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Megawati may hamper independence

American Reporter - February 10, 1999

Andreas Harsono, Jakarta – In a move which surprised both supporters and opponents, Indonesian opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri declared late last month that she cannot accept a new Indonesian proposal to give independence to the internationally-disputed East Timor.

Many political observers here believe that Megawati, the daughter of former President Sukarno and widely known to be a consistent person, is quite serious. She rarely makes political statements, but her very few remarks are usually tailored to carefully reflect her political thinking as well as the strategy of her Indonesian Democratic Party.

"The East Timorese people support Megawati to become the new president of Indonesia," said Mario Viegas Carrascalao, a former governor of East Timor, in an interview with the Jakarta-based Merdeka daily, adding that the East Timorese delegation had clearly stated at a PDI congress in October that they prefer to stay jopined to Indonesia if Megawati becomes president.

The Merdeka newspaper also frequently champions that view. It is a public secret here that the newspaper functions as a mouthpiece of the nationalist camp headed by Megawati. Megawati apparently believes that the "problem" of East Timor is really a problem with former Indonesian strongman Suharto, who was forced to resign last May 21. If someone else becomes president – her, for instance – the "problem" might be totally different, and not somuch a problem as a challenge of governance.

Megawati declared her opposition just one day after Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas told the media in a surprise announcement that the Indonesian government will suggest to the People's Consultative Assembly – Indonesia's highest state institution – that the nation offer independence to East Timor if the East Timorese cannot agree to a wide-ranging autonomous status with Indonesia.

Megawati said a release on Jan. 29 that the President B.J. Habibie administration is a "transitional government" which is not democratically elected by the people. The government is consequently not authorized to make a decision which would to fundamentally affect the unity of Indonesia.

"The integration of East Timor into the state and the nation of Indonesia is politically and constitutionally legal in accordance to the will of the people of East Timor. It has been approved by the House of Representatives in 1976 and the People's Supreme Assembly in 1987," said Megawati.

Interestingly, Abdurrahman Wahid, the chairman of the 30- million strong Nahdlatul Ulama organization, Indonesia's largest Muslim group, who is also a close associate of Megawati, aired a similar statement, saying that Indonesia had once decided to integrate East Timor and "that decision should be respected." What is the impact of such a stance? How can respected figures like Megawati and Wahid, who painfully fought for democracy during the 32-year rule of President Suharto, take such an anti-democratic position? It is also ironic that Megawati makes reference to the Suharto-controlled parliament, as well as to the whole political system in Indonesia, which contributed to her removal from her chairmanship of the PDI in 1996. Megawati then fought back by filing lawsuits against the Suharto government.

Various surveys organized by universities, media organizations and independent research groups show that Megawati is the most popular figure in Indonesia and the most likely to win the election next June, ensuring her the best chance to become the fourth president of Indonesia since independence. Other candidates include Amien Rais of the National Mandate Party, Habibie himself, and Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of the Yogyakarta monarchy.

According to political researchers, Megawati's PDI also has one of the nation's best-equipped political machine, controlling branches and offices throughout most of Indonesia's thousand of villages, especially those on the main and the most-populated island of Java.

What will be the future of East Timor if Megawati becomes president? Will East Timor becomes independent if Megawati's PDI and Wahid's Nation Awakening Party control the majority of the parliament as well as the assembly? Megawati is also closely associated to retired, but influential, army generals like Try Sutrisno and Edi Sudrajat. Both of them are former commanders of the armed forces and have recently established their own political party, the Justice and Unity Party. Won't these three parties vote against the liberation of East Timor? The common analysis here is that both Megawati and Wahid made their move out of short-term political necessity. They want to win the election. To do so, like it or not, they have to team up with a part of the military.

Since active generals are very unlikely to be involved in politics, Megawati has to team up with generals like Sutrisno and Sudrajat. But those generals dislike the idea of abandoning East Timor. They consider themselves as the guardians of a united Indonesia.

A retired major general is also sitting on the PDI national board. PDI deputy chairman Theo Syafei, in fact, was the Indonesian commander in charge of East Timor when East Timor resistance leader Xanana Gusmao was arrested.

Gusmao, captured in 1992, was sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting against the state and illegal possession of weapons in 1993 but his sentence was later commuted to 20 years in jail. He is now involved in a UN-sponsored negotiation to solve the question of East Timor. Generals like Syafei also understand clearly that an estimated 10,000 Indonesian soldiers have already died in East Timor fighting the East Timor resistance between 1975 and 1998.

Indonesia's respected Tempo newsweekly, in a biting editorial this past week, said that Suharto must have been surprised to learn that Megawati's political thinking is similar to his "integration or nothing" stance. It is a true irony that the similarity of their positions is only now being learned.