Subject: Interview: Alatas looks back on 11 years of Indonesia's foreign policy

[East Timor excerpts]

Jakarta Post November 02, 1999

Ali Alatas looks back on 11 years of Indonesia's foreign policy

Ali Alatas, Indonesia's longest serving foreign minister, oversaw the country's foreign policy at the height of its activism. In the last days of his tenure last month, he spoke to The Jakarta Post reporters Meidyatama Suryodiningrat and Kornelius Purba about his experiences, the future and, of course, the pebble in his shoe -- East Timor. Alatas formally hands over his post to Alwi Shihab Tuesday.

JAKARTA (JP): Charmingly eloquent and meticulous in his every move, Ali Alatas loyally served at the forefront of Indonesian diplomacy for well over two decades.

One of the best known Indonesians both at home and abroad, he served as foreign minister beginning with the Fifth Development Cabinet in 1988. He was officially replaced last Friday by Alwi Shihab.

As he exits the arena of Indonesian diplomacy, he leaves an enduring example for his successors to follow.

Only days before the election of a new government, Alatas coyly indicated his impending desire to "gracefully retire".

"I believe this is a good time to think about not exactly retirement, but to do something else that will benefit to me and hopefully also to Indonesian society," he said. ...

Perhaps East Timor was more of an albatross.

As foreign minister, Alatas has had to almost single-handedly shoulder the duty of towing the government line in the former Portuguese province and defending it against international condemnation.

While his patience is renowned, it is understandable that he may at times have launched tirades against Indonesia's detractors.

While he refused to point fingers, it was obvious that much of the angst stemmed from the fact that developments within East Timor itself were beyond the power of the foreign ministry.

"I must admit that sometimes I became very frustrated at the slow pace in which we could move and the setbacks that sometimes happened, completely out of the control of the department of foreign affairs ... Being an issue that proceeded in the national context, other people decide what is happening in East Timor, not the foreign ministry."

Slowly but surely, Alatas used his diplomatic savvy to turn opposition against Indonesia's integration of the territory into acceptance.

No resolutions against East Timor were passed during his tenure and international organizations such as the Non-Aligned Movement all but left the issue on the back burner.

"Our negotiations actually were showing signs of, if not total success, were showing signs of going toward a solution," he said.

Both in 1986 and 1991 during tripartite talks it was Portugal which backpedaled when it repeatedly rejected new initiatives by the UN secretary-general.

"We were on top of the situation, not Portugal, at that time. We at that time could show to the world, look we wanted to solve the problem. Who is afraid of the solution? Portugal!"

Then came the tragic Santa Cruz incident on Nov. 12, 1991.

"From that time, the East Timor issue became a human rights issue, rather than a political issue ... Now it became a human rights problem, a humanitarian problem, a problem the world perceived as the cruel attitude of the Indonesian nation against a small people who want independence," Alatas said.

"It was not only a setback, it turned to an issue that was quite attractive to our enemies, to our opponents who were making the most of it. I think since 1991 onward, our efforts went down progressively.

"And we even had the bizarre experience of having to see a man like Ramos Horta win the Nobel Peace Prize while he has never propagated peace."

One can only guess his inner thoughts when President B.J. Habibie made an about-turn in January and hastily decided to allow a ballot which gave East Timor the option to separate.

There continues to be much speculation about why the government in the end opted for such a drastic shift and whether Alatas was fully consulted prior to it being brought to the Cabinet.

Loyal bureaucrat that he is, Alatas refused to show, in public at least, disappointment over the decision.

"We came up with the proposal that was, in itself, already quite revolutionary because in the past I never could get the idea accepted by Pak Harto, namely the middle-way solution (wide-ranging autonomy)."

He recited how the proposal for wide-ranging autonomy in mid-1998 was initially well-received and even drew praise from the UN secretary-general. "We started negotiations, but then we were attacked, we were criticized by East Timorese who are against us, also by certain NGOs and certain governments, saying your proposal is not enough, they will never accept it. "Or they'd say that it is only acceptable if after five years to 10 years you still give them a referendum. You give them your wide-ranging autonomy, you give them all these things, you continue to pay for them, and after five to 10 years they'd still have the opportunity to say goodbye and thank you very much.

"It was no wonder that Pak Habibie then said that maybe we need an alternative. If our proposal is indeed unacceptable, I am not going to give alternatives in which they ask five to 10 years and then a referendum. Our proposal was that if they reject it, then let's pack and leave. Everybody was shocked, but that was the idea of the best solution."

In the end the monumental decision was possibly taken in haste, from sheer frustration by those unaccustomed to the strain of international acrimony.

"The outside world should have had the wisdom at that time not to continue Indonesia-bashing. They continued to heckle us, to say this is not enough, too little too late and so on. We became very frustrated, you know, especially those who are not used to facing East Timor. I was used to facing East Timor in the last 23 years.

"You may have criticism of the proposal being too premature, too fast. Don't ask my personal opinion on that. In the end it became the position of the Cabinet, the whole Cabinet."

When asked whether he initially advised the president against the idea, Alatas responded: "Well, I have advised, among other things, OK we can solve it, but isn't it premature? ... But after that in a very democratic manner we discussed that in the Cabinet and it became a Cabinet issue."

