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Review: East Timor's wounded psyche told

Jakarta Post
Book Review
April 30, 2000


* See other East Timor media updates on Cafe Pacific:

Guns and ballot boxes; East Timor's vote for independence; edited by Damien Kingsbury; Monash Asia Institute 2000; Paperback 201 pages.

MELBOURNE (JP): For an Indonesian, even one who is conscious of the nation's faults and shortcomings, Damien Kingsbury's Guns and Ballot Boxes is not an easy book to read. It is emotionally wearing, to say the least.

You keep hoping that what you are reading is not true, and that if you turn another page it will tell you just that, but you know very well there will be no such let up. So you keep reading until the disbelief, frustration and

anger are so all-consuming that you have to stop and throw the book down. And throw it down hard. And the next day you pick it up again, still hoping for a glimmer of relief.

Not surprisingly, the chapters that stand out as courageously hopeful are those written by Xanana Gusmao and Bishop Carlos Belo, two East Timorese

leaders with the unenviable task of cleaning up the awful mess and rebuilding the nation from scratch.

The book focuses on the events and issues surrounding the East Timor poll of Aug. 30, last year, the subsequent results of which were that 78.5 percent of East Timorese voters chose independence from Indonesia.

Six chapters of the book are first-hand accounts of people who were in East Timor during voter registration, the poll itself, vote counting, and the

violence and atrocities that devastated the territory afterwards. These are given a wider context by other contributors, who place the East Timor tragedy in a global picture.

Reading the accounts of Anthony Smith, Helene van Klinken, Peter Bartu, Hidajat Djajamihardja, Annemarie Devereux and Damien Kingsbury, even with an eye ever vigilant to detect any bias on the part of the writers, it is difficult to avoid accepting the facts.

Individually and collectively, the accounts reveal that Indonesia did not fulfill its obligations as specified in the tripartite agreement signed on May 5, 1999, in New York. In the agreement, the Indonesian police guarantee security for both the pro-integrationists as well as the pro-independence groups. Yet various eye-witnesses told the increasingly and alarmingly familiar story of the police standing by while the pro-integrationist militia bullied, terrorized even murdered those suspected or known to be pro-independence.

It would be easy to dismiss the writers' reports as anti-Indonesian bias. However, doing so leads to one of the baser moral crimes of denying other people's sufferings to avoid one's own responsibility for those sufferings. It is not only an insult to those who suffer, but also a blow to one's own integrity.

One of the best and most sobering chapters was written by Hidajat Djajamihardja, a senior Radio Australia journalist, who went to East Timor to cover events surrounding the poll. Hidajat not only relates his experiences, on more than one occasion being heavily persuaded by military authorities not to put them in a bad light, even physically assaulted, but also provides a comprehensive overview of the media in Indonesia during the New Order era.

In doing so, Hidajat modestly conveys the message that he was not carrying out a particularly heroic act in the context of what Indonesian journalists have for decades had to go through in their day-to-day work.

For that reason the fact that nothing has been written about the Indonesian journalists who were terrorized, even shot at, while covering the same events, is a yawning and to a certain extent hurtful gap.

If, in this era of germinating democracy, there is also a reawakening of

nationalism, it is only natural. However, to achieve mature nationalism, the fervor does not necessarily have to be accompanied by a denial of the more unflattering parts of history.

Guns and ballot boxes after all, tells of only one corner of Indonesia's

wounded psyche. Now for the healing.

-- Dewi Anggraeni


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