Subject: IPS: For Indonesia, E. Timor's Independence Still Hard To Accept

Inter Press Service June 29, 2002


East Timor: For Indonesia, Separation Still Hard To Accept

By Prangtip Daorueng


Indonesia's claim on what it says are its assets in East Timor may reflect its unwillingness to accept the fact that a former territory is now an independent nation standing on its own feet.

But critics say there is much more than that. On the eve of East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao's visit to Indonesia on Jul. 2, some say these new claims are a deliberate attempt to divert the people's attention from the Indonesian state's responsibility for human rights abuses in East Timor, including the violence that followed the 1999 independence ballot.

At a meeting in mid-June, the Indonesian delegation again told East Timorese officials that Indonesia now wanted to talk seriously about claiming its assets built in East Timor, which Jakarta had considered a province after it annexed it in 1976.

Even before East Timor became formally independent in May, Indonesia had been demanding that it be allowed to send a team to calculate the worth of assets it says it built during the 24 years it ran the territory.

These include public infrastructure such as roads, office building, electricity facilities and telecommunication cables and private assets.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda has said the issue is a major one to be negotiated with East Timor. Indonesia has had several rounds of talks with the U.N. Transitional Authority in East Timor, but there have been no results so far, he said.

But some here say such claims do not make sense, arguing that Indonesia has primarily hurt East Timor in terms of lives lost and social devastation.

"If Indonesia had to pay the Dutch for its assets in the country, we would not have much left now," said Taufan, program coordinator of the Indonesia Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI), a Jakarta-based NGO with a long record of advocacy on human rights abuses in East Timor.

"This is an attempt of politicians to avoid their responsibility on the question of human rights abuses (in East Timor) by twisting people's opinions to the less important issue," he pointed out. "This demand is embarrassing since it shows a colonial attitude among Indonesian politicians."

Activists say that the 1999 massacres by pro-Jakarta militias, which occurred in the days and weeks after the independence vote, cost East Timor up to $ 4 million.

Most of East Timor's infrastructure and facilities were damaged or rendered useless after the violence.

These costs, critics say, do not even include all the destruction and oppression East Timor suffered under 24 years of Jakarta's rule.

And at present, although Indonesia is holding a trial in Jakarta in relation to the 1999 violence, with pro-Jakarta militia leaders charged with torture and murder, international observers have faulted it for lack of transparency. Rights activists want an international tribunal as an alternative should the trial fail to bring justice.

Indonesia's claims to assets in East Timor are attributed by some to simple spite. East Timor's separation was the first time since Indonesia's independence from the Dutch in 1945 -- followed by the annexation of West Papua in 1961 and East Timor in 1974 -- that the country lost a part of its territory.

Decades of nationalistic propaganda by the state have left many negative feelings about East Timor's independence.

"Unlike when it was with Indonesia, East Timor is no longer a good place," said Tamadi, a 50-year-old farmer-turned-taxi driver from central Java. "There is a war there and people are suffering," he said, although the violence has ended.

"That is because of Xanana Gusmao, who wanted East Timor to split from Indonesia. (President) Habibie must also be blamed for letting it happen," he continued.

Taufan concedes that this belief is not isolated.

"Members of the local parliament in Kalimantan recently asked me why my organization had to help the Timorese," he recalled. "But they understood when I explained about cases of rights abuses and the historical fact that our forefathers had never taken East Timor as part of the Dutch colony to be converted into Indonesia."

Still, he says most Indonesians accept the change in East Timor. "You can see that there are many East Timorese in Indonesia, but we never heard that they were harassed by Indonesians," he pointed out.

Others say Indonesia has bigger problems to deal with. "I don't know much about East Timor," said 27-year-old office worker Malvi. "But there are many things that we should now pay more attention to. The government should think about how to stop the cost of living from increasing and get rid of crime instead of fighting with the Timorese."

But for many politicians, East Timor is far from a closed chapter.

Debates raged here over whether President Megawati Sukarnoputri should attend East Timor's independence rites on May 20, after Timorese President Xanana Gusmao personally came to invite her. In the end, she did attend the ceremony.

But Amien Rias, speaker of People's Consultative Assembly and leader of National Mandate Party, said that many Indonesians will not be able to forget feeling "cheated" during the U.N. sponsored ballot in 1999 -- and how East Timor turned its back on Indonesia.

Taufan says the debate about East Timor had more to do with Jakarta's power struggle then East Timor itself. "Right now political parties are running against time for the 2004 election. It won't be surprising if the issue of East Timor has become a part of political game in Jakarta, where politicians try every way to gain more votes for themselves and discredit others," he said.

As for Jakarta's claims to the assets it left in East Timor, East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said: "The Indonesian government already knows clearly that our approach to this problem is a zero-sum approach."

"We will forget everything and you will forget everything. We will start from zero," he told Tempo magazine.

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