Indonesian opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri throws a spanner in the works on East Timor independence, writes Andreas Harsono.
In a move which surprised both supporters and opponents, Indonesian opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri declared late last month that she could not accept a new Indonesian proposal to give independence to the internationally disputed half-island of East Timor.
Many political observers here were surprised but believed that Megawati seriously meant it. Megawati is widely known to be a consistent person. She rarely produces political statements, but her very few remarks are usually tailored to seriously reflect her political thinking as well as the strategy of her Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI).
''The East Timorese people support Megawati to become the new president of Indonesia,'' says 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 in a PDI congress in October that they would prefer to stay with Indonesia if Megawati became president.
This means that Megawati probably believes that the problem of East Timor was merely a problem of ex-strongman Suharto and if someone else becomes president the problem may be totally different.
Megawati made her statement just one day after Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas told the media that the Indonesian government would suggest to the People's Consultative Assembly, Indonesia's parliament, that it offer independence to East Timor if the East Timorese could not agree on a wide-ranging autonomous status within Indonesia.
Megawati said in a release on January 29 that President B J Habibie's administration was a ‘'transitional government'' not democratically elected by the people and was consequently not authorised to make a decision which would fundamentally affect Indonesia's unity.
''The integration of East Timor into the state and the nation of Indonesia is politically and constitutionally legal in accordance with the will of the people of East Timor. It was approved by the East Timorese 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 organisation, Indonesia's largest Muslim group, who is also a close associate of Megawati, aired a similar statement, saying that Indonesia had decided to integrate East Timor and ''that decision should be respected''.
What is the impact of such a stance? How could respected figures like Megawati and Wahid, who painfully fought for democracy during former president Suharto's 32-year rule, produce such anti-democratic statements?
Various surveys organised by universities, media organisations and independent research groups show that Megawati is the most popular figure in Indonesia to win the election next June. This means she has the biggest chance of becoming the next president.
Other candidates include Amien Rais of the National Mandate Party, Habibie himself and Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, the Yogyakarta monarch.
According to political research, Megawati's PDI is also one of the best-equipped political machines, controlling branches and offices throughout most of Indonesia's thousands of villages, especially on the most populous island of Java.
What will be the future of East Timor if Megawati becomes president? Will East Timor become independent if Megawati's PDI and Wahid's Nation Awakening Party control the majority of the House as well as of 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.
Will not these three parties vote against the liberation of East Timor? The common analysis here is that both Megawati and Wahid have made this move out of short-term political necessity: they would like to win the election, and in order to do so, like it or not, they have to team up with a section 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, who dislike the idea of abandoning East Timor and consider themselves the guardians of a united Indonesia.
A retired major-general also sits on the PDI national board. PDI deputy chairman Theo Syafei was, as a matter of fact, the Indonesian commander in charge of East Timor when East Timorese 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' jail. He is now involved in United Nations-sponsored negotiations to solve the question of East Timor.
Generals like Syafei also understand that many Indonesian soldiers, estimated to number around 10,000, died in East Timor between 1975 and 1998 while fighting the East Timor resistance.
@ The Nation, Nation Multi Media Group, Bangkok, 1999