Reflections on East Timor

by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad

So many people think that life and employment overseas or travelling in foreign lands are all fun. It is not quite true, and even so, it would be a mistake for many not-well prepared to chase rainbows in faraway places when your dreams lie closer to home.

For me, life in New York is definitely work but not uninteresting. Likewise, it is the same whenever I am back in KL albeit with more opportunities, believe it or not, for diversions.

What are your priorities in life? You may have to reassess them from time to time so that your ambitions are realistic and therefore achievable. It does seem to me that to enjoy life you must have good friends, good health, substance as well as style, not necessarily in that order, of course.

During a long weekend holiday in KL in late August, I flew to Manila and then to Jakarta for a breather. Life in these two Asean capitals, despite the slow economic recovery, though much faster than expected from the traumatic economic crisis two summers ago, remains almost unchanged for the "haves", the poor have decelerated even impoverished, making the indigent poorer.

In Manila, the rich live in their own well-guarded "villages" and visitors to the venerated Manila Hotel are searched and screened, by presidential decree. No more no less like when you are departing from KLIA and JFK airports.

The hotel nearly became Malaysian-owned had it not been for the Filipino Supreme Court intervention. It's genteel confines and interiors are worlds away from the new hotels, though they are good. At the Manila Hotel I felt like everything I bought was put in a velvet bag instead in a paper bag.

The suspension (and threats of economic sanctions) of international aid to Indonesia because of massacres in East Timor and endemic corruption may have only a short-term, even limited impact.

But what I fear is the political cost which could delay or even foil the Indonesian economic recovery or worse, the psychological angst and trauma the mayhem has inflicted on the psyche of the supersensitive Indonesians.

The international media has caused them great shame even though many Indonesians conceded that their leaders deserved it for they have been spectacularly inept and uningenuous over East Timor and with what followed.

Washington and the West appeared to have been too harsh and too quick to condemn the Indonesian suppression and killing of the East Timorese compared to their deliberately slow reactions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Having said that what occurred in East Timor was scandalous and unacceptable.

What then has prompted the US and the West into action with such speed? Is it by a frenzy of moralising strengthened by their self proclaimed and self-created image as the global political and moral police force?

I can understand about Australia, it is the big guy in the neighbourhood. As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad said: "Australia is happy for a chance to pressure their neighbour, to run down their neighbour."

Asean diplomats in New York think that giving white Australia military-cum-political leadership in an Asean territory is a mistake because Canberra is not only biased, it is also perceived as having a long-standing expansionist ambitions. The Aussies may be using this UN-sent opportunity as an excuse to project the "white power".

Strong anti-Aussie feelings had been building in Indonesia for weeks. Australian leadership of the UN force may even exacerbate matters. At the same time Asean, even as a group, has political and military limitations to respond quickly to the UN request to keep peace in East Timor.

Indeed, Asean or one of its member nations has missed a golden opportunity to provide leadership in a troubled region within its own compound.

Philip Bowring, the British journalist and former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, is right when he says the former colonial states enthusiasm for intervention is viewed with great scepticism in Asia, even in the nations which have contributed troops to UN force, and very suspiciously by Indonesian nationalists.

When I was in Jakarta late last month - I have been there a dozen times or more - I had never until then heard how Jakartans and Indonesians in Bandung took delight, and with great wit, in heaping scorn, mocking and deriding their president, B.J. Habibie.

They are blaming him for starting and precipitating events in East Timor which may now lead to the eventual disintegration of Indonesia.

I was not amused by what I heard, and dismayed by what can and will happen to this archipelago of 215 million people.

I rather like visiting Jakarta but, at the same time, I understand why its rich sons and daughters spend as much time as possible in Singapore. Jakarta, though a Muslim city, has no rules that say you cannot do this and you cannot do that, and this is perhaps the reason it is fast becoming popular with Malaysians, besides the language.

Indonesia has overcome two previous attempts to divide it, first by the Dutch and then the CIA-sponsored rebellions in Sumatra and other islands in 1959.

Sukarno kept Indonesia together. Suharto enlarged it (adding East Timor 24 years ago). Habibie gave it away, which may encourage others such as the Acehnese, Irianese, Ambonese and even Sumatrans to break- away. If East Timor succeeds why not any of them, is the argument I keep hearing.

The East Timor debacle or tragedy, depending with whom you speak, has diminished what remains of Habibie's chance of retaining power. It has increased the opportunity of the increasingly popular Megawati of grasping power which many Indonesians believe is legitimately and morally hers considering that her party was the first choice, even though not by the majority of the people, in Indonesia's first free election in 45 years.

I left Manila as the 1999 Ramon Magsaysay Award was taking place,

When I arrived in the Indonesian capital, what was supposed to be a breather soon enough became a lesson in Indonesian realpolitik. Its political and economic maladies are self-inflicted, and in this respect Indonesia remains unchanged, just like when I first arrived in Jakarta in the spring of 1962 as a guest of the Indonesian government.

What vitality and dynamism the Philippines and Indonesia could have had or could be. However, they appear to take their fates in good stride, which is good. No nation does everything it is capable of and no person does everything he/she wants to.

I intend, innsya Allah (God willing), to do as much as I can what I desire; enjoy myself, spend as much time with Fauzah and the children and watch my grandchildren (when I am blessed with them) grow, work and continue writing columns, and maybe even another book.