Subject: Asiaweek: Does East Timor still haunt Indonesia?

Asiaweek June 2, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Degrees of Separation Does East Timor still haunt Indonesia?

By Jose Manuel Tesoro

How do nations deal with defeat? Whether with acceptance, denial, anger or introspection, communities seem to act most like individuals when faced with failure. For Indonesia, the decision in the early hours of the morning Oct. 20, 1999, to revoke the formal integration of East Timor -- some two months after 78.5% of the territory's population chose independence -- opened a new chapter of the country's history as much as it closed one. One sign was the words the newly elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, spoke at his inauguration that very evening: "We have to defend the integrity of our territory when other countries take light of our feelings and our honor. We cannot accept other countries and nations passing judgement on us."

The chill that has settled in relations between Australia and Indonesia was the most obvious domestic reaction to the international pressure and criticism brought to bear on Jakarta (and that may or may not thaw with Wahid's planned visit to Australia in July). But the trauma of losing East Timor in such a sudden, violent and even embarrassing fashion has had a more subtle impact on Indonesia and its relations with the outside world. It put "national unity" at the top of the country's agenda, in both domestic politics and foreign policy. Internationally, Indonesia wants assurance that what the world wanted to happen in East Timor would not be repeated for anywhere else in its vast territory. In his first few months of globe-trotting, Wahid brought back promises from foreign countries to respect Indonesia's territorial integrity.

In the early months of Wahid's administration, there was a lot of brave talk about forging an Asian solidarity between China, India and Indonesia (with Singapore and Japan playing supporting roles for finance and technology). Yet in the wake of the nationalist and anti-West sentiments vividly unleashed in the East Timor crisis, the countries involved probably had reason to question the real intentions: Does Indonesia sincerely seek to turn Eastward or wish just to be able to turn its back to the West? Given the country's dependence on aid and investment from developed countries, such a solidarity seems a far away possibility.

In a recent press conference, Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab noted three priorities in Indonesia foreign policy. The protection of national integrity was the most important, followed by economic recovery and the restoration of Indonesia's image and stature. Thus, what looks like engagement with the outside world is still largely about domestic concerns. And ones that are unlikely to vanish until Indonesia regains a sense of internal security. Like America's defeat in Vietnam, Indonesia's loss in East Timor has resulted in both delusion and introspection. And just like the U.S., it will take many years, if ever, for Indonesia to come to terms with its experience.

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