Subject: JP Books: Ringside View To The 1999 East Timor Debacle [+Arswendo Atmowiloto, Touched By An Angel]

also: Arswendo Atmowiloto, Touched By An Angel

The Jakarta Post

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ringside View To The 1999 East Timor Debacle

Endy M. Bayuni, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Timor Timur, Menit Terakhir -- Catatan Seorang Wartawan (East Timor, The Last Minute -- A Journalist's Notebook) C.M. Rien Koentari Mizan Pustaka, 2008 438 pages

How much did we really know about East Timor in 1999 (now renamed Timor Leste) -- particularly about the aspirations of its people -- when an overwhelming majority of them voted, in an UN-organized plebiscite, to reject Indonesian rule and to establish their own separate state?

An Indonesian journalist assigned to cover East Timor that last fateful year of Indonesian military occupation learned, to her surprise and somewhat dismay, that Indonesia knew very little about the people and what they had gone through the previous 24 years.

Rien Koentari, reporting about East Timor for the Jakarta-based Kompas daily, has written a personal journal of her journey of discovery of the people, who in many respects are much like Indonesians, but for historical reasons, are very different from Indonesia and have now chosen a different path from Indonesia.

The book exposes our ignorance about a people who experienced such hardships during most of Indonesia's military rule that they not only had so much hatred toward Indonesia, but also and more importantly, had a strong desire to be free at almost any price.

It was this sentiment that many Indonesians grossly underestimated. No one, not even the most pessimistic of predictions, had expected that as many as 78 percent of the East Timorese would vote to reject Jakarta's offer to remain under Indonesian rule with the widest autonomy, and instead opt for independence.

Truth is always among the first casualties of war. Truth was indeed a scarce commodity when the military imposed an effective blanket news blackout between 1975 and 1991.

Not that it mattered all that much. The world was not just ignorant of the disputed territory, it was also uninterested.

The only news to come out of East Timor then was largely put out by Jakarta's Indonesian military and Radio Fretilin, the voice of the armed separatist rebels, broadcast from Darwin. It was difficult to discern the truth from among the propaganda that both sides put out.

Things changed following the massacre of peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Dili in Nov. 1991. East Timor began to attract international attention, media reporting improved, and Indonesia's appalling human rights record, particularly but not exclusively in East Timor, was now constantly on display.

By the time of the 1999 plebiscite, we had learned a lot more about East Timor, but obviously we still did not have the entire picture. There was still so much truth to uncover, as the author of the book learned.

Rien, among the few journalists who covered East Timor intensively throughout 1999, had a ringside view to that year's evolving debacle, and she learned a few more truths about the wishes of the people and the main reason why: The atrocities of the Indonesian military occupation.

After reporting directly about the process that had led to President B.J. Habibie's offering the East Timorese the option to vote in a plebiscite, she then covered the UN-sponsored vote. This included its preparations with its accompanying violence, the peaceful and orderly vote in September and its tragic aftermath when East Timor erupted into mayhem.

Last Minute details the personal dilemma the writer faced as she learned more truth during her work. A true Indonesian patriot, she changed her perceptions of the nature of the conflict as she dug deeper into her story.

At times, the book reflects her Indonesian bias (and ignorance); at other times, it reflects her sympathy toward the oppressed people.

But as her reports were becoming more balanced (or less distorted), some in the Indonesian military and government openly accused her of being too sympathetic to the rebels, so much so that she began to take the heat from the pro-Indonesian camp and possibly (she never found out) from elements in the military establishment.

Initially taking the official line that the East Timor conflict was between its own people, she learned during her journey that this was also about a conflict between the occupied and the occupier. The more she spoke to the East Timorese, the more she learned about their hatred of Indonesia and their desire for freedom.

One of the things that changed her perception of the war was her encounter with Taur Matan Ruak, a senior commander in the Falintil, the rebel's armed wing. Ever the tough journalist, she went through all kinds of hazards and obstacles to secure this very important meeting and interview. Another time, she learned that many East Timorese working as civil servants employed by the Indonesian government were disloyal to the state and privately supported the rebels.

But what probably affected her most deeply was the violence that she personally witnessed, perpetrated either by the Indonesian military and police or by the pro-Indonesian militias.

There was her vivid account of a cold-blooded murder of an East Timor student by a sharpshooter. Angry at what she saw, she reported it to the police's higher command, only to be told that the sharpshooter was an Indonesian soldier in a police uniform.

Concerned about her safety, at one point she asked to be removed from East Timor. It was not only her life that was in danger when she felt she had become a target, but also that of her colleagues. But, she soon recovered from her fears and asked her editors to send her back.

She returned, but again as tension mounted during and after the election, she had to do some maneuvering to keep out of danger's way, and finally escaped. She returned the third time to East Timor in September as a guest of the Australian-led international peacekeeping force.

