Friday, July 21, 2006

Was Independence a Mistake?

The turmoil in East Timor and the subsequent deployment of Australian and other peacekeeping troops has prompted much soul-searching, especially among human rights activists for whom the cause of an independent East Timor was an article of faith.

Has East Timor, become, four years after it gained formal independence from Indonesia, just another “failed state”, or as Australian Defense Minister Brendon Nelson said recently: “a haven perhaps for transnational crime, for terrorism, and indeed humanitarian disaster and justice.”

Such a description seems too strong for East Timor, which, though sunk into lawlessness, has not, to my knowledge, harbored any kind of terrorists. The question is more whether this territory of fewer than a million people is or can become a viable country. Was independence a mistake?

This is, after all, a country that probably could not join ASEAN because it cannot afford, on its own, to meet the basic requirement of opening diplomatic missions in the ten Southeast Asian nations that make up the group.

Writing in The Monthly Don Watson, former prime minister Paul Keating’s speech writer, created something of a stir when he wrote: “Life under a murderous occupation might be a little better than life in a failed state, albeit one perennially dependent on Australian aid and Australian policing.”

“What was more, in an imperfect world, Suharto’s Indonesia was a lot better than its critics were willing to concede, or able to see from their lofty Pilgeresque perches.” (A reference to the left-wing journalist John Pilger, a fierce critic of Suharto).

Keating, Australia’s last Labor Party PM, took a markedly pro-Indonesia position (and took a lot of flak for it from the left wing of his party) because he was keen on positioning his country as being a part of Asia. (His successor, John Howard, is much less interested in the “Australia is a part of Asia” business.}

Writes Watson: “The relationship was important because Indonesia was the most populous Muslim country in the world. It was a developing country offering numerous complementary interests. A successful relationship was a precondition of a successful engagement with Asia.”

Watson went on to argue that the years of stability in Indonesia under ex-president Suharto’s New Order government made it possible to drop the “White Australia” policy, welcome Asian immigrants and make Australia a more open and tolerant country.

“Suharto gave us nothing less than an ability to shed our ancient fear of Asia, Liberalism in Australia profited from despotism in Indonesia. What we took for our own courage was just the profit of Suharto’s ruthlessness.”

Nevertheless, the history of appeasing Suharto still leaves a bad taste in Watson’s mouth since he concludes by saying “It was good policy but nevertheless cowardice as well.”

John Pilger would no doubt agree. The fiery, unreconstructed activist recently wrote a piece in accusing Canberra of deliberately provoking disorder in order to remove East Timor’s Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, in effect an act of regime change.

Civil order has returned to East Timor. Former foreign minister Jose Ramos-Horta has replaced Alkatiri as premier. It is probably too early to dismiss East Timor as a “failed state” state. It is certainly a fragile state, but was it a mistake?

Instead of becoming what it is and likely to remain for many years, a poor, independent country and perpetual ward of the UN, non-governmental agencies, Australia and Portugal, it could have remained part of a dynamic and now democratic Indonesian nation.

This notion, of course, would be heresy to many, even as they lament the chaos that overtook the country a few weeks ago. Did not the Indonesian army murder and massacre tens of thousands of Timorese during its 25-year occupation?

It can certainly be argued that Jakarta long ago lost the mandate of heaven to govern East Timor because of its harsh occupation. But one also has to ask whether it is right that national border in Asia be determined by which European colonizer settled where?

Why couldn’t the Timorese have followed the example of Goa? India and Indonesia were in a very similar position at the close of World War II. In both cases the main European colonizer – the British in India and the Dutch in Indonesia – withdrew but left behind small Portuguese enclaves, which Lisbon clung to fiercely.

New Delhi finally lost patience and in 1961 invaded the largest of its enclaves and forcefully expelled the Portuguese. The world condemned India, but the affair was soon forgotten. Goa settled down peacefully, eventually becoming a full-fledged state of the Indian Union.

Fast forward to 1975. The Carnation Revolution has ousted the Portuguese dictator Salazar and Lisbon is shedding its overseas empire. East Timor declares independence, and the Indonesian army invades. But in this case years of guerrilla warfare against the occupation ensue until in 1999 East Timorese vote for independence.

One wonders whether East Timorese might be having “buyers remorse” today. Are they so different from their former countrymen in other parts of Indonesia that they should be independent. If this is true for East Timor, why not for Aceh or Bali or Papua? That, of course, was always Jakarta’s argument.

And if ethnic differences are such important criteria, then how important is it that East Timor itself is divided into the Kaladis of the west and the Firakus to the east. Should the country be further divided into the Republics of East East Timor and West East Timor (throw in a Republic of Oecussi-Ambeno, the small enclave in West Timor).

On independence, East Timor adopted Portuguese as one of its official languages presumably as another way to set themselves apart from their former countrymen. Portuguese teachers flocked to new country to offer instruction, so that in addition to their other disadvantages, the Timorese would learn a language that virtually useless for them in Asia.

By contrast, Indonesians couldn’t care less about studying Dutch or learning about Dutch culture. Instead they cultivated Bahasa Indonesian as a language that would unite the disparate groups that make up their nation.

The great irony of the East Timor struggle is that just as it finally reached its goal of independence in 2002, Indonesia itself was becoming fully democratic. Meanwhile, in Goa they celebrate Dec. 16, the day India invaded, as “Liberation Day.”


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