I explain, one by one,’ he said.)

In 1999 Indonesia offered East Timor an independence referendum. Its armed forces had invaded in 1975, but the brutal occupation that followed failed to win hearts and minds. When President Suharto resigned amid chaos in 1998, the East Timorese loudly demanded their freedom. As commander of the armed forces, and defence minister, General Wiranto was part of the cabinet that decided in January to give them a choice – stay, or leave Indonesia. Insiders later said most ministers believed they could win it. The United Nations prepared and supervised the referendum. Wiranto was in charge of security.

The referendum was set for eight months later – 30 August. Military officers on the ground in East Timor spent much time organising clandestinely to ensure a win. Locally recruited militias were key to the strategy. These men intimidated and murdered members of the East Timorese nationalist movement with impunity throughout 1999. By June, intelligence officers began to worry the vote might be lost. Militia violence increased. On the day, 78% of Timorese voted to leave. A frenzy of militia brutality followed. Most foreign observers evacuated. Before international troops arrived to take over, an estimated 1,400 civilians died. About 200,000 people were moved across the border into Indonesian-controlled West Timor. More fled to the mountains, while militias and soldiers burned whole towns and villages and killed livestock.

Wiranto afterwards hinted he could not fully control the guys on the ground. But a detailed reconstruction of his movements in 1999, as well as those of his closest subordinates, makes clear he was fully informed and involved with the militia strategy. (Tanter et al, Masters of Terror, 2006). He seemed to act out two scripts at the same time in 1999. To worried foreign delegations he invariably spoke reassuringly:  ‘There is no trouble, the situation is peaceful.’ But before audiences of military and militia leaders he lent the weight of his authority to a strategy designed to retain East Timor at all costs. (I wrote a little piece about these two scripts here – ‘Law in a Lawless Place, 1999‘. He personally sent Major-General Zacky Anwar Makarim to be in Timor from June onwards to coordinate and fund the militias.

A UN-sponsored Special Panel for Serious Crimes of the Dili District Court in Timor-Leste indicted General Wiranto for crimes against humanity in 2003. An inquiry by the Indonesian Human Rights Commission earlier also concluded he was ultimately responsible. He was never charged in Indonesia, but President Abdurrahman Wahid sacked him from his cabinet anyway.

(Gerry van Klinken is senior researcher at the KITLV, and professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Amsterdam. He coordinates the multi-disciplinary research project Elite Network Shifts. This investigates historical regime changes in Indonesia by means of computational network analysis of electronic newspaper archives. He also takes part in the joint Dutch-Indonesian research project ‘From Clients to Citizens? Emerging Citizenship in Democratising Indonesia’.)

Photo: Wiranto just before President Abdurrahman fired him as defence minister –

1 Comment
  • Kamanto Sunarto
    Posted at 14:58h, 25 August Reply

    I have not forgotten, nor have many others who care about human rights.

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