The book's chief strength is the use of the first-person narrative style, truly an account taken from her reporter's notebook. It may not be coherently presented, but Rien takes us through her own personal journey and struggles, and thus her own evolving perceptions of what this conflict really meant for East Timorese -- and for Indonesians.

If Rien's reports published in Kompas were the first drafts of East Timor's history in 1999, this book coming out a decade later should count as the second draft. This time she wrote with more distance and thus a clearer perspective, but not necessarily with less passion. It will be up to historians perhaps in another decade or so to write up the history -- perhaps from these various drafts -- of this tragic episode in Timor Leste.


The Jakarta Post Sunday, December 21, 2008

Arswendo Atmowiloto, Touched By An Angel

Emmy Fitri, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Kau Memanggilku Malaikat (You Call Me An Angel) Arswendo Atmowiloto PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama November 2008 272 pp

Arswendo Atmowiloto's new novel, Kau Memanggilku Malaikat (You call me an angel) is antipodal to Joan Didion's phenomenal work The Year of Magical Thinking -- though both share the common theme of death.

Thousands of books have been written about death -- a pinnacle of the human life cycle -- but Didion's work ranks as a particularly honest foray, written from the heart by the loved one left behind. Arswendo begins with a completely different premise. Not grief but hope, not human but imaginary, not leaving but arriving.

A testament to her gripping loss over her husband's sudden death, Didion details the descent into grief. She recounts the blow his death struck her and the devastating struggle she had to pass through to eventually come to terms with the fact her husband -- John Gregory Dunne -- was no longer around.

She starts her book with "Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

Didion, the abandoned one, shares her story of how to cope and recuperate from a loss that many acknowledge to be a beckoning appeal to move on themselves.

Unlike Didion's nonfiction account, Arswendo's is fictitious and beyond the real. Still, her characters and events will automatically resonate with our own lives or the lives, even, of people in the news. The angel -- the first-person "I" narrating -- is male, but he can transform himself into anyone the dying person asks him to be. He appears as the stereotypical angel of fairly tales or Hollywood blockbusters, a human with wings. He even appears as a pink butterfly when he is about to "pick up" a dying little girl.

Kau Memanggilku Malaikat is a novel on death from the perspective of the angel who bears it. Unlike realistic treatments like Didion's squarely in the here and now, Arswendo brings his readers on a trip to the unthinkable part: life after death. Imagining a place somewhere in the sky where everything is soft and angels recline on slowly flying clouds, waving their hands, with loving smiles on their faces is so naive no religion ever suggests that. And the novel is never meant to challenge any religious teachings, though it is a little disturbing because the reader will inevitably find it hard to believe that life after death could be so convenient and easy.

Perhaps Arswendo was inspired by Nicholas Cage in City of Angels who plays the angel responsible for visiting those experiencing a portent of death. Cage's angel becomes smitten with a human. Hence the drama begins.

Arswendo sprinkles his novel from the beginning with strong dramatic elements: a dying woman who has dedicated (sacrificed?) her life to her cheating husband and her children; a teenage girl from the kampung whose natural beauty keeps her in constant confusion as she tries to choose Mr. Right; a bastard child who grows up to be a criminal; a mother who kills her three children before committing suicide; and a special toddler.

Through replete descriptions of the setting and conflicts for each dying character -- strengthened by a strong prose style -- the author conveys how death can be painful or peaceful, regardless of someone's actions and situation in their life. No matter how they depart, Arswendo's troupe find their lives after equally heavenly. All are invited to a state of undiscriminating grace. Arswendo's dead can get whatever they desired but failed to attain while they lived.

Tesarini, for instance, is a strong mother and wife who bears the brunt of life's hardships. She is a loving mother, a hard worker, a faithful wife. Still, she is cheated and scorned by her husband's family for her birth family's inferiority.

When she dies -- a peaceful death -- she has her dreams fulfilled, for she is given longer legs and bountiful hair. She can write what is on her mind and, finally, dance.

Some characters experience something less than bliss. The sexy teenager Ife is disturbed to witness her painful death, and saddened to know she has left her distraught mother so undone.

"I wish my mother could see me now, she wouldn't have to shed so many tears," Ife says to her angel.

Who doesn't answer back. He is stunned by the grief of the dead. But he is most deeply wounded by the baby girl, Wedi, who dies of a lung disease. The girl's spirit takes him to visit other human lives. She doesn't leave just like that with I, instead she takes him on a tour to save people from wasting their precious lives for nothing.

At the end, the angel says,"Death is actually very beautiful and enjoyable, regardless how life was before. But life is wondrously beautiful too. I was tempted once."

All in all, the book brings on tearful moments but Arswendo, a seasoned journalist and filmmaker, keeps the maudlin at bay with his wordsmithery. He plays with the language gracefully, juggling irony and wit. The reader may draw lessons, but the author refrains from preaching on how to depart with dignity. Death is death and we will all need to brace for it -- ready or not.

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