Subject: JP: A lesson in democracy from a former colony

The Jakarta Post April 18, 2002

A lesson in democracy from a former colony

Kornelius Purba, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

While many Indonesians still fantasize that one day the country will adopt a direct presidential election system, the people of East Timor -- soon to be known as Timor Lorosae -- have overwhelmingly voted for their independence fighter and hero Xanana Gusmao as their first president.

One day the honorable members of People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) here may have to go to Dili to study the new nation's constitution if they finally accept the fact that the 1945 Constitution should be amended for the sake of democracy.

Indonesia, which occupied the tiny island for nearly 23 years until 1999, can also learn from the new nation on how to treat citizens equally regardless of religion, ethnicity or other backgrounds. It is a wonderful lesson, that they have entrusted Mari Alkatiri, a Muslim, with the important task of being their new prime minister in the predominantly Catholic territory.

Despite the fact that Timor Lorosae will become a new independent nation on May 20, the Indonesian legislature, using cheap pretexts, still retains four seats for representatives of its former territory in the legislature. East Timor is "represented" by two legislators from President Megawati Soekarnoputri's party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), while the other two are from Golkar.

Doesn't this look like a former colonial master who cannot accept the reality that its former colony has become completely independent?

Gusmao, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison -- of which he spent about six -- for his "rebellious crime against the state", was released by Indonesia soon after the referendum for self determination. He repeatedly calls for national reconciliation and vows to prioritize good relations with Jakarta.

Some Indonesian generals, including former military chief Gen. (ret.) Wiranto, are still busy blaming the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) for the gross human rights violations in East Timor following the embarrassing result of the referendum three years ago.

"UNAMET's failure to remain neutral during that historic moment sparked anger among East Timorese who felt that they were being treated unfairly," Wiranto said in his testimony earlier this month in one of the sessions of the ongoing ad hoc human rights trial in Jakarta. Wiranto has also recently launched a book on his version of the events in East Timor.

Is it true that Indonesia lost the referendum because of massive fraud engineered by the UN? The generals may have to listen to former minister of foreign affairs Ali Alatas who pointed out that 78.5 percent of voters opted for independence.

"There were violations but not to the point that you can change 78.5 percent to 21.5 percent," the internationally respected diplomat commented, two months after Indonesia's defeat.

The East Timorese may become a model for those who want to liberate themselves from oppression, and abuses of human rights. They can also teach authoritarian governments not to belittle the struggles of people whom they may regard as stupid and educated.

Soeharto's government was overconfident that East Timorese people would love their new master and that only a very few of them would want independence from Indonesia. When Dili Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos Horta jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, the government made light of it. When Soeharto dedicated the Jesus Christ statue in Dili a few days after Belo was named a Nobel recipient, he did not touch upon the issue during his conversation with the bishop.

When Pope John Paul II visited Dili in October 1989, the government claimed it as a tremendous diplomatic victory because the Pope did not kiss the earth when he arrived in Dili as he always does when he visits a country.

In 1996, Soeharto confidently approved the request of visiting South African president Nelson Mandela to meet with the jailed Gusmao. Soeharto even provided the State Guest House as the venue for the meeting for the legendary African leader.

When Soeharto's successor, B.J. Habibie surprised the world by offering the UN to hold a self-determination referendum in August 1999, top officials and military leaders boasted that East Timor would remain part of Indonesia. They insisted that East Timor's condition, despite all odds, was much better than under the Portuguese colony.

An elderly woman gave a simple reason on why she chose independence. "When my son returned late during that (Indonesian) time, I always worried that the military had arrested him. But now when he has not come back I only guess that he is still with his girlfriend," the woman said during the visit of president Abdurrahman Wahid to Dili in February 2000.

During the visit Abdurrahman officially apologized to the people for their sufferings and told them that the Indonesian people were also the victims of Soeharto's dictatorship.

"You were oppressed, we also were under tyranny," Abdurrahman told the crowd near the Santa Cruz cemetery.

It is better for President Megawati to learn from this poor nation in taming the rebellious provinces like Papua and Aceh. Like it or not, people in the two provinces may use East Timor as one of their sources of inspiration to achieve their goals.

Many people think that it would be very difficult for East Timor to survive as a nation because of its poor natural and human resources. But they have oil. When Indonesia declared its independence in 1945 the Dutch government also thought that its former colony could not live without its colonial master.

Will East Timor be the first and the last region to separate from Indonesia? If Megawati's administration continues to repeat the mistakes made in the past, it is not impossible that East Timor will be the last tragedy for this country.

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