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Diplomatic game over East Timor 'will benefit Jakarta instead'

Straits Times - June 17, 1997

Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas made it clear what he thought of objections in the US Congress over the sale of nine F-16 fighter planes to Indonesia when the issue came up early this year.

Early this month, citing "wholly unjustified criticisms" in Congress, he announced the Indonesian government was cancelling its planned purchase of the F-16s, as well as withdrawing from a military education programme called Imet.

He singled out one critic, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who, fresh from a short visit to the former Portuguese colony of East Timor last December, introduced a Bill to cut off US$ 26 million (S$ 37 million) in annual military assistance, including US$ 600,000 in Imet funds unless Indonesia overhauled its human rights situation.

That Bill was overtaken by a less restrictive amendment put forward by Congressman Howard Berman who sought to limit military assistance and arms transfer to Indonesia for one fiscal year unless President Bill Clinton certified that Indonesia was meeting certain requirements like election monitoring.

Mr Alatas spoke to Straits Times Indonesia correspondent Susan Sim last Wednesday, shortly after news broke that the US House of Representatives had voted unanimously to approve an amendment condemning Jakarta's human rights record in East Timor.

The word just out of Washington is that the House of Representatives has voted unanimously to approve an amendment condemning human rights abuses by Indonesia in East Timor.

It was predictable that this amendment was going to pass, because when Congressman Kennedy wanted a separate legislation not only condemning Indonesian human rights abuses, but also linking it to F-16 sale as well as Imet and so on, it was considered by many of his own colleagues to be unreachable and inappropriate and unachievable. And so Congressman Berman took over the initiative and made it into an amendment to a broader legislation and the language was very much watered down ...

Since it was weakened, it was predictable that that would be perhaps the one that would be accepted by Congress. But now it still has to go to the Senate.

Does Indonesia think it has more friends in the Senate? No, we have friends both in Congress and in the Senate. But we are also aware that lately there have been heightened campaigns against Indonesia not only in Congress but also from certain NGOs and so on. And of course people like Ramos-Horta have been quite active travelling around the world and spending a lot of money on trying to keep up this issue of East Timor. (Note: Ramos-Horta is an East Timorese pro-independence leader in exile who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Dili Bishop Carlos Belo last year.)

What do you think accounts for this heightened campaign against Indonesia?

Well for one thing, of course, inevitably if one gets the Nobel Peace Prize, however misguided that decision may be in our view, then there is heightened attention. And I think Mr Ramos-Horta is making full use of this heightened attention by going around. We also see that Portugal now has dropped all pretences that they have nothing to do with this campaign of Ramos-Horta. In the past they said: "No we have nothing to do with it. It is his campaign." Now they support it openly, they admit the fact that they have appropriated a certain sum of money, not small, to support him.

We believe the role of Portugal and Ramos-Horta and the position of Ramos-Horta in all this as the pawn of an ex-colonial power and as a pawn in the neo-colonialist policies of Portugal have now been completely established, revealed in all its stark reality. In that sense, I would like to point out that it is easier now for us to explain the issue to other developing countries, especially those who have fought very hard against colonialism and neo-colonialism in the past because they understand the language much better. So we'll have to face it and we are facing it.

You are saying then that in a sense the diplomatic game over East Timor is changing now, the battle lines are becoming clearer, it is colonial exploiters against the formerly oppressed ... That's true.

And that would eventually swing round to Indonesia's advantage?

Yes, we believe that as more and more countries, developing countries, non-aligned countries, realise this, it will become more apparent that all this is part of campaigns waged by neo-colonialist forces, and not the purist image as if they were fighting for nothing else except the principles of democracy and human rights, which is a very ludicrous thing to say by a country like Portugal.

What does Portugal gain by waging such a neo-colonialist campaign?

Probably it is one way for a small country like Portugal to continue to be in the limelight, to draw the attention of the world to the importance of their country. Perhaps. I don't know.

One of the ironies of these congressional initiatives linking Imet and F-16 sales to Indonesia's human rights record is that analysts as well as Clinton administration aides say that Imet is one of the best tools to promote democratisation in Indonesia. Would you agree with this viewpoint? Well, that is the viewpoint of the United States government. As far as we are concerned, we think that the Imet was useful because it had not only given the Indonesian officers the opportunity to increase their technical knowledge in their respective fields, but had also allowed them to broaden and to deepen their understanding of the United States and its people and also through discussions, to broaden and deepen their mutual knowledge about the intricacies and the complex dimensions of regional and international security issues in this post-Cold War period.

So we thought that it was good training. But it was a small programme. At the most, it was US$ 2.5 million. And at the last stage it was only US$ 600,000. Only a few officers could go every year. So why make it a big issue? If they think that Indonesia should be, quote, unquote, punished by not allowing it to participate in Imet, then for heaven's sake, we will withdraw. We will not cause any difficulties to another friendly government. Because as you said rightly, the Clinton administration has always supported the Imet programme. And they were a bit surprised that we left, regretted the fact that we left. But we told them, look, we don't want to make things difficult for you if this is continuously being drummed up in Congress. Let's remove the friction.

With yesterday's House vote, Mr Kennedy is now saying that he will use it as a launching point for further legislative initiatives.

Do you think that with the slanging match that seems to have started with your ministry calling his statements ludicrous and outrageous, that that has got backs up and the screws are going to be tightened?

Well, about this slanging match, we thought that some of the things he said needed a response. First his absurd statement crying victory and claiming responsibility, authorship of the victory. More importantly, his statement twisting again the facts about what's happening in East Timor. As if the deaths of police personnel is part of ... instead of saying that he too regrets these things, no, he turns it around and says that lately he's concerned about the situation in East Timor because of a military crackdown.

What is he talking about?

It's the other way round. We are being shot at. We are being killed. Our people are being killed. So we had to answer it.

As to his saying now that he wants to use the House vote as his launching pad for further actions against Indonesia, well, he's free to do so. What else does he want to propose?

I don't know. Let's see what he can do, because there is no more F-16 to beat around, there is no more Imet to beat around.

What else does he want? Does he want to propose also to stop foreign aid to Indonesia? It's only US$ 27 million or something. He can try that and see how his own government will react. It's up to them.