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Suharto rocked in PR battle

South China Morning Post - November 24, 1997

Jenny Grant, Jakarta – It was a disastrous week for Indonesia in what has become a publicity war over East Timor.

Any benefit gained by President Suharto's "quiet diplomacy" trip to meet South African leader Nelson Mandela was offset by a student riot, pictures alleging torture and the interrogation of East Timor resistance leader Xanana Gusmao.

Hundreds of students ran amok at the University of East Timor last week, attacking military intelligence agents on the campus.

Soldiers were called in and fired warning shots.

While the military claimed only a few students were injured, student sources said two were killed in the clashes.

The National Human Rights Commission has taken the allegations seriously enough to send a team to Dili to investigate the incident. The day Mr Suharto arrived in South Africa to meet Mr Mandela, Indonesian police spent seven hours questioning jailed resistance leader Gusmao over his involvement in a bomb-making operation.

In July, Mr Suharto gave his blessing for a secret meeting between Gusmao and the visiting Mr Mandela at the state guesthouse.

Mr Mandela – a self-appointed mediator in the East Timor conflict – has called for the release of Gusmao, who is serving a 20-year jail term for insurrection.

Interrogating him while the two heads of state discussed his future was a stern message from Jakarta that Gusmao is nothing more than a "common criminal".

In another damaging development last week, the US Congress voted to block the sale of weapons to Indonesia that would be used in East Timor.

The law legislation requires that any contract to sell equipment to Indonesia "state that the United States expects the items will not be used in East Timor".

Perhaps most detrimental to Indonesia were the 100 explicit photographs released in Australia last week by the Australia East Timor Association.

The pictures purport to show Indonesian soldiers torturing, sexually abusing and killing five East Timorese women in December last year.

Jakarta condemned the pictures as "fabrications".

"It is foolish, childish and irrational to continue to conduct this sort of campaign just to discredit Indonesia," said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ghaffar Fadyl.

Mr Fadyl said the incidents were an annual pattern of unrest created by anti-integration groups commemorating the November 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. Between 50 and 200 people were killed by Indonesian troops in the massacre, according to accounts from Jakarta and human rights groups.

"This is the pattern they like to create especially when Suharto is on a visit abroad. They are trying to embarrass Indonesia, but it won't work," Mr Fadyl said.

Many believe the campaign is working and that Mr Suharto realises Indonesia has been discredited overseas on its occupation of East Timor.

His trip to South Africa may be part of the road to reconciliation, but the rest of the world is less than impressed.