A chilling audience with Dr Strangelove of Jakarta

IT IS a very long drive up the palm-lined, four-lane avenue to the monolithic headquarters of the Indonesia military just outside Jakarta, and the tension in our car is rising. It is 9.30 in the morning and the five ambassadors from New York are finally to meet face to face the man who wields the real power in this country - and the power to stop the desperate suffering in East Timor. He is Chief General Wiranto.

Except that the meeting is not to be with the general alone. The United Nations delegation - and this lone reporter, nervously tagging along incognito - finds itself ushered into a third-floor conference room. General Wiranto has brought out all of his brass - 20 generals ranged around him. The intent to intimidate is obvious. We are severely outnumbered, our nametags are egregiously misspelt. Never mind the cups of cold, sweet tea and pastries.

The ensuing two hours turn almost comical - a script, perhaps, from a Sixties war comedy, with Mel Brooks as General Wiranto. But there is nothing funny here this week. The chance was given to the people of East Timor to find freedom, after 24 years of brutal oppression, with the self- determination referendum, organised by the UN, of 30 August. They voted overwhelmingly for independence. And now that chance is being sabotaged - sabotaged, most say, by this man's army.

General Wiranto, an imposing man with an unsettling ability to conceal all feelings, takes instant charge of the proceedings. His opening remarks are peppered with bland reassurances: the TNI, the Indonesia army, is committed to respecting the results of the ballot. With martial law now imposed, it is well on the way to restoring order in East Timor. The TNI does not need the help of outside peace-keeping forces. "Our commitment to handling the problem should not be doubted," he says.

Then comes a presentation by his "General for Information", complete with graphs. Do they think the UN Security Council ambassadors are stupid or blind? Some of the graphs are surreal in their dishonesty. One depicts the numbers of "attacks, burnings and destructions" in East Timor over 10 days since 30 August. The worst, allegedly, was on 2 September. On that day, the graph tells us, there were five attacks. And the number of burnings on 8 September? Just two.

The leader of the UN group is Martin Andjaba, a former Swapo freedom fighter from Namibia and now Namibia's UN ambassador. Finally, he takes the floor. He forsakes diplomacy. The Indonesian government and military, he begins, have stated repeatedly that they are doing enough now to protect the East Timorese. "We do not believe them. The violence has continued, the oppression, the destruction of property has continued unabated. The killing continues even as we sit here. In fact, the situation has worsened."

Mr Andjaba does not call Chief General Wiranto a liar, or not quite. But he does call him a failure - in front of his generals. "You are failing the international community, you are failing the the people of East Timor and you are failing Indonesia," he continues. "Perhaps it is a question of lack of political will on your side."

Therein resides the key question this week: why has the TNI allowed the carnage to happen, even abetted it? Does it intend to reduce East Timor to rubble before handing it over to the UN - as it is supposed to in November - as a warning to other areas of the country? Or does the TNI mean simply to dishonour the UN agreements and to keep hold of the province for ever?

General Wiranto is not going to answer that in this room. Instead, he launches into a second monologue. All will be well. Only the TNI understands the people of East Timor. Only the TNI can succeed in achieving reconciliation in the divided province. The TNI, what is more, will repair the physical damage so that it can "hand over East Timor in good condition". And how long will that take, you might wonder? Months? Or years?

He will allow foreign humanitarian workers into East Timor again, but the introduction of foreign peace-keepers is another issue, "because it is relevant to the dignity of the TNI". And he tries this: if a foreign force is brought in, bloodshed will follow because, he argues, it will encourage the pro- independence majority to begin attacking those opposed to independence.

At about this time General Wiranto's control of the meeting is punctured by the trill of a mobile phone on our side of the room. It is from the UN compound in Dili, the capital of East Timor. Efforts to evacuate non- essential UN staff to Darwin in Australia have been halted because the compound is under siege again by militia wielding guns and grenades and trying to force their way in. The general is challenged by Mr Andjaba. What is going on? Did you not promise to arrest, even shoot, those carrying arms under martial law?

General Wiranto, however, has his own phone and says he will get the "real information" from his "insubordinate commander" in East Timor. (I imagine I have misheard him, but he repeats "insubordinate" over and again.) "Such kinds of news and rumours have been heard by me many times," he insists, "but when I check the news I find that it is contrary to the facts." Sure enough, the "insubordinate" is confident. General Wiranto reports: "There is no trouble, the situation is peaceful."

Then our phone rings again - more news of trouble in Dili and the general, beginning to sound impatient, promises to check a second time. Oh, so there may be some trouble, yes. But it is only some veterans protesting, because of the proposed evacuation of locally hired UN staff. It is nothing serious. "You must believe me," he tells his guests.

So this is how it is. The UN might not be perfect. But this cameo of the absurd, with two telephones in a single room telling two different stories, captures exactly what the UN is up against. These events are happening now, and still General Wiranto denies that they are happening.

It is in the midst of this exchange that the general surpasses all with an invitation. Recently, he has supervised the laying out of a golf course on ground here that was to have accommodated a new police headquarters. Would the ambassadors come and play a round with him some time? And by the way, it is called the Cobra Course, because of all the snakes found on it. "Cobras," a UN delegate whispers in my ear. "How appropriate."

Timor crisis, pages 12 & 13

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