Saturday, March 25, 2006

East Timor Part II?

The granting of the emergency visa by the Australian Government to 42 of the 43 Indonesian Papuans seeking political asylum there has re-open the memory of East Timor’s referendum. Having hailed the integration of East Timor into Indonesia as constitutional and legitimate, the Australian Government reversed its policy by 180 degrees in the wake of Suharto’s fall in the late 1990s when they approved the exercise of UN sponsored referendum there to decide the future of the ex-Portuguese colony.

The referendum resulted in an overwhelming victory of the pro-independence supporters hence the creation of an independent Timor Leste. This Australian move had angered Indonesia and the bilateral relation between the two neighbors went to a record low.

However, realizing the importance of building a better cooperation with its neighbors, successive governments in Indonesia have tried to improve the relation. And when everyone thought the relation has shown some significant improvement, the Australian government seemed to have thought of some short-term objectives. It granted visas to the Indonesian Papuans seeking political asylum on the pretext of being harassed by the Indonesian Government in Papua. The decision has resulted in angry responses in Indonesia.

The House of Representatives (DPR) has unanimously agreed upon severing diplomatic relation with Australia and recommended the Indonesian Government to implement this decision immediately.

On its part, the Indonesian Government has immediately sent a diplomatic note to the Australian Government through its ambassador in Jakarta, Bill Farmer, protesting this alleged insensitive decision taken by his government. According to the Indonesian government, the decision was not in consistent with the spirit of bilateral relations shared by the two neighbors as well as Australia’s tough policy on illegal immigrant. The Indonesian Government has also recalled its ambassador to Australia, a bad signal for a diplomatic relation in international politics.

Besides, this decision has also seemed to re-confirm the alleged long time suspicion of Australia’s involvements in the continuing struggle of independence in Indonesia’s eastern most region, the West Papua. It was a popular belief in Jakarta that Australia, or Australian NGOs, has been very much involved in the freedom struggle there.

On responding to the strong reactions from Jakarta, Elizabeth O’Neil, a spokesperson in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, defended the decision saying that the Australian executive has no role in this process. This decision was taken solely by the Department of Immigration, an independent institution separate from the executive. The response also said that the visa granted to the asylum seekers is an emergency visa that is valid for three years only and renewal of the visa will need strict scrutiny and deliberation.

At the same time, it also reiterated Australia’s position on West Papua as an integral and legitimate part of Indonesia. The response from the Australian Embassy also denied any Australian involvement in the freedom movement in Papua.

Whatever the reasons given by the Australian Government to counter the angry reactions from Jakarta, the damage has already been done. It will now be very difficult for the Indonesian government to trust Australia and to belief at these explanations realizing the fact that Australia has joyously responded to the result of the UN sponsored referendum in East Timor in 1999.

On East Timor, Australia had long been the supporter of its integration with Indonesia when the Portuguese decided to abandon this colony of more than 400 years. Not willing to get its hands dirty, Australia had whole-heartedly supported the move by the then Indonesian President, General Suharto, to annexed the territory in the late 1970s. Besides, for its national security reasons in the height of Cold War era, it was better for East Timor to be ruled by an American friendly country like Indonesia than to be controlled by any Communist state. So Australia was always Indonesia’s loyal supporter on East Timor.

However, with the changing landscape in international politics and the continuing internal struggles in Indonesia in the late 1990s, Australia decided to reverse its policy on East Timor 180 degrees and fighting teeth and nails for the freedom of East Timor from Indonesia. The reversal of policy bore result when the UN sponsored referendum held in East Timor in August 1999 favored the pro-independence group thus leading to the birth of Timor Leste with full Australian support.

Now, with the simmering situation in Papua in recent weeks that has left several poor souls departed, Australia’s decision to grant visa to the Indonesian Papuans seeking political asylum there seemed to be like rubbing salt in the old wound. There is an indication of insensitiveness on the part of the Australian government towards the delicate Papuan problem.

The decision can be understood as an early warning for the Indonesian government to scrutinize and investigate the motives behind it. The Indonesian government should act immediately as to avoid the repetition of East Timor tragedy. The current government should realize that there would be no East Timor Part II in Indonesia. If the SBY government can successfully and peacefully end the conflict in Aceh, why there should be any doubt on Government’s ability to resolve the problem in Papua peacefully.

As for Australia’s insensitiveness towards the Papuan problem, the Indonesian government has to response strongly and correctly so as not to create an impression that Indonesia is just a Sick Man of Southeast Asia. Indonesia has to assert its importance in Southeast Asia for it to be counted as a powerful nation.

Published in The Jakarta Post on 29 March 2006.
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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Democracy No Cure: Just Look at the Mideast

There is a theory in political science to the effect that one democracy will never go to war against another democracy. Any conflict that arises between them will be resolved through dialog and mutual understanding. However, the recent confrontational reactions by Israel and the West, especially the U.S., to the democratically elected Hamas government in Palestine has produced some doubt as to the truth of this theory.

At the same time, contrary to the reactionary responses of the Israeli and U.S. governments in cutting of foreign funds to the Palestinian Authority, the less democratically elected governments in the Arab world have decided to support the Palestinian case by finding ways to provide the necessary funds needed to run the new democratically elected Palestinian government.

Israel and the U.S. have long been known as champions of democracy. The governments of these countries and their governance practices are in accordance with the principles of democracy. However, their responses to the results of the democratic process in Palestine have given rise to doubts about their real commitment to democracy.

Immediately after the announcement that Hamas, long branded a terrorist group by the West and Israel, had won a landslide victory in the elections, the Israeli government refused to accept the result and decided to sever relations with the Palestinian Authority, ruling out any negotiations with Hamas. At the same time, the U.S. demanded that the Hamas leadership renounce violence and threatened severe consequences if they failed to oblige.

These threats came to fruition this week when the Israeli Cabinet, under the leadership of acting PM Ehud Olmert, decided to withhold the payment of the customs duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, worth around US$50 million a month, and to prevent residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip from crossing into Israel for work.

The US, Israel, Iran and the Palestinian Authority are all practicing democratic principles. The governments in these countries are elected through democratic processes and receive a mandate from their peoples. So, in line with the theory referred to above, there should be no problems between the three countries. The democratic principles adhered to by these countries should become a bond that links them together to work for the benefit of humankind instead of fighting against each other.

There are three important reasons why these democracies are not eager to work together as powerful forces for improving the lot of all humankind.

The first and foremost reason for conflict between these democracies are the electors in each country.

Second is a desperate attempt by the West, especially the U.S., to assert its domination in this unipolar world.

The third reason is the absence of any secular, credible or egalitarian alternative to which the people can turn.

The neo conservative-dominated U.S. government under President Bush is determined to push its agenda of world domination at any cost.

In Iran, amid the failure of the relatively moderate Islamic government of Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to the podium of power as an Islamic hard-liner. Similarly, Hamas is a militant Islamic movement that does not recognize the existence of Israel and is determined to bring about the destruction of the Jewish state.

The differences in the composition of the electors in each of these democracies have led to conflict between them.

The fact that the US is desperate to assert its domination in a more and more unipolar world adds further oil to the fire. On the pretext of saving humanity from terrorism, the U.S. government under President George W. Bush is desperate to control international politics. The defiance shown by Iran is only a natural reaction from an oppressed community.

Coming to the third reason, in the absence of any secular, credible and egalitarian alternative in society, people turn to whatever options are available. In the U.S., it is neo-conservatism. In Israel, the Jewish hard-liners are getting the biggest boost, while in Iran and Palestine, Islam has been chosen as the most appropriate alternative for fixing the ills of society.

With the propaganda of the "Clash of Civilizations" continuing to dominate the foreign policy of the global powers, it is only natural to expect retaliation from oppressed groups.

The writer is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India.

Published in The Jakarta Post, 8 March 2006.
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Preserving Communal Harmony

India is the land of multifaceted landscapes. Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Parse, Judaism as well as other isms are very much a part of the landscape. It is a multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural society. Even though Hinduism is the religion of the majority in India, but some 20 percent of the total population in India follows different other believes. Muslims are the second largest community after Hindus and followed by Sikhism and others.

The various elements of the Indian community have emerged as a single united entity that is known as India. It is very much like the Indonesian community that is varied and heterogeneous. It is not surprising that Indian community also faces problems that any other heterogeneous society is facing. So even though Indians are known to be tolerant and respectful to others, communal hiccups are, however, phenomena that cannot be missed since the beginning of India’s independence.

It was in the early 1940s that a proponent of a Hindu rightwing movement, Hindu Mahasabha, proposed a two nations theory for India, a Hindustan for the Hindus and Pakistan for the Muslims. The theory was later re-packaged and proposed by M.A. Jinnah of the Muslim League in the mid 1940s and was finally approved by the British Government for the creation of the modern day India and Pakistan.

The Indian Partition of August 1947 was the biggest mistake of history in which thousands or even millions of innocent lives fell victim to the greed and lust for power of a few individuals. The Partition bore witness to the worst communal history in the 20th century. Religious affiliations have put the Indian people in a very difficult situation in which conscience was lost and they were left to the options of to kill or to be killed. Indian Partition of 1947 was the blackest chapter in the history of the Indian sub-continent.

Moving on into the independent India, the traits of communal disharmony is very much apparent as well as communal harmony in Indian society in which several large scales of communal clashes occurred and have left thousands of innocent lives killed in the name of religion. Politics have left many of these innocent lives to suffer.

In the 1980s India witnessed Hindu – Sikh communal violence in which thousands of innocent souls departed. A larger scale of communal violence had flared up in the early 1990s when Hindu activists claimed that at the very site of a mosque in Ayodhya built by a Muslim ruler, Babar, was once