Thursday, March 22, 2007

Longing for Indonesia in Timor

25 years ago

Longing for Indonesia in Timor
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Against the backdrop of eight years of uncertainty and violence, some East Timorese are wondering whether life under Indonesian rule was really that bad, reports Paul Toohey.
Most young-to-middle-aged East Timorese don't just speak Indonesian. They think Indonesian. That's because for a long time there they were Indonesian. Given what has happened since 1999, the mess that is East Timor - a mess that is only getting worse - it's time to think dark thoughts and wonder if the people would have been better off never being liberated at all.

This might seem outrageous to outsiders who imagine nothing could be worse than being under the Indonesian jackboot. But it is something East Timorese wonder all the time.

Go to an East Timorese home on sunset. They're not watching ABC's into-Asia service. Nor are they watching Portuguese television - even though their leaders would prefer they did. In an absurdly bloody-minded decision, those who had exiled themselves during the Indonesian occupation and went to live in Portuguese-speaking places like Mozambique, Angola and Portugal, came home after 1999, took power and imposed Portuguese as the official language.

But everyone's still speaking Indonesian - and they're watching Indonesian TV. They pool their resources, buy $200 satellite dishes, hang leads off in every direction, and then small communities can make sure they never miss "Bawang Merah Bawang Putih", which roughly translates as "onion garlic". It's one of Indonesia's most popular soap operas and is a modern working over of an old Malay fable about a good sister and her evil twin.

It's strange how the life of two spunky Jakarta girls could mean so much to the East Timorese. But look what's happened since 1999, and even in recent weeks, as trouble simmers and sometimes explodes in Dili. Dozens of East Timorese have been arrested crossing the border into Indonesian-run West Timor. Why did they go to Indonesia? For safety.

When Dili-based people - expats or wealthier Timorese - need a break, or to do some shopping, they don't fly to Darwin. They go to Kupang, or Jakarta. The East Timorese feel perfectly at ease with Indonesians.

Some commentators have said that after the Australian-led Interfet liberation of 1999, Indonesian politicians are laughing hard at Australia for taking on such a basket case. Whether they are really rolling in the aisles slapping their thighs is doubtful. But Indonesia must be glad to have washed their hands of the joint, and are certainly watching unsurprised as Australia digs itself into a hole in Timor.

China, which has no troop commitment in East Timor, has plans to build the Timorese a great presidential palace in Dili central; the Portuguese have almost completed a spectacular presidential residence in the hills above Dili. While they scavenge for hearts and minds, and snuggle up close to the leaders of the tiny oil-rich country, Australia is left paying the security bills.

After 1999, it was common to hear East Timorese express a sentiment along these lines: "Even though we are poorer now, at least we don't live in fear of Indonesia." That's out the window. Now they live in fear of themselves.

Indonesia built the East Timorese road system (which has since fallen into chronic disrepair after 1999). East Timorese - as Indonesians - received free tertiary education and a stipend to live outside Timor and attend university. Deposed Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri once referred to the degree East Timorese got in Jakarta as "Super Mie degrees", in a disparaging reference to the instant noodle brand.

Maybe so, but East Timorese still want to - and those lucky enough do - attend universities in Indonesia. This might mean that upon return to East Timor, waving their Super Mie degree, they are denied jobs in the civil service, because they don't speak the required Portuguese. But the affection, the contact, the very nature of the people remains inextricably tied to Indonesia.

As their country stagnates and indolent youths turn on each other, East Timorese are now wondering whether they would have been better off going for autonomy, Aceh-style, rather than for the full independence they overwhelmingly voted for at the 1999 referendum. But at that time they were fully entitled to believe in the possibilities of independence. They were caught up in the idea of freedom, and freedom-loving peoples around the world cheered for them. It seemed such a great thing. Eight years on, freedom has given them nothing but trouble.

Sansao Gomes, 24, a law student whose studies have been put on hold by the inertia wracking his country, is typical of many East Timorese in that he had to flee to the hills during the Indonesian-backed militia rampages of 1999. You think he'd just hate Indonesians; but remember, those deadly militias he ran from were East Timorese people. Last year, his house was ransacked - not by Indonesians, but by East Timorese who were once his neighbours.

"Under Indonesian rule, most in civilian society had a free life," says Gomes. "We did not hate civilians from Indonesia, like Javanese and Balinese. At that time we only fought for independence because many people thought that when we have independence everything will be better for people's life. And at that time we only hate the [Indonesian] army invasions and those who made our Timorese brothers to become militias and fight against one another.

"Thousands of Timorese were educated under Indonesian education systems which was better than the only hundreds of Timorese who were educated under Portuguese rule [pre-1975]."

Gomes doesn't say life was all good under Indonesia. "The actions of the Indonesian military intimidated many Timorese who expressed their aim to have self-determination; the military formed many Timorese to become militia by giving them money and properties. And in government administration, in Indonesian times, there was much corruption.

"But on my experience and knowledge, it is not only young people who express that life was better under Indonesia but also many old people. The reason is that when we fought for independence we wished our country would have better life for its people, but the fact is it is not happened all.

"Many political interests have intervened and caused us hate one another. We understand our country is new country so many things go wrong, but to make everything run we have to have one objective - like when we fought for independence.

"Most of our political leaders are fools, because they run the country in the wrong way. We love our independence as a country, and we cannot go back to Indonesia. All we have to do is remind our people to think the same in one way."

Indonesia wouldn't have East Timor back even if it came begging. But as the price of electricity skyrockets in Dili, as mobile phones (there is no landline system) become too costly to use, as fuel hits $US1 per litre, and people remember how schooling was so cheap under the Indonesians, and how every village had a clinic, the 24 years of sometimes brutal Indonesian rule is being reassessed against this backdrop: was my country stable? Were my children educated? Did I have enough food? Did I see hope? The answer to these questions is yes.

In this week's issue of The Bulletin magazine, on sale from Wednesday, read Toohey's report on the murders of three Timorese women branded as sorcerers.
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