Mon, 16 Oct 2000

The world blinks, but Indonesia loses

Nationalism is cheap when it is without principles, writes Jeffrey Winters, an expert on Indonesia from Northwestern University Chicago, USA.

CHICAGO, Illinois (JP): Countries lose credibility when they make threats and then cave in. This is what happened when major countries and the World Bank explicitly linked foreign aid to the continuing conflict in the Timors.

The demands were particularly loud and clear from the United Nations Security Council, the United States, and the President of the World Bank. The TNI-backed militia had to be disarmed and withdrawn.

Those responsible for the murder of three unarmed civilian UN humanitarian workers had to be found, prosecuted, and punished. And figures like Eurico Guterres had to be brought to justice for crimes against humanity.

Even if the objectives of those pressuring Jakarta have not always been noble in the past, this time they were. They wanted to safeguard the humanitarian workers, reduce the violence and tensions on the border between East and West Timor, find a solution for the masses of displaced people in the camps, uphold international human rights, and maybe even get Indonesia to enforce its own domestic criminal and human rights laws.

A key part of the threat was the upcoming meeting of the Consultative Group on Indonesia and Indonesia's desperate need for an injection of US$4.8 billion.

And what has happened? The Indonesian government dared the international community to squeeze the country economically at a time when democracy is so fragile, and the foreigners blinked.

The militia have not been disarmed or withdrawn, the Timor border remains tense, the displaced Timorese still rot in terror in the camps, and Eurico Guterres is being hailed as a national hero during his largely cosmetic detention.

It must make some Indonesians proud to see their government stand up to international pressures. There hasn't been much to be proud of lately, and no one likes being told what to do.

But pride and nationalism without principles is cheap. The government won this latest round of conflict with the international community. But it is a hollow victory because more was lost than gained.

Indonesia paid a higher price for the damage caused by the Soeharto regime than anyone could have predicted. The political culture became militarized, civil society was actively dismantled and crushed, and the riches of the country were either wasted or stolen, while generations to come will have to clean up the mess and pay the bills.

But worst of all, the basic principles of the people, the society, and the culture were destroyed. Soeharto and his allies built a system that turned up into down and wrong into right. Anything that was once clearly black and white became hopelessly gray.

Dumbing down the universities and forbiding critical thought, expression, philosophy, and even critical culture in the arts has damaged the ability of many Indonesians to think and act according to the most basic principles of justice that were so important to the founding of the nation.

This unmeasurable crime against the people ranks in the top three, together with the exploitative colonialism of the Dutch and the horrible massacre of perhaps a million people when Soeharto came to power.

The case of Eurico Guterres illustrates how cheap nationalism has replaced genuine principles. But to understand why, first we need a brief review of history.

The Soeharto regime brutally invaded East Timor and then tried for over two decades to colonize and exploit the territory. It was an act of aggression, it was against the principles of justice Indonesia was founded upon, and it was a huge crime against humanity.

And although they should be ashamed to do so, many former opposition leaders who now sit in high office aggressively embrace the Soeharto regime's version of history regarding East Timor.

Did Indonesia's allies look the other way and then offer diplomatic and military support? Yes, but it was still the Soeharto regime that conducted the invasion and occupation, and at least the international community finally did the right thing and supported self determination. Better late than never.

Did Indonesian soldiers die trying to take over and occupy East Timor, and did Jakarta spend development money there over the years? Yes and yes, but so what? It is like saying Dutch soldiers who died killing Indonesians to uphold colonialism were heroes. And who would dare argue that Indonesians should really be grateful to the exploitative Dutch for building roads, bridges, and ports?

Returning to Guterres, obviously he is not the only person responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor. If we go back to 1975, there is a long list of figures both in Indonesia and abroad who have blood on their hands.

But the evidence that Guterres was directly involved in atrocities is strong. To take a position based on principles means that although you cannot capture and put everyone responsible on trial, those who can be brought to justice should be.

What does it mean when Indonesia's leaders praise Guterres as a national hero instead of condemning him as a murderer?

The most generous interpretation one can draw is that they buy the twisted Soeharto version of the invasion and have been brain- washed into thinking East Timor was genuinely a part of the country. And thus rape, torture, and murder is justified and even celebrated as long as it is for the Red and White national flag.

An even less generous interpretation is that treating Guterres like a national hero is a convenient way to snub the international community and use nationalist feelings to build political strength.

Both interpretations share one thing in common: there are no basic principles of truth and justice involved in either.

Jakarta has used its size and instability as effective tools to make the international community back down on principled demands and objectives. It is a sad commentary on the state of justice in Indonesia when thugs are treated as heroes.