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Dita Sari on attitudes in Indonesia towards Timor

Dita Sari on attitudes in Indonesia towards East Timor

Dita Sari, the workers leader who was released from prison in July this year after serving three years of a five-year sentence, is now in the UK at the invitation of the TUC. She gave this interview to TAPOL before departing for Brighton yesterday:

Q. What was the impact in Indonesia of the result of the referendum in East Timor?

A. The 78.5 per cent vote in favour of independence came as a great shock, something quite unbelievable. Many people were very angry when the results were announced. They found it very difficult to accept that the East Timorese want to leave the Republic, and they directed their anger against Habibie for having given them the option to decide. Very few people in Indonesia support the idea of independence for East Timor. In the first days after the result was announced, even some NGOs that are members of the solidarity organisation Solidamor could not bring themselves to support the result and did not want to take any action. But this is what my party, the PRD, did. We went to the UN office in Jakarta to deliver a statement making three points: we supported the results of the referendum, we called for the withdrawal of Indonesian troops from East Timor and we called for intervention by an international peace-keeping force. The referendum result provoke a lot of nationalistic sentiments and there were protest demonstrations outside the Australian embassy against Australian intervention on the question of East Timor.

Q. What has been the response of the political parties?

A. Like many other parties, Megawati's party, the PDI-P, has used the referendum result to attack Habibie as part of her efforts to defeat him in the contest for the presidency later this year. She has accused Habibie of acting unlawfully for allowing the East Timor people to choose and said this should not have happened before the meeting of the newly-elected MPR which takes place later this year. As for Gus Dur who leads the Nahdlatul Ulama, his first response was to accuse UNAMET of being unfair and he said that the results had been rigged. But after a few days, his position shifted somewhat.

Q. What was it that brought about this shift?

A. There has been as gradual shift in public perceptions. The Indonesian press has reported in great detail on the international reaction to the events of the past ten days. East Timor has been frontpage news in all the newspapers every day with many reports about international outrage at what has been happening and this has helped to bring about a shift in public perceptions about East Timor. Press reporting has played a significant role in breaking up old prejudices about how well Indonesia has treated East Timor. People are beginning to see the question in a different light. Statements made by President Clinton condemning the situation in East Timor have also had a powerful impact on public opinion. I have to say that the Indonesian press has played a very good role in informing people. Some Indonesian journalists put their own lives at risk to follow events in East Timor, although they were eventually forced to leave the country. A few days ago, Kompas published an editorial commenting on the threat of economic sanctions because of the situation in East Timor. It said that when considering our attitude towards East Timor, we must also consider its impact on other political issues such as economic stability. This has also helped to bring about a shift in attitudes. Kompas is the largest circulation paper in the country and it is widely read so its views are important in molding public opinion.

Q. Have any of the major parties seen this as an issue of the right of the people of East Timor to self-determination?

A. No. Although they say that they will accept the result, this is only because there was a majority in favour of independence. It has nothing to do with East Timor's right to self-determination. East Timor is being used as a political football in moves by people to get rid of Habibie later this year.

Q. Dont people see any similarity between East Timor's struggle for independence and Indonesia's struggle against the Dutch in the 1940s?

A. No, not really. For years, the Indonesian people have been told that in 1975, East Timor was in danger of falling into the clutches of the communists. They were also led to believe that Indonesia was in East Timor because the East Timorese asked to be integrated into Indonesia. This distortion of history is still very strongly embedded in the minds of most people.

Q. Has the news from East Timor helped in any way to strengthen opposition to the armed forces and its dwi-fungsi ideology?

A. I don't think so. Of course, there is a great deal of anger towards the armed forces. It is clear to everyone that they are incapable of handling situations of unrest anywhere in the country, such as Ambon, Aceh, West Kalimantan or anywhere else. But in the case of East Timor, people see this as involving the loss of part of Indonesia's territory and blame Habibie for suggesting that a referendum should be held. It's all his fault. They are not blaming the armed forces.

Q. What has been Wiranto's role in instigating the campaign of violence by the army-backed militias?

A. He has been in charge all along. He knows all about the arming and training of the militias. There's no doubt about that. But the problem is that their activities are now totally out of control. His hopes of imposing some kind of discipline on the operations have been futile. The main target of these operations was supposed to be the CNRT but things went beyond that, doing absolutely crazy things like attacking Bishop Belo. Then he thought that he could bring things under control by imposing martial law but that hasn't worked either.

Q. Habibie has just announced that Indonesia will allow an international peace-keeping force into East Timor. How does this reflect on Habibie and Wiranto?

A. I think that this was an easy decision for Habibie to take, but it is very humiliating for Wiranto and the armed forces.

Q. And why do you think that there has been a campaign of such widespread killing and destruction in East Timor since the result of the referendum became known?

A. The pro-Jakarta militias and their supporters decided to take revenge on the people of East Timor. Their logic is: we are going to lose East Timor so we want to make sure that you won't get anything either.

TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign
111 Northwood Road, Thornton Heath,
Surrey CR7 8HW, UK
Phone: 0181 771-2904 Fax: 0181 653-0322
Campaigning to expose human rights violations in
Indonesia, East Timor, West Papua and Aceh
25 years - and still going strong

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