Subject: Asiaweek: Indon has not learned the lessons of E.Timor

Asiaweek October 19, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Deaf Ears in Jakarta

The lessons of East Timor have not been learned


The recent sad events in Wamena, in the highlands of the Indonesian province of West Papua, show all too clearly that the authorities have not learned the lessons of their experience in East Timor. It is a simple lesson really: You don't make lasting friends by beating them up. Or, as my grandmother used to tell me, you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar. Taken out of the schoolyard and into the realm of politics and nation states, the lesson is that the allegiance of the people can never be won by murder and mayhem.

These twin evils most definitely did not work in East Timor. During Indonesia's 25-year occupation, perhaps as many as 200,000 people died, a quarter of the population. Almost every family in East Timor is touched by tragedy. So it was not surprising that last year, when they finally had the chance, the Timorese voted overwhelmingly to toss the Indonesians out.

If East Timor had been the only center of separatist sentiment in Indonesia, Jakarta might be forgiven for choosing not to heed the lesson. After all, the country now confronts so many other problems, including economic collapse and efforts to create a functioning democracy in a country that has known dictatorship for much of its post-colonial history.

But Indonesian politicians do not have the luxury of being able to ignore the lesson, with active separatist movements in Aceh and West Papua. Unless they swiftly put aside threats and bluster and guns, they will find themselves unable to keep their country from breaking apart. That would be a problem not just for Indonesia, but for its neighbors. Last month, Malaysian deputy prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said foreign ministers in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are worried about instability in Indonesia. The U.S., Australia and Japan are also concerned about the effect of an Indonesian breakup, given the country's strategic position across sea lanes linking the Pacific and Indian oceans.

A truce between the government and GAM, the Acehnese separatist movement, has brought some measure of peace to that province, even though it is a calm regularly punctuated by shootings and bombings. But the riots in Wamena, the capital of the popular tourist center of the Baliem Valley, have drawn renewed attention to the Indonesian half of New Guinea. Irian Jaya, as the province is also known, was incorporated into the republic in 1969 after a U.N.-sanctioned but highly suspect vote, which involved only 1,025 tribal chiefs.

Some 40 people were killed last weekend in Wamena. The incident began when police hauled down the Morning Star flag used as a symbol of the independence struggle. In the resulting melee, police killed at least one person, with some reports indicating that as many as five died. The next day, locals took bloody revenge against settlers from outside the province. Almost half the population of West Papua are migrants, angering many Papuans, who fear being made strangers in their own land.

The official reaction to the riots showed that the lesson of East Timor has been ignored. The government has now backtracked on its promise to allow the Morning Star emblem to be displayed. The flag "has been misused as an emblem of separatism, therefore we decided to ban its existence," said cabinet secretary Marsilam Simajuntak. Golkar leader and House speaker Akbar Tanjung said the government has to crack down on separatism. "We cannot compromise on such movements," he said.

It is not as if there are no Indonesian voices urging restraint. There are. The Human Rights Commission said the government should abandon attempts at repression and engage Papuan leaders in dialogue. Human-rights groups said the police must explain why they ripped the flag down, in violation of stated policy. But, unfortunately for the people of Papua and for Indonesia's much-vaunted, but badly frayed, territorial integrity, those voices are drowned out in a clamor to put the Papuans properly in their place.

Such bloodshed over a piece of cloth. A flag is only a symbol, potent though it may be. But governments can never eradicate by force an idea or the symbol of an idea. That is a fact dictators around the world, over the ages, have finally discovered, to their surprise. Ideas are changed through debate and by experience, never by guns. How many hard-core separatists there actually are in West Papua is not clear. But what is obvious after last week's events is that their numbers now will have grown.

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