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Good new in Indonesia, worries in East Timor

No one who knows anything about Indonesia and its history underestimates the enormous challenges facing the ethnically diverse archipelago of 210 million people where the first seemingly free election in 44 years took place last week.

More than a year after pro-democracy protests ended the 32-year authoritarian rule of President Suharto, election observers, including former President Jimmy Carter, said the voting in the world’s fourth most populous country seemed to have been conducted fairly, with only scattered pockets of violence and irregularities. This is a remarkable and laudable development in a world hungry for good news, despite growing worries at press time about the slow pace of the count.

As results trickled in, the opposition party of Megawati Sukarnoputri appeared to lead the way. Sukarnoputri, 52, is the daughter of Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, who was elbowed aside by Suharto in 1965. Official results weren’t expected until the third week of June. That 96 percent of the nation’s 112 million registered voters cast ballots is a reminder of the high value people who have been oppressed place on self-determination.

Forty-eight political parties and more than 11,000 candidates sought seats in Parliament -- a vast change from elections under Suharto, which were largely rigged to ensure the victory of his Golkar Party. At the time, only three approved parties could field candidates. Up for grabs were 462 of Parliament’s 500 seats. The rest go to appointees of the military, which is not allowed to vote.

However, the news from Indonesia is not all good. East Timorese voters were reported to be generally subdued during the June 7 national elections. Many were reeling from weeks of violence at the hands of Indonesian military-backed militias opposing autonomy efforts (see page 6). Reports indicated that most East Timorese appeared more focused on the United Nations-organized ballot on self-determination scheduled for Aug. 8, an election whose validity continues to seem very much in doubt.

Just two days before last week’s national election, on a Sunday evening, addressing a candlelight Mass that attracted 10,000 people, Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo said in a sermon that East Timorese should vote in both the election and the referendum according to their consciences. People should not feel forced to vote, he said, in clear reference to the marauding militias. Belo blamed the militias and its army allies for the deaths of 25 unarmed villagers in the small town of Liquica. They were killed on church grounds in April during an attack against suspected pro-independence supporters.

Indonesia annexed East Timor 23 years ago. Bloodshed followed as up to 250,000 of the island’s 800,000 residents were killed by Indonesian army forces. It was a Kosovo without CNN. But Western leaders turned deaf ears on the pleas of the East Timorese. Oil-rich Indonesia was considered a strategic economic non-communist force in Southeast Asia.

Only after Suharto was forced from office last year did his successor, B.J. Habibie, allow a free referendum on autonomy to move forward. But less than two months before that referendum, violence and intimidation threaten its prospects. The Indonesia army, supported by a succession of U.S. administrations, appears responsible to no one. Prospects for a fair United Nations-brokered election remain clouded.

Meanwhile we are reminded once again that our nation’s professed democratic ideals and its penchant for arming antidemocratic forces remain a contradiction yet to be resolved.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999