Alatas also shed some light on the letter sent by Australian Prime Minister John Howard in December 1998 in which Australia for the first time formally expressed its readiness to accept an independent East Timor.

"The role is that it maybe made Pak Habibie irritated, that is the role. The Australians think that the letter was good, something that worked in the right direction, but totally different. It made Pak Habibie mad, it made Pak Habibie angry, because it came from Australia. Why should Australia get involved?"

According to Alatas, the overwhelming defeat in the Aug. 30 popular consultation and the ensuing violence came as a shock to the government.

"Up to the balloting, the report we got from our own people, of the prointegration people, including Lopez da Cruz, and so on, is that we were going to win."

Alatas admitted that he had some doubts about the positive reports.

"We told them already at that time 'are you sure?' Because I said, for example, to them, how can you win if you continue intimidating the people? Eurico Guterres and so on, I said, you see, if you continue to intimidate them, they will hate you. In front of you they may be afraid, they will bow their head, and if you say raise a red-and-white Indonesian flag they will do it. However, once in the booth, they will go against you, I told them."

Once the result was announced, it "shocked us", Alatas admitted.

"They always reported that we were going to win. So they too were shocked, maybe ashamed. They claimed there are a lot of violations (during the ballot). There were violations but not to the point that you can change 78 to 22 percent."

Things only got worse for Indonesia as the violence erupted.

"It shocked the world, it shocked us too frankly. Because certainly at the department of foreign affairs, we were shocked. Why should they come like that, and why it was not stopped immediately?"

Reflecting Indonesia's current plight in which so much international ire has been directed its way, Alatas remarked that it was a victim of a combination of bad publicity and the country's own doing.

"Frankly speaking, much of the negative reporting and the negative image we have received the last few weeks, in the last few months, much of it, was caused by our own actions, was caused by some of the things we did."

He was also quick to add that Indonesia's purported terrible actions were woven in untruths.

"Many of the things have been exaggerated, that has been shown now. Even the most critical Western press are now acknowledging that there has been too much exaggeration.

"It created some image, and that is why instead of being recognized for the positive things that we did, in a search of a democratic and just solution to East Timor problems, we have been criticized."

With Alatas no longer at the helm of Indonesia's foreign policy, it is not too much to expect that he would now become its' most astute observer. But again he humbly showed reluctance at the prospect of preaching to the new government.

His fundamental hope was for Indonesia to remain faithful to the founding principles which have guided national foreign policy thus far.

"I do not arrogate myself to tell the next government what the foreign policy should be. However all I can say is that our foreign policy has always being governed by certain basic principles," he said.

"Our foreign policy is always a principled foreign policy, and not an expeditious one, not a quality of expedience tending with the wind or just for the sake of short-term gain, sacrificing basic principles. And I hope that our foreign policy will continue to be a principled one.

"For example, our policy on Israel, is a policy which is based on principle. It is nothing against the Israeli people, we have nothing against the Jewish state, we are willing to have certain limited contact with them, but as far as diplomatic relations with it is concerned, it is based on the principle that they first have to undo what they are doing to the Palestinians and to the Arabs, and that is part of our anticolonialist policy, as stipulated in the 1945 Constitution.

"So to any new government, all I can hope is that we will remain to be a country known to be a principled foreign policy rather than for foreign policy based on expedience and short term gain. But for the rest, I cannot arrogate to tell them what to do."

He leaves his post amid soured relations between Indonesia and Australia. "We have come full circle, and we are back at square one," he said.

He recounted that when he came into office in 1988, one of his first tasks was to improve the strained relations between the two countries.

"We came very far, but now we are back to the same point, at the very low relationship."

He remained optimistic that once the dust settled, both countries would realize that they have long-term interests and that preserving the relationship was mutually beneficial.

"However, I don't know how long it will take. Unfortunately, some of the things that I thought we had achieved turned out to be artificial, like I thought Australia, and the Australian government, were sincere in positioning themselves closer to Asia rather than seeing themselves as a European outpost in an Asian environment."

Touching on future relations with East Timor now that the former Indonesian province is on its way to statehood, Alatas expressed hope that it they would be harmonious.

"But let me say without any pretension or arrogance that it will in the first place depend on East Timor realizing, rather than Indonesia, that it should maintain a good relationship because otherwise if by their statement, if by their policy, they think they can ignore Indonesia, then it will be very difficult relationship because of proximity," he warned.

When asked about the prospect of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) embracing an independent East Timor as a member, Alatas retorted that it should be the other way round.

"It is not for ASEAN to embrace East Timor but for East Timor to think what it should do about ASEAN, what its positioning should be to ASEAN."

Retracing the diplomatic career of a man like Alatas, one sometimes cannot help but feel sorry that such distinction is tainted by a single issue which was not of his own doing.

Through the endless unavailing negotiations and countless international recriminations, Alatas kept his composure. He attributed his cool exterior to years of diplomatic training.

While he professed not to bear grudges against his diplomatic opponents and critics, a tingling question remains.

What would his greeting be if Ramos Horta visited as East Timor's foreign minister?

With a quick smile and his famed diplomatic skills in full force, Alatas replied: "Practically speaking, it would not come to that because I won't be foreign minister."

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