Subject: NYTimes: In Jakarta, News of Timor Is Barely a Blip
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1999 01:25:55 EDT

The New York Times September 17, 1999

In Jakarta, News of Timor Is Barely a Blip

By SETH MYDANS

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- East Timor was on the news, but the passengers in an airport departure lounge the other day paid little attention. Then came a report on a major corruption scandal and the room fell silent; this was the news they cared about.

"I've heard about East Timor, I listen, but it doesn't really mean that much to me," said Bagus Adikusumo, 30, a real estate consultant who was one of the passengers.

"But I want to see the people in Baligate go to prison," he said, referring to revelations that hundreds of millions of dollars of international financial aid may have been siphoned off by President B.J. Habibie or his friends through a major bank, Bank Bali.

This scandal, which touches the core of Indonesians' fury at their government's many years of abuses, strikes much closer to home than the echoes of a distant, poorly understood conflict.

As an international peacekeeping force prepares to enter East Timor, there are stirrings of nationalist anger here over what many Indonesians see as foreign meddling in their sovereign affairs. But the former Portuguese colony, 1,000 miles away, has never been at the center of public concern.

East Timor, a tiny territory of only 800,000 people, has been important primarily to the military, which has fought unsuccessfully for 24 years to subdue it, and to diplomats who for 24 years have faced condemnation from abroad for human rights abuses there.

But most people have little understanding of the history or of current events in East Timor, which was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and which has been swept by violence since it voted for independence two weeks ago.

"Who cares?" said Yohannes Gunawan, 51, a ribbon manufacturer. "Let them kill each other."

But indeed, a growing number of Indonesians are beginning to care about East Timor, affronted not by the killings or the failure of their military but by what they see as meddling and arrogance by foreign countries -- particularly Indonesia's neighbor, Australia.

Some people here are feeling pushed around.

"Me, my colleagues here, my family, we are so angry," said Becky Hendardi, a travel agent. "We are so disgusted with the foreigners. They are saying so many bad things about my country."

"Yeah, yeah, maybe that's true," she said about the reports of killings and atrocities there. But she said that this was the normal cost of war and that it was difficult to apportion blame.

Puri Sri Purwati, an editorial researcher, said Indonesians were taking the reports of atrocities in stride because "we have known for a long time that this is how the military behaves."

"When something has been going on for a long time, you get used to it and take it for granted," she said. "That's not very nice, but that's what is happening right now."

An unsubstantiated notion that the United Nations, which conducted the referendum, manipulated the vote has quickly taken root here in the fertile soil of ignorance and defensiveness. The main evidence people give is the surprisingly lopsided outcome. "Seventy-eight point five percent?" said Ms. Hendardi, the travel agent. "We don't believe that. Maybe 50-50. But this we do not believe."

Nevertheless, she, too was far more concerned about the bank scandal. "It makes me so embarrassed, Bank Bali," she said. "It shows that they changed the Suharto regime but they did not change the system."

Most political analysts believe that widely held sentiments like this have doomed Habibie's hopes to win a new term in an electoral assembly scheduled to begin in October.

The mess in East Timor, which grew out of his offer of an immediate referendum and which has turned much of the military against him, seems to be another blow to his prospects.

Beleaguered as it is, though, the government has not for the most part been playing to nationalist emotions over East Timor, and most newspapers have been measured in their editorials.

For four days, small, rowdy demonstrations have been held at the U.N. building and at the embassies of Australia and the United States. But these crowds have clearly been recruited and organized by factions opposed to East Timorese independence.

More heated and spontaneous have been a series of student protests in recent days outside Parliament, where deputies are debating a bill that would expand the emergency powers of the military. Like the Bank Bali scandal, this is an issue that arouses real passions.

For just this one moment in history, it seems that East Timor, an obscure territory at the far corner of the Indian Ocean, is of more concern to the distant outside world than to many of Indonesia's citizens.

Indonesia has more than enough to be concerned about these days, with a foundering economy and a democratic transition that could degenerate at any moment into violence and chaos.

For many who keep up with the news, those are the issues that matter. For the great mass of the population, a thousand local concerns take precedence. "East Timor is not the big news today in Ujungpandang," said a foreign aid worker who was visiting that city on the island of Sulawesi on Thursday.

"In Ujungpandang," he said, "people are talking about Ujungpandang, for the most part."


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