Subject: SCMP commentary: For Indonesia, Right or Wrong

South China Morning Post Sunday, August 27, 2000


For Indonesia, right or wrong

Photo: Burning up: a mock Australian flag in burned in Jakarta in June in protest at the Australian-led peace-keeping force in East Timor. Many Indonesians accuse the UN of interfering in Indonesia's internal affairs and endagering national unity. Associated Press photo


It is hard to find a mention of East Timor - the province that got away - in daily conversation or reporting in Jakarta. But it's not hard to find the reason why. Almost one year since the East Timorese voted for independence, Indonesian feelings remain bitter and sometimes twisted.

Many individual Indonesians will agree with foreign friends that East Timor has a right to be free, the human rights abusers should be punished and that East Timorese refugees must be able to freely choose a future.

But feelings of victimisation, anger and denial run strong. Many Indonesians were kept ignorant about their own nation's behaviour in East Timor for years, so they understandably feel wrongly attacked for something they had little to do with. Once attacked, the impulse is to unite on nationalist grounds.

Except for a daring minority, the Indonesian reaction to outside censure is a case of "my country, right or wrong". It would be hard to find a country in a war-like situation which did not react likewise - as a glance at London's tabloids during the Falklands War would show.

Coupled with patriotism are decades of propaganda, in which many Indonesians truly felt they were helping out the under-developed, backward outer provinces such as East Timor, only to have such generosity hurled back in their faces. "After all we did for them . . ." is a common refrain when East Timor's defiant vote is discussed.

One year on, a Sumatran man working in Irian Jaya spoke genuinely when asked how he felt as an Indonesian about the "loss" of East Timor: "We were all very upset." And some middle-class Indonesians also insist that Xanana Gusmao, the likely future president of East Timor, is actually "a terrorist".

Coupled with the propaganda is the state of national insecurity many feel these days. Violence continues in the Maluku, in Aceh, Irian Jaya, Kalimantan, and concerned helplessness is easily turned outward into blame on outsiders. "You have to admit," said one Indonesian friend, educated abroad and working in publishing, "that your countries - Australia, America - are all just trying to break Indonesia up, aren't they?"

The indignant attitudes one encounters is a shock at first, then a challenge. The standard international view of Indonesia's relationship with East Timor begins with Jakarta's invasion in 1975 and its misguided development efforts married to brutal repression for a quarter of a century. It is crowned by the still unpunished violence and petulant viciousness after last year's August 30 independence vote.

"Jakarta might now admit it has lost the province, but it is not being very gracious about it. They are being stubborn and bureaucratic," said a Western diplomat engaged in talks about East Timor with Jakarta's Department of Foreign Affairs. Another senior diplomat said: "None of the lessons of East Timor have been internalised at all among the Indonesians."

Recent events in United Nations-administered East Timor, and Indonesian West Timor, have reinforced that international frustration. Freshly uniformed, armed and well-trained bands of Jakarta-backed militias are once more operating inside East Timor. A New Zealand and a Nepalese peace-keeper have been killed in skirmishes with militias near the border, and security is tight ahead of the vote and vote-result anniversaries.

A constitutional amendment passed in Jakarta just over a week ago provides a cloak of immunity for any Indonesian - such as the 33 top officers named in Indonesia's own human rights inquiry - from prosecution for crimes committed in the past, such as war crimes. But naturally, the Jakarta sagas of domestic politics and tug-of-war between president and vice-president have monopolised the headlines.

Men such as the now-retired General Wiranto continue to feel wronged. "Everything is clear. There were victims, witnesses . . . so actually it is very easy to resolve," the general said after formal questioning on rights abuses in East Timor during his tenure as armed forces chief. "What makes it difficult is because . . . we treat the East Timor incident as if it were very big.

"What happened [to me] is due to a wrong perception and deviations in the East Timor case," he said, adding that violence "is not new" to East Timor and that he had actually been efficient in mediating and quelling the fighting. "The unrest was put to an end in five days. This was our achievement because we were able to avoid a civil war and managed to protect vital facilities."

Former Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono has rejected any need to "apologise for our mistakes", telling The Australian newspaper that Indonesia had been "too good" in agreeing to hold a ballot in East Timor in the first place.

And then there was the national news agency Antara, in a report last September picked up by local TV, claiming that international troops had attacked eight Indonesians and burned one to death. A pro-Indonesian source was quoted saying: "The white pigs did all these things to my men." Such reports were denied and perhaps forgotten, but they found a ready audience for a while.

