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Horrors of East Timor decolonization

October 30, 1999

Jakarta Post Editorials and Opinions

By Onghokham

JAKARTA (JP): What else can one call today’s Indonesian policies on East Timor but a process of decolonization?

The eastern half of the Timor island was invaded in 1975 by Indonesia and annexed in l976 by a People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) decree. Both policies, invasion and annexation occurred without substantial fanfare or celebrations, not as one would expect in the case of military victories. It was a relatively silent war without war heroes. Again, this factor is exceptional, when even long-dead heroes have their national days. After years of resistance on the part of the East Timorese, president B.J. Habibie made an unexpected offer earlier this year for East Timor to opt for independence or broad autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia.

It was probably at this juncture that anybody who disagreed with Habibie’s policy on East Timor should have protested, for everything after this point would be a loss of control by Indonesia over events in East Timor. It is like the Indonesian expression Nasi sudah menjadi bubur, which means rice has turned into porridge.

In the United Nations-supervised referendum held on Aug. 30 the people of East Timor took their fate into their own hands. International agreements between Indonesia, the United Nations and Portugal followed Habibie’s January announcement, and the course of history became even more inevitable.

International agreements are even more sacred than the Constitution, for it is by their strict implementation that one’s country’s behavior as a member of the world community is judged and tested. Failure to strictly observe international agreements can lead to a country being ostracized.

In the referendum an overwhelming majority of people in East Timor opted for independence, a move which every well-informed Indonesian citizen and foreigner in Indonesia expected. Except, as was usual it seems, the government did not listen to the people. As usual they relied on intelligence and news from Korpri (Indonesian civil servants corp), who reported what their superiors preferred to hear. Or the government had armed soldiers interrogate the population about whether they would choose independence or autonomy.

Finally, the government and part of the political elite believed in their own lies. In any case, the effects were disastrous for everybody involved.

The breaking away of a colony is like a slap by a child to the face of a mother or father. This is dependent on how the colonial power symbolizes itself: as a mother figure such as in Indonesia (Ibu Pertiwi), Marianne (France), or a father figure such as in North American (Uncle Sam).

Indonesia adopted the mother figure as a symbol perhaps because our founding fathers (Sukarno and Hatta) had during their life times seen half a century of the power of queens reigning over the Netherlands (Emma and Wilhelmina).

In any case, the East Timorese result of independence made people realize that we are not liked that much after all. Ibu Pertiwi is not found to be gentle, untarnished and pure. The result of the East Timorese ballot was as much a slap to the face as the Indonesian response 50 years ago to the Netherlands.

Even today, conservative Dutch people from the older generation we would call them reactionaries in their younger years still speak of the scheuring van het Rijk (splitting of the kingdom) as one of the most deplorable events that befell the Netherlands.

With the prospect of opening negotiations with the East Timorese rebels, there were even in the Netherlands the most nonmilitary country in the world rumors of a possible military coup d’etat. Of course they were only rumors.

French decolonization problems initiated by Charles de Gaulle were even worse. If the process is not done neatly, such as the actions of the British, decolonization can leave decades of problems. Consider the Maluku problem in Holland, the late 1950s anti-de Gaulle movement in France and others.

At the end of its decolonization of Indonesia, the Netherlands left us also with the Westerling affair with its rebellious APRA troops in the early 1950s. France left even bigger problems, but in magnitude they were all dwarfed by what we left in East Timor.

Indonesia in l999 is in the same position as any decolonizing power 50 years ago. The world has no sympathy for it, especially since it happened 50 years later just as everything else in Indonesia happens 50 years later, including the phenomenon of communism.

More than 50 years ago, the Australian delegate to the United Nations in their own inimitable Australian way accused the Dutch in 1949 of treating the Indonesians in the same way as the Nazi-Germans, who occupied Holland from l940 to 1945 in a most brutal way, did to the Netherlands.

The Dutch delegation angrily left the United Nations assembly and protested that the Australian contingent apologize and withdraw their statements. The United States threatened the Netherlands with a suspension of all Marshall Aid given to that country. Can one expect the world to treat a decolonizing Indonesia any better? All Indonesians should be aware of the colonial past, and I do believe many still remember how bad colonialism is.

We do not criticize Habibie’s decision to decolonize East Timor - a move described by his close advisors as a bad "investment" in the true colonial way of counting profits and losses. The implementation of his policies completely collapsed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs which should have done a lot of explaining on the sanctity of foreign agreements and decolonization all but failed completely in this regard. This failure was also obvious in relation to the Ministry of Defense, which could have prevented massacres, deportations, the scorched earth policy and other such atrocities.

One question remains in every Indonesian and other people’s minds: what is the purpose of all this carnage? And for Indonesians a more urgent question is why?

Was it bad coordination? Did the presidential decolonization order lack a solid foundation in Habibie’s administration at the ministerial level and with the bureaucracy, as well as at the ABRI level (it was still the Indonesian Armed Forces or ABRI, and not the Indonesian Military or TNI)?

Was there internal feuding among ministries as well as childish revenge? What caused the collapse? Internationally, Indonesia has to suffer for years, if not decades to come, for all the horrors of decolonization.

Indonesianists are making excuses for the disaster, citing Army factions or general feuding within the administration. However, the world is facing a Republic of Indonesia and is asking for international standards in the implementation of an international agreement.

In order to repair all the damage to Indonesia’s international reputation, the government in a typical Korpri response launched a program of cultural diplomacy showing Indonesian dances, music and food - all products of its high and ancient civilization.

Meanwhile our deteriorating relations with Australia shows that it is still difficult for Indonesia to understand that East Timor very soon will become an independent country.

As an independent country it will be able to invite any army within its borders for protection. After all that has happened, an independent East Timor will certainly not invite the Indonesian Army, most likely it will invite the Australian army and seek Australia’s protection.

Sooner or later, with or without Indonesia’s approval, the Australian army will be in East Timor. And there is no way of resisting it. Why not accept it and maintain good relations with Australia? Our cultural diplomacy won’t help much in repairing relations with our neighbors of Australia and East Timor.

The writer is a historian.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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