Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Indonesians for East Timor

Published: Sep 12, 2007
A small but growing Indonesian movement supports self-determination in East Timor, for the sake of Indonesian democracy

James Goodman

In a fashionable Jakarta restaurant two hundred people are listening to the editor of Tempo news weekly talk about East Timor. Over half are university students, the rest are journalists and some activists. They are attending the launch of a web site on East Timor issues organised by the Jakarta-based Solidamor, or Solidarity for Timor Leste Peace Settlement. Solidamor organiser Gustaf Dupe is very pleased with the turnout, more than double what he expected. He says there is a growing interest in East Timor issues in Jakarta. Many in the democracy movement have begun to see the East Timorese right to self-determination as first and foremost a democratic issue. Solidamor gets the message across through the language of reconciliation - East Timorese and Indonesians have a common aspiration, and to achieve this they must overcome past hostilities and work together for the future.

Since they began arriving in the 1980s, East Timorese students living in Indonesia have been trying to get the issue of East Timor onto the agenda for Indonesian democrats. Renetil, the National Resistance of East Timorese Students, found early support within the student solidarity movement from Infight, a sister organisation of the radical environmentalist group Skephi. Pijar followed, a progressive student organisation whose founders were involved in the student-peasant protests of the late 1980s, and which now has strong links with Solidamor. Smid, Student Solidarity for Democracy in Indonesia, which later founded the radical party PRD, was another source of support.

Indonesian-East Timorese solidarity groups sprang up in several university towns, including Denpasar, where Renetil was born. Fernando d'Araujo, Renetil's general secretary, recalls how the objective was to create pressure from within Indonesia, to internalise international principles of democracy and human rights, and thereby to redefine Indonesian national identity.

Joint action

After the 1991 Dili massacre, Indonesian and East Timorese students began staging joint actions. Indonesians said the occupation of East Timor was in breach of Indonesia's founding principles specifically of the 1945 constitutional preamble, which states that 'independence is the right of all peoples'. Protests were held in Jakarta and Bandung, and many were arrested. This led to impassioned speeches at subsequent court appearances, notably from d'Araujo, who called on the Indonesian people to assert their own political principles. Subsequently, Indonesians such as the editor of the student activist newspaper Kabar dari Pijar, who is now active in Solidamor, and Wilson, who was arrested for PRD activities in 1996, made similar appeals in their court appearances.

The 1991 arrests led to the emergence of Jakarta's first solidarity group, the Joint Committee in Defence of East Timorese. The committee was set up by concerned Indonesians and brought together Jakarta-based legal centres and church bodies. The initial purpose was to support students who had been arrested at the Jakarta protests. It later provided some support for East Timorese students affected by military operations in East Timor.

East Timorese student networks began distributing an Indonesian translation of Xanana Gusmao's 1992 defence plea, as well as an analysis of the social and environmental impact of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. The latter was written by the academic George Aditjondro, from Satya Wacana University in Central Java, who in 1992 became one of the few academics willing to publicly support the East Timorese right to self-determination. He was forced to leave Indonesia for Australia in 1995.

Jakarta's human rights agencies began employing East Timorese from the mid-1980s to focus on the humanitarian crisis in East Timor. By the mid-1990s the East Timor question was entering the Indonesian public realm as a human rights issue - although not yet as an issue of self-determination. East Timorese groups in Jakarta sought to widen the agenda, through cultural understanding. In 1994, for instance, Timorese students set up Oratim, a network of students linked to the church, which began meeting as a discussion group. In 1997 it began producing a quarterly newsletter on Timorese culture and history, distributed to senior members of the Suharto regime.

At the same time, more Indonesians began working together for East Timor in a loose organisation called Pokastim, the East Timor Communications Forum, which in some ways replaced the Joint Committee. This was dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance for East Timorese living in their occupied territory including education and health. It also aimed to provide a focus on East Timor for democracy and human rights organisations. It was the first to stage a public meeting in Jakarta on the question of self-determination in East Timor, held at a university in late 1997. Solidamor grew out of the Forum, as did another East Timor solidarity group, called Fortilos, Solidarity for the People of East Timor.

Fortilos pursues a different agenda from Solidamor in being more focused on direct solidarity for East Timor. The group draws on linkages established through the Joint Committee, and with feminist organisations and student cultural groups. Fortilos was set up in 1998 and provides medical aid for East Timorese. It explicitly backs self-determination. In April 1999 for instance, with the Jakarta-based journalist group Isai, Fortilos published the first translation of James Dunn's account of the 1975 Balibo incident in which several Australian journalists died. They were asked (but refused) to withdraw the booklet, so as not to offend the Information Minister, who is directly implicated in the Balibo incident.

Fay, a Fortilos organiser, argues that change in Indonesia will only come from below, from those who organise under the most difficult of circumstances. It is in East Timor that the true nature of the Indonesian state is exposed. It is here too that communities are constructing an alternative future. Similar alternatives are emerging in West Kalimantan and Irian Jaya, where indigenous Dayaks and West Papuans contest domination by resource companies.

This form of solidarity differs from Solidamor's reconciliation approach, and also from the PRD's approach of constructing parallel Indonesian-Timorese struggles. It deliberately prioritises East Timorese self-determination over broader Indonesian concerns, without distancing East Timor issues from those concerns. In the first instance it is solidarity 'for' rather than solidarity 'with' the East Timorese.

These three strands of the Indonesian solidarity movement, and their East Timorese counterparts in Jakarta, have helped to force the issue of East Timorese self-determination onto the agenda. In the post-Suharto era the East Timor issue has become a national question as much as a human rights one. In the widening democracy agenda, the question of self-determination in East Timor becomes inseparable from the question of democracy in Indonesia.

Amien Rais

In early 1999 Amien Rais' PAN became the second political party to support self-determination. Although Megawati's PDI remained opposed, the pressure was mounting there too. Fernando d'Araujo says that Megawati's rejection of self-determination for East Timor creates a major problem if she wants to maintain her image. 'As a good fighter for democracy, she must support the East Timorese struggle', he says.

Many non-government organisations (NGOs) now also increasingly see East Timor in self-determination terms. At the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH) last April, two days after the Liquica massacres, I found myself in the midst of a passionate pro-Xanana demonstration. Students and activists were singing East Timorese national songs in the grounds of the Institute, while the military filmed them from outside. Jakarta lawyers represent Xanana, and the protest coincided with a press conference at the Institute to announce changes in CNRT strategy. Last November even more soldiers surrounded the Institute as the first public and legal commemoration of the 1991 Dili massacre took place in Jakarta. In April the Institute allowed students from the Timorese Socialist Party to stage a hunger strike in its grounds, in protest at the militarisation of East Timorese politics.

As a result of this widening support, Indonesian solidarity groups are gaining greater confidence. In April 1999 the Indonesian military, no longer named Abri but recently renamed TNI after the police split off, were hosting 150 pro-integration militia. They had come from Dili to hunt down East Timorese campaigners in Jakarta. Solidarity groups helped East Timorese find 'safe houses'. Several Jakarta women's groups organised a women-only demonstration outside the Kopassus (elite commandos) headquarters where the militia were staying. The aim was to pose a symbolic challenge that could not be dismissed by the wider society as a 'minority' East Timorese concern.

Solidarity groups are in effect attempting to turn Indonesian nationalism against the pro-integrationists. They accuse the violent militia groups of insulting the Indonesian people by claiming to act in their name, and say they are defaming the Indonesian flag. This is a bold step for the solidarity movement. It reflects widespread community outrage at the pro-integration violence in East Timor.

The Indonesian solidarity movement is starting to play a critical role in challenging the occupation of East Timor. This stems from many years of pressure from East Timorese students, as well as from the wider political context. Indonesians are feeling the necessity, and the ability, to act for East Timorese self-determination. The demand for self-determination is no longer an 'external' pressure. Increasingly it is coming from the heart of Indonesia's political culture.

James Goodman (james.goodman@uts.edu.au) is a researcher at University of Technology Sydney and was recently in Jakarta. Many thanks to George J. Aditjondro for extensive comments. The Solidamor web site is at www.solidamor.org.

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