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Breaking up is hard to do, say experts

Sydney Morning Herald - January 16, 1999

Louise Williams, Jakarta – "Indonesia is not so fragile," scoffed a former Indonesian ambassador in response to Canberra's claim that an independent East Timor would empower other separatist movements and threaten Indonesia's disintegration. Former ambassador to the United States, retired army general Hasnan Habib, and other analysts in Jakarta flatly rejected Canberra's view, which mirrors some of Jakarta's alarmist propaganda of a "Balkanisation" danger, used to oppose Timor's independence movement.

"In the 24 years that East Timor has been with us, it seems serious mistakes have been made by our own Government and we have not been able to win the hearts and minds of the people. We cannot expect the East Timorese to feel like Indonesians. We cannot impose this on them," said General Habib, who was formerly responsible for selling Indonesia's Timor policy to Washington.

"The problem is there is a wrong perception that if the central government allows one province to break off then it will spread," he said. East Timor's independence struggle differs from fledgling separatist movements in other parts of Indonesia. In the resource-rich provinces of Irian Jaya in the far east and Aceh in the far north a handful of separatist guerillas fight Jakarta, backed by a surly population bitterly angry about human rights abuses and the expropriation of natural wealth.

In the Moluccas and parts of Kalimantan there are similar pockets of separatist sentiment among ethnic groups which share neither the religion nor the culture of the dominant Muslims of Java.

But East Timor is the only part of modern Indonesia which was not within the former Dutch East Indies in 1945 when independence was proclaimed. It was added by military invasion. Unlike all other provinces, its integration has not been recognised by the United Nations.

"Disintegration would not necessarily follow" its exit, said political scientist Mr Arbi Sanit. "East Timor was never part of Dutch control. It was incorporated very late in Indonesia's history and has significant international support, which other provinces do not have."

Similar sentiments are for the first time being publicly voiced by Indonesia's alternate leadership. Key Muslim opposition figure Dr Amien Rais has promised a referendum for East Timor. A spokesman for pro-democracy figurehead Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri said East Timor could be excluded from her platform of "One Indonesia".

"Historically, the case of East Timor is different and there have been considerable human rights abuses in the province, so we can say that after 24 years the ideals of our Constitution [national unity] have not been realised," Ms Megawati's spokesman said.

Mr Sanit said separatism in other provinces was mainly fuelled by economic injustice and human rights abuses. In Aceh many local people recently told the Herald they supported the tiny Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) movement because they were angry with the central Government and had no other way to show it.

"Aceh is not like East Timor," said Acehnese academic Mr Humum Hamid. "We fought for Indonesia's independence from the Dutch. We are proud of that contribution. We are interested in justice - not separation."