Democratic Autonomy Must be Offered to the Restive Provinces
UN Mandate in East Timor

by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad

THE New Year of the New Millennium the United Nation is expected to take over the administration of East Timor from the Aussie-led International Force (Interfet).

The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (Untaet) will run the new Pacific island nation (whose birth was midwifed by the United Nations), with the help of I am told, a division-strong (9,000-10,000) troops and more than 1,600 police officers, the majority of whom will come from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) including Malaysia which said it would send some 1,700 soldiers for Untaet.

The East Timorese leadership has shown its true political colour, it considers East Timor closer to Australia and New Zealand and resents it being called a part of Asia and appears it has no wish to ever join Asean.

Worse it does not want either Malaysia or another Asean nation to take charge of Untaet. East Timorese leaders prefer Australia to take over the leadership of Untaet or failing that another white nation. Jose Ramos Horta, the East Timorese foreign minister-in waiting, has threatened "civil disobedience" if Malaysia were to lead Untaet. Horta particularly resents the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mahathir Mohamad's accusation that the white Aussie troops were "belligerent", his doubt about the wisdom of the August 30 referendum in East Timor and for Malaysia's generally pro-Jakarta stance.

Be it as it may, I hope, the United Nations is mindful of the regional real politiking.

Australia's, or for that matter even another white nation's dominant role in East Timor, in the long run, would be unwise. It is tempting to pander to the wishes-of the East Timorese but indulging them does pose some risk. What's more important is not the colour of the skin of the peacekeepers rather whoever takes over from the Aussies should ensure that the peacekeeping presence remain strong and would perform the task without fear or favour.

I am not belabouring this point, however, it is pertinent to remind the UN that had the Special Envoy to East Timor, Jamsheed Marker, taken the warning of Megawati Sukarnoputri in early August seriously that premature and forced referendum in East Timor would result in a bloodbath the UN could have avoided what indeed occurred three or four weeks later.

It emerged recently that Megawati had personally pleaded with Marker to urge his bosses in New York to postpone the referendum on East Timor's independence until after the new democratic government had taken control in Jakarta but her plea (made during a private meeting at her house in Jakarta) went unheeded. The rest is history.

The impetuous president B.J. Habibie's only redeeming legacy during his 17-month presidency is that he hastened democratic government in Indonesia, from Suharto's dictatorship which was an important part, to a democratically elected government which as expected brought his unmourned political demise. What Habibie did has, however, weakened the unitary state of Indonesia.

Not only it has lost East Timor now President Abdurrahman Wahid - has agreed in principle to a referendum on independence for Aceh though his foreign minister, Alwi Shihab, who like the President was educated at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, said a referendum ala East Timor would probably not take place. Irian Jaya and other provinces have also raised the question of separation or independence, though perhaps with less impact on Jakarta than Aceh. East Timor could well start the Balkanisation of Indonesia and many Indonesians believe that some Western powers want to see Indonesia disintegrate. I believe the new Indonesian Government will do all it can to save future breakup via an offer of greater and democratic autonomy to the restive provinces.

I do hope the Indonesian odd couple, President Abdurrahman and Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, will not only keep peace in Indonesia but bring the suffering Indonesian people prosperity, and above all keep their 54 year old nation intact and strong.

Neighbours should sympathise with the proud Indonesian people whose memories are still very fresh from the humiliation they suffered in East Timor. I welcome Jakarta's intention, after it sorts out its troubled - domestic and economic problems, to reclaim its proper and appropriate place in Asean.

It is heartening to note that self-exiled Indonesian Chinese are returning home to "restart" where they left, perhaps with a new focus and consciousness. Though a minority forming only 6 per cent of Indonesia's estimated 210 million population - there are more Chinese in Indonesia than in Malaysia - they, like their counterparts in most Asean nations, dominate commerce and industry - fuelling racial tension in the process.

The election of Abdurrahman-Megawati Sukarnoputri should make Indonesian Chinese feel secure that their lives and legitimate rights would be protected, Indonesia needs the tens of billions of US dollars parked by Indonesian Chinese overseas, believed mainly in Singapore, to be repatriated to jump-start the Indonesian economy that contracted 14 per cent.last year.

President Abdurrahman is held in esteem by Indonesian Chinese and this fact bodes well for the Indonesian economy. As early as last spring an Indonesian academic (of Chinese origin) at Ohio University in Athens told me that she hoped Abdurrahman would lead Indonesia and now her wish has been granted. I asked her why she thought Gus Dur as Abdurrahman was popularly known was good for Indonesia. Her reply was quick: "Gus Dur is a decent man, a guru and a teacher will protect the minorities: Chinese, Christians, Hindus and whoever".

A united and prosperous Indonesia is conducive to a peaceful South-East Asia.

Jakarta must quickly rebuild its close relationships with Asean and the rest of the world, and free itself economically from the IMF as soon it could, and start anew from lessons learned in East Timor and an impetuous decision by a leadership lacking in resilience.