To this day, perhaps increasingly, the United Nations is regarded as a fundamentally biased body, which sided with the East Timorese against Indonesia, thereby invalidating any role it thinks it now has in East Timor.

The most common question heard by UN staff is, "Why did the United Nations cheat?" A UN source believes current attacks on UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) staff in West Timor are because of the "UN" prefix to their name. "We're seen as hopelessly biased. People tell me it's we foreigners who are spoiling everything. It's horrible, horrible," the UN source said.

The fate of the few Indonesians supporting the Jakarta-based non-governmental organisation Solidamor, which backs East Timorese independence, has also been uneasy. In a mysterious attack on its offices, Solidamor leader Coki Naipospos was stabbed and hospitalised, three others were injured, and documents were stolen. To foreign rights groups the inference was clear - the Indonesian military was continuing its cycle of revenge.

War-mongering talk is common in the militia-controlled refugee camps in West Timor, and all international relief agencies tending the 100,000 East Timorese still stranded far from home have cancelled all programmes following brutal attacks on their staff.

The latest of 150 such attacks was on three staff from the UNHCR. One had his head held under water in a rice paddy until he choked. All three suffered severe injuries to the head and body and required hospital treatment. The UNHCR's local driver was held in a building by the suspected militia, threatened and kicked in the face for 20 minutes before he managed to escape with a broken nose.

Indonesia says the only solution is to close the camps, but it has so far been short on detail. Meanwhile, Indonesian authorities responsible for security in the camps have yet to make a single arrest, and now pro-Indonesian militia have set up roadblocks along the border inside Indonesian West Timor to further obstruct refugee and general transport commitments signed by Indonesia and the international community.

But it's not easy for the well-intentioned leadership of President Abdurrahman Wahid, and some of his compatriots. Mr Wahid has embraced independence leader Xanana Gusmao and apologised to the East Timorese - to howls of protest once he returned to Jakarta.

He does not control all of his armed forces, and a strong strand of public opinion prefers denial to the notion that Indonesia might bear some responsibility for the dire state of East Timor. Indonesia also conceded recently that it cannot fully control its border with East Timor. "We have been quite open about this problem . . . we cannot give 100 per cent control," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Sulaiman Abdulmanan.

The differing worlds in the mind are easily seen in local news coverage from West Timor, which is part of the Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT), where many residents are wondering how longer they must put up with the strains caused by the refugees when they are themselves are short of money.

According to a report in the NTT Ekspres newspaper on June 30: "The NTT governor stated that NTT province is the victim of international politics . . ." The occasion was when militia attacks on staff at last forced a UN suspension of refugee assistance.

On the same day, the Surya Timur newspaper reported from West Timor's capital Kupang: "The Governor of NTT confirmed that Indonesia is not begging for assistance from UNHCR. Indonesia is a country which has dignity.

"Since the result of the referendum, Indonesia has voluntarily provided humanitarian assistance and solved humanitarian problems . . . International organisations should be able to control their emotions. [The governor] questioned what kind of organisation would suspend a humanitarian mission due to a small tumble on the way."

Reporting in Jakarta is more balanced, but also focuses on the amount of money Indonesia is spending on helping the East Timorese refugees, who have inexplicably found themselves in such a mess. Reports in the respected Tempo news weekly note that efforts are under way to resume trade between the two countries, and Indonesia is giving 162 scholarships for East Timorese to continue studying in Indonesia.

"Oh yes, I think the Indonesians have learned a lot from East Timor," said one sardonic diplomat. "The Indonesian Defence Forces have learned that the militia tactic is indeed a strong one. The politicians have learned never to let a president make a decision like that again [former president Bacharuddin Habibie's referendum offer]. The public is rather sheepish and blame either Habibie or outsiders. And the foreign affairs department [Deplu] is still very recalcitrant. Every time Wahid wants to make a concession, it goes into negotiation at Deplu and gets knocked about.

"There's a concern in the diplomatic community that these people in Jakarta are basically stalling because Untaet [the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor] is only in situ for one more year, and then it will be back to Jakarta negotiating directly with the East Timorese. It's a very cynical game."

A UN source felt that the mood at Deplu had improved in recent months and that some progress was being made. "But the situation is obviously appalling. We are very, very tired of hearing reassurances [from Jakarta] and seeing nothing happen on the ground. It is tremendously regrettable." In this context, neither the Indonesians nor the international community in Jakarta are sensing any of the celebratory mood soon to sweep through East Timor.

Vaudine England ( is the Post's Jakarta correspondent .

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