For more than two decades, the brutal military occupation of East Timor, a distant, impoverished territory, brought Indonesia little but disdain and dishonor on the world stage.
The ending, a bloody rampage by Indonesian-backed militias after a vote for independence in 1999, further curdled the nation's reputation and left a bitter mood at home -- where the loss of East Timor was treated as a subject best left untouched.
The seemingly closed chapter was reopened this month with a new book by Ali Alatas, the nation's former longtime foreign minister and ambassador to the UN. It is the first account by an Indonesian insider who tried to steer some of the sorry events -- which at critical moments involved the US, the UN and, at all times, the heavy hand of the Indonesian army.
Alatas, always amicable, always accessible, was respected in New York as a quintessential diplomat handed the tricky task of representing his country during the rule of the secretive and authoritarian leader president Suharto.
In The Pebble in the Shoe: The Diplomatic Struggle for East Timor, Alatas traces events from the Indonesian invasion in 1975 to the army's exit in September 1999, and the transfer of control to a UN peacekeeping force.
For the most part, he sticks to the narrow diplomatic history, rarely veering into what the army was doing on the ground, and mostly hinting rather than asserting that the army's actions made the diplomatic track so tortuous.
"I decided I would try to open up a debate and leave it to the reader to draw his conclusions," Alatas said in an interview.
The debate came immediately. A ceremony to celebrate the book's publication -- fashioned as a public seminar in the stately courtyard of the National Archives and attended by former army generals, Indonesian officials and foreign diplomats -- turned into an initial round of soul-searching, even catharsis.
Dino Patti Djalal, who served under Alatas and is now President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's most senior foreign policy adviser, told the audience that Indonesia had many stark lessons to learn from East Timor, describing the period leading up to the UN-administered referendum of Aug. 30, 1999, when the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence.
Djalal said he had been sent by Alatas to visit the East Timorese leader, Xanana Gusmao, when he was still being held in a Jakarta prison.
Djalal had passed along a warning from Gusmao that the militias backed by the Indonesian army would create mayhem after the vote, but Indonesia did nothing to prevent it, he said.
"He said, `Dino, this thing about the militias is going to be a cancer,'" Djalal said.
"We never had the heart or the will to rein in the militia," he said, and added, "We paid very dearly."
The UN estimates that about 1,000 people died in the violence that analysts have said was turned on and off like a spigot by the military.
In his book, Alatas says that the looting, burning and killing after the voting was so bad that a delegation of Indonesian officials, including Alatas, was unable to leave the airport when the group flew to East Timor for a first-hand look.
He goes on to say, "I began to have serious doubts whether, even under martial law," the Indonesian troops "could control the situation, not because of technical incapability but because of wavering and indecisiveness to act strongly against the militias."