Andreas Harsono, Jakarta – On a hot Jakarta evening two weeks ago, in a grand colonial-style guest house at Indonesia's Merdeka Presidential Palace, South African President Nelson Mandela, Africa's most respected statesman talked and dined for about two hours with Xanana Gusmao, the jailed leader of East Timor,
The atmosphere was cordial, even though Mandela, Gusmao and Lopez da Cruz, an advisor to President Suharto who joined the pair for dinner, had agreed in advance that the important agenda of the meeting should be kept secret.
"The meeting was organized with the knowledge and the approval of President Suharto," said da Cruz, adding that both Gusmao and himself, who is a supporter of East Timor integration into Indonesia, described their different views to Mandela.
Mandela maintained a posture of neutrality and impartiality during the talk, da Cruz said, asking questions gently as he tried to create a pleasant atmosphere. He also mentioned nothing about East Timor. Gusmao was taken from the notorious Cipinang prison in eastern Jakarta before the dinner and driven to the Merdeka Palace, da Cruz said.
The African leader only revealed his proposal after returning to Pretoria and extending an invitation to Nobel laureates Jose Ramos-Horta, the spokesman for the East Timor movement in exile, and East Timor Bishop Ximenes Belo as well as Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, to visit the South African capital.
His aides said Mandela, whose left-leaning African National Congress party has close links with both the East Timor resistance movement and the Indonesian government, had offered Suharto his help in mediating the East Timor problem.
Suharto regards Mandela's initiatives as contribution to finding a solution to East Timor's international status, and so agreed to let his African friend to have a meeting with Gusmao, a former guerilla leader who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, in Jakarta.
Many government officials, foreign diplomats and military generals were stunned to know that Suharto had agreed to let a political prisoner once dubbed as a "dirty rat" and currently imprisoned to enter the palace and even dine with an respected state guest like Mandela.
Observers speculate that Suharto has apparently agreed to accept Mandela's offer on the grounds that it is becoming more and more difficult for Indonesia to diplomatically win international support for its claims to East Timor. The Indonesian president apparently believes his nation should change its hardline strategy and to take a milder approach on the thorny questions of East Timor.
In most off-the-record conversations, Indonesian diplomats also admitted their pessimism about the current policy. One high ranking diplomat even said that every good thing that Indonesia has done, whether helping in the peaceful resolution of conflicts in Cambodia, Bosnia Herzegovina or the Moro islands in the Philippines, is always "overshadowed" by the question of East Timor.
Gen. Syarwan Hamid, a close aide to Suharto, has admitted that Indonesia is indeed going to lose the long-proposed UN-sponsored referendum on East Timor if the largest country in southeast Asia agrees to have one in East Timor.
Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and annexed the tiny island in 1976. But the UN has never recognized Indonesia's rule on East Timor, and a small number of East Timor guerillas has kept fighting Indonesian forces for two decades. "Mandela has his own view in settling the East Timor issue. It's not necessary for us to be suspicious or act negatively toward his initiatives," said Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, asserting that the initiatives must remain in line with the formal tripartite dialog between Indonesia and Portuguese under the UN.
"The tripartite dialog is the chief forum to settle the East Timor question," said Alatas. Da Cruz also said that since the very beginning Mandela had asserted that he is only assisting UN Secretary General Koffi Annan in the search for a peaceful solution in East Timor.
Mandela held meetings with Ramos-Horta and Sampaio respectively on July 28 and July 30, after which Mandela said that he had sent a letter to Suharto, asking his Indonesian counterpart to release Gusmao from jail to help speed up the East Timor settlement process.
Political analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar of the Jakarta-based Indonesian Institute of Sciences said that Mandela could play a strategic albeit informal role in the East Timor talks.
Anwar said the initiative was also an expression of gratitude from Mandela for the support the Indonesian government had given him during the long fight against apartheid in South Africa.
President Suharto donated US$10 million to the ANC when Mandela, who had just been released from his 27-year imprisonment, visited Jakarta in 1990 as the ANC president.
"This donation guarantees our final victory. We will leave this country [Indonesia] knowing that the days of oppression are numbered. This donation is the writing on the wall for those who once believed they would rule South Africa for centuries," said the jubilant Mandela at the time. Suharto again helped Mandela financially in 1994 when the African leader asked Suharto to help save a sinking ANC-owned bank.
Critics said that the financial help had obviously made Mandela stay away from East Timor question. Carmel Budiardjo of the London-based Tapol human rights campaign, cynically wrote, "Mandela, more than anyone, knows the importance of international solidarity, both for himself and for his movement. Yet the prospect of power has blinded him to the need to support a movement and its leader suffering under the jackboot of one of the world's most repressive regimes."
Budiardjo noted that in June 1993, Mandela had written a letter to an Irish East Timor campaigner, saying "Please bear in mind that as a liberation movement we have a limited capacity at present to influence the direction taken by any regime. If you can send a message to Xanana Gusmao, tell him to be strong."
Now Mandela has apparently learned from his critics. An aide to Alatas said that his boss was surprised when reading that Mandela had written such a letter. "Such an appeal, if it is true, then it is beyond our expectations."
"Our position is clear that Xanana was not jailed for his political consciousness but for committing a crime," said another aide to Suharto, returning again to the old rhetoric regularly printed and broadcast by the Indonesian media.
Mandela may have some difficulty in winning Suharto's trust as a mediator in the East Timor situation, but it would appear the first steps toward a resolution of the dispute are at last underway.