An Indonesian's Plea

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In recent weeks, as I watched CNN and Australian TV report on the killing of innocent people in East Timor, I kept praying aloud: Can't someone do something to stop this? Australian Prime Minister John Howard finally came forward and pushed the United States and the United Nations to help form an international peacekeeping force. Suddenly Australia became my hero.

I realize that Howard is doing this to enhance his own political stature and that Australia has long-term economic interests in East Timor. So what? Indonesian politicians are similarly attempting to manipulate events according to their self-interest. President B.J. Habibie is using East Timor to try to win international credit. General Wiranto is sending a message that Indonesia's military will remain a force to be reckoned with. Opposition politician Megawati Sukarno-putri is opportunistically attacking Habibie for making a mess of East Timor and for embarrassing Indonesia in the eyes of the world.

A measure of calm returns to East Timor with the arrival of international troops. But the real challenge is not bringing peace but keeping it

But while Canberra deserves praise for its move to stop the killings, anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia is only growing. It's clear that the outbursts have been orchestrated by elements in the government and the military. As Indonesian political analyst Wimar Witular has pointed out, the daily demonstrations in front of the Australian Embassy and the U.N. mission in Jakarta have been organized primarily by paid thugs. Jakarta seems desperate to find an issue to unify the country as its attempts to restore political and economic stability flounder.

But there is more to it than that. Many ordinary Indonesians feel genuine hostility toward Australia. For the most part, these people are more concerned with just getting by than with events in a distant province. Many were clearly offended, however, when televised reports showed Australians in Melbourne and other cities burning the Indonesian flag. I understand their feelings: Indonesians learn from a young age to respect the flag as a sacred symbol of nationhood. Having lived in Australia for more than two years, I realize that the act isn't as dire there. I've seen protests, for example, in which Australians burned their own flag. Nonetheless, I told my Australian friends that they were making unnecessary enemies by burning the Indonesian flag. Better, I advised them, to ignite photos of some of Indonesia's generals.

As for Indonesia's intellectuals, a few have joined the anti-Australian assault, arguing that Indonesia--right or wrong--is their country, and an insult to the flag is an insult to them. The majority, however, appear to take a different view: when the country is wrong, it's everyone's duty to point it out. Moreover, this view holds, it's wrong to make Australia the scapegoat for a mess Indonesia created. That said, even these people chafe at the endless reports in the international media--especially the Australian press--of atrocities in East Timor. They are ashamed of what Indonesia's military has done in Timor, but they feel helpless to change the situation. Moreover, they get mad when foreigners talk as if all Indonesians are responsible for the atrocities, as they, too, have been victims of military oppression for years.

Indonesians are living in a very frustrating time. They succeeded in toppling President Suharto, but the powerful instruments of state are still in the hands of his political cronies: Habibie, the military, the parliament. Moreover, the future leaders of the country are not very promising. The three most prominent--Megawati, Gus Dur and Amien Rais--have yet to prove that they are capable of changing things for the better. They seem more interested in their narrow political ambitions and have been insensitive to the human suffering in East Timor.

For many Indonesians, the past was bitter, the present is dark, the future is uncertain.

In this suffocating situation, it's perhaps understandable that many Indonesians vent their anger by lashing out at somebody, anybody. Alienating the Americans would be unwise, as it might stop the flow of badly needed economic aid. Australia, on the other hand, is a convenient target. Australians burned our flag, they are playing the lead role in the peacekeeping force, their media have continuously exposed the horrible things occurring in East Timor. For many Indonesians, including some intellectuals, it is all too much to bear.

I have been told that the road of the intellectual is a lonely one. These days I feel very lonely.

Arief Budiman is head of Melbourne University's Indonesian studies department and an editor of Reformasi, Crisis and Change in Indonesia