Resolving the Controversy Over Timor Leste

When I read the article entitled “Whatever happened in Krakas, Timor Leste, ‘Pak’ Prabowo?” by Aboeprijadi Santoso (The Jakarta Post, Dec. 20, 2013) I wish it could have provided us with compelling arguments and empirical findings that could resolve the controversy over the incident.

However, after thoroughly examining both arguments and referring to a number of comparative references and historical findings, I conclude that although the article has successfully raised awareness of the issue, the writer fails to establish or empirically prove his hypothesis regarding the connection and causal relationship between Lt. Gen. (ret.) Prabowo Subianto, whose response was published by the Post on Dec. 27, and the alleged events.

In addition, there are more caveats the writer needs to address should his argument about Prabowo’s involvement merit serious consideration.

First, the writer’s assertion of “no doubt” means the writer is sure. His certainty is however based on something that according to his terminology is “covert”, which means something undisclosed.

So, how can he base his certainty on something undisclosed? Philosophically, his certainty is merely based on his prejudiced opinion and wishful thinking, not on empirical findings.

Second, the unknown whereabouts of Prabowo does not mean he was at the location that later triggered the clash and massacre.

There were thousands of Indonesian military (TNI) officers, especially Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus), deployed to East Timor (as it was then known) between 1976 and 1999. So why is Prabowo the most talked about? Clearly this focus on Prabowo is politically motivated and not based on facts or eyewitness testimony.

Third, there is no empirical connection between the number 08 and the unit’s symbol. Does the writer know what the unit’s official symbol was? This is like many other conspiracy theories where hypotheses are not established on the basis of proper theoretical framework, comparative references or empirical findings.


Prabowo as an individual at the operational level cannot be held responsible for the state’s political decision.
Fourth, if we do the investigation in the field through survey and statistical tests there are many factors leading villagers to remember Prabowo’s name: Son-in-law of
former president Soeharto; Prabowo’s name was spread throughout East Timor as rumor by Soeharto’s opponents or people who envied Prabowo’s status as an Indonesian Army officer etc. Where are all the eyewitnesses if people are so sure he was there?

This is the catastrophic failure of the argument. My point is, if villagers remember Prabowo’s name, it does not mean that it was due to Prabowo’s alleged involvement in the massacre. After this vague allegation, Prabowo was also warmly welcomed to the United States and many other western countries for military training etc (1983–1998).

If Prabowo was implicated in these tragic events, he could not take any part in military training with western countries especially in the US.

Fifth, in the past, when East Timor was still part of Indonesia, the fighters were theoretically called insurgents/insurrectionist. When they succeeded in achieving their political goal (separation from the state), surely the narrative anywhere on the earth would change and they would be called “freedom of fighters”.

Sixth, Aboeprijadi also failed to acknowledge Carl Von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is dominated by the fog of war and uncertainty.

Much more importantly, he failed to realize the very basis of western military thought that Indonesia has also adopted since its independence: War is the continuation of politics by other means.

In other words, according to Clausewitz’s remarkable Trinitarian dictum war is determined by the state’s political policies drawn from the highest chain of command (president and politicians); armed forces that are directly involved in the operational level; and the people as the source of the nation’s passion to ensure East Timor’s integrity and prosperity, as seen from that point of time.

Therefore, like any other Indonesian officials (military and non military) and citizens, Prabowo was standing on a different side to Xanana Gusmao during that period of time (1976–1999). However, as statesmen and civilized political actors, Xanana, Prabowo and many other statesmen from Indonesia and Timor Leste know how to position themselves and treat each other as the official representatives of sovereign countries from 1999 onward.

War is bad, and everyone knows that. The military is well trained to prevent war (i.e. through diplomacy of force, operations of winning hearts and minds, etc) as much as they are well trained to be involved in armed conflict once the state’s political leaders order them to do so.

Like any other military officer, Prabowo as an individual at the operational level cannot be held responsible for the state’s political decision, or its consequences, to engage in East Timor in counterinsurgency operations. Anywhere on earth the life of civilians in any counterinsurgency operations are always in serious peril.

As we all know, any war will have intended as well as unintended consequences. It is what we call in the military the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). The same applies to a young US Army captain deployed in Iraq who cannot be held responsible for what happened in Iraq since the war in Iraq was the political decision of both congress and the president.

As a concluding thought, there is no controversy. The controversy is only created by people/political parties who want to create a story and make it into a controversy through what is called social engineering.

In order to end the controversy, there are a couple of things to bear in mind: official statements from the government of Timor Leste; the official statements from the government of Indonesia as well as the TNI; the United Nations report; and comparative empirical findings from different sources. That said, up to this point Prabowo has already pinpointed his response.

We hope through their love of the nation, Aboeprijadi’s expertise in journalism and Prabowo’s patriotism can be combined as the winning ingredient to lead Indonesia to greatness.


The writer is international  fellow from Indonesia in the War College Program at the US National Defense University and a  Ph D Fulbright presidential scholar in Washington DC.

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