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Nationalist Sentiment in Indonesia

September 29, 1999

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Most of the world blames East Timor’s chaos on Indonesia’s inaction or collusion. But the militia rampage and the ensuing peacekeeping mission play far differently on the domestic scene.

Here, Australia is the bad guy, butting into a civil war, not halting a massacre. Its troops are portrayed as aggressive and biased. Militia claims of abuse _ even murder _ by the foreigners are given wide coverage and credence, although the peacekeepers call the allegations absurd.

``We are afraid this could become a trigger for anti-West sentiment,″ Taufik Darusman, managing editor The Indonesian Observer newspaper, said Tuesday.

Australia, which has spearheaded the international intervention, on Tuesday accused Indonesia of a deliberate campaign of misinformation to discredit its troops.

The Australian Embassy in Jakarta has been hit twice by drive-by gunfire. Protesters have burned Australian flags.

Tuesday’s Observer had a front-page headline about peacekeepers allegedly ripping up an Indonesian flag and an inside story in which militia claims that Australian troops burned to death one of their members were stated as fact.

Only one of Indonesia’s major papers carried any mention Tuesday of a deadly ambush of two nuns and seven other people.

Darusman said debate over East Timor has divided the country’s intelligentsia. Some feel East Timor should never be allowed to become independent; others claim the East Timorese should have the right of self-determination.

On the streets, sentiment is much more black-and-white: The foreigners are interlopers threatening Indonesia with disintegration. The sprawling archipelago already faces separatist movements in several areas.

``If that happens, Indonesia could not forgive the Balkanization of the country,″ Darusman said. ``People feel Indonesia has been betrayed by the Australians and the Americans. Our military feels the same way.″

He pointed to the stark change from Cold War politics, when the Soviet Union was trying to make inroads in the South Pacific and the West looked the other way in East Timor as along as Indonesia remained an ally.

East Timor is an emotional issue for other reasons. About 17,000 Indonesians have died during the often-brutal 24-year occupation of East Timor, and another 3,000-4,000 are disabled.

The domestic media, which labored under tight government controls until the resignation of President Suharto in May 1998 after 32 years of authoritarian rule, has found East Timor a sensitive story to cover.

``We’re trying to be as balanced as possible,″ said Djafar H. Assegaf, chief editor of the Media Indonesia newspaper.

Most of the criticism of the peacekeeping mission has focused on Australia, particularly after Prime Minister John Howard was quoted as saying his country should act as the United States’ deputy in maintaining order in this part of Asia. He later denied using the word ``deputy.″

Some have called for boycotts of Australian products. The government said Monday it would cut cotton imports and help other business that rely on Australian products to find substitutes.

Indonesia has been getting some backing from other Asian countries, particularly fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a group that has noninterference in each other’s internal affairs as a founding principle.

``The Australians would like to be accepted by ASEAN but they’re more inclined toward the West,″ Darusman said.

Most analysts said they expected the current crisis to be short-lived, that East Timor will start fading from the limelight after a special assembly in November of Indonesian legislators and government appointees endorses East Timor’s pro-independence vote.

``In six months, we will be looking at other issues, and East Timor will be sixth or seventh on our list of top 10 stories,″ Assegaf said. ``Economic issues will come to the fore, along with unemployment.″

But if the story doesn’t fade, it would bode ominously for international relations, particularly with Australia.

``We still need each other,″ Assegaf said.

Indonesian tourism, already hurt by cancellations from Australians and others, would be hit even harder. At the same time, many flights to Australia are reliant on Indonesian airspace and air-traffic control. And Indonesia largely controls the Straits of Malacca that are the northern gateway to Australia.

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