Wednesday, July 29, 1998

Indonesian Immigrants to East Timor Face Uphill Battle

Andreas Harsono American Reporter Correspondent Jakarta, Indonesia

DILI, East Timor -- Benny Pinontoan had finished his siesta, but he decided to just remain lying on his couch, watching television programs inside his small apartment.

"I'm really worried. Two days ago I went to Kupang with my wife and six children to send them by ship back to Ambon," says Pinontoan, adding that his children were regularly harassed for money at schools by other kids.

Worse than that, one evening about 10 East Timorese youths even came to his house and asked Pinontoan if he was for a U.N.-managed referendum on independence or for autonomy within Indonesia for East Timor. "I tried to explain to them that I am just a businessman. I don't care what flag they fly," says the 52-year-old lumber trader.

But his plea didn't help him much. The East Timorese youths left his house, but also left the immigrant trader in doubt whether doing business in this internationally-disputed area was as safe as it used to be.

"Men could easily escape troubles, but what about women and children?" he asked.

The Pinontoan case is yet another troubling example of the way in which many Indonesian immigrants, locally known as "pendatang," who have lived in East Timor since the 1980s, now face profound uncertainties as ethnic and religious hostilities make themselves felt, and of the difficulties in unitng the diverse minorities of the world's fourth largest nation.

Many pendatangs tell similar stories about East Timorese youths who came to the immigrant-owned properties and asked for money, or asked, "When do you go home?" Others took whatever they wanted without paying for it.

The terror in this former Portuguese colony, born of decades of mutual mistrust, comes from new threats of violence that since early July have caused more than 30,000 Indonesian immigrants to flee the territory, which was seized by Indonesia in 1975.

"They're irresponsible people. They just look for money and run away if minor difficulties arise," says Dili restaurant owner Olandina Alves, who is also a member of the local parliament, when asked about the fleeing immigrants -- who are mostly members of Indonesia's main ethnic grups, the Javanese and Bugis.

Like Pinontoan, who comes from the island of Ambon in the eastern part of Indonesia, most pendatangs prefer to return to their native islands. Many flee to the southern part of Sulawesi, whose main inhabitants are the Bugis people, as well as to the main island of Java, where the nation's capital, Jakarta, is located.

The mass exodus from East Timor began after newly-installed Indonesian President B.J. Habibie offered a new autonomous status for East Timor on June 11. Habibie also offered to withdraw some troops from the territory and to release East Timor rebel leader Xanana Gusmao, who was captured in 1992 and is serving a 20-year sentence for separatist activities, as part of a deal that would include international recognition of East Timor as part of Indonesia.

But Habibie's offer was immediately rejected by East Timor separatist leaders including the independence movement's self-exiled spokesman Jose Ramos-Horta, who together with East Timor Bishop Felipe Ximenes Belo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. Ramos-Horta proposed a UN-sponsored referendum to determine the future of East Timor.

His opponents, pro-Indonesian leaders like East Timor governor Abilio Osorio Soares, who advocated the territory's merger with Indonesia in 1975, enthusiastically welcomed the proposal, saying that it is the most realistic choice. Soares warned that total independence is very likely to trigger a civil war among the East Timorese.

The pros and cons immediately prompted supporters of both side to stage mass rallies. One pro-independence demonstrator was killed and four others were seriously injured when Indonesian soldiers opened fire on a street protest in mid-July.

Political uncertainty, economic crisis and massive street rallies have indeed discouraged pendatangs who run their own businesses. "The economy is not [just] hurt, but [has] totally collapsed," says Pinontoan.

Some observers say that Dili, with a population of 100,000, is among the worst-hit areas in East Timor, because most pendatangs live in the capital. Many shops were abandoned by their immigrant owners.

"These people keep on saying that East Timor is their 27th province. Now they're all leaving this area. I think they need not come back again. We have learned how to do business ourselves," says journalist Metta Guterres of the Dili-based Suara Timor Timur daily.

Charges that the pendatangs are not "nationalists" are frequently aired, surprisingly, not only by people like Alves or Guterres, but also Bishop Belo. "I don't agree with this act of threats. But if they consider East Timor as their 27th province, why do they leave East Timor?" the Nobelist asks.

"They come here just to do their business and to make money. Now they fly away to Singapore. They're not nationalists," says Belo, adding that he would still, however, welcome the immigrants' return to East Timor.

Alves, who was questioned and jailed three times by Indonesian troops, says that pendatangs find it difficult to integrate into the East Timor community. The cultures and lifestyle of the two ethnic are detrimentally different, he says.

The East Timorese, she points out, tend to be more open and straightforward.

"They will say A if it is an A, black if it is black or white if white. But our Indonesian brothers-and-sisters, they could say black although it is white," says Alves.

Indonesians tend to be more feudalistic, Alves says. They may say things that they do not necessarily agree with to appease others.

Whatever the problem, and like it or not, now many East Timor and Indonesian leaders have apparently begun to think about what they should do about the Indonesian immigrants, who make up between 15 and 20 percent of East Timor's 800,000 population, if one day the area achieves either autonomy or even independence.

The issue is widely discussed, since many Indonesians themselves have aired anti-Chinese sentiment. Critics say the President Habibie government had not done enough to secure the safety of Chinese-descent Indonesians, many of whom fared badly during massive anti-Chinese riots in May. Widely circulated allegations say that some Indonesian generals were involved in provoking the riots in a bid to kick the Chinese out of Indonesia.

"For our part, at least, we don't force people to go out. We don't intimidate people. That's clear," says East Timor student leader Antero Benedito da Silva, noting that many "mixed" marriages between East Timorese and Indonesian have occurred in the past two decades.

"Similar cases happened around the world. I would like to see the other cases. There are other experiences that we can learn from," says da Silva, adding that the issue of language will also be important in any movement to preserve East Timorese culture.

Andreas Harsono is one of Indonesia's most distinguished journalists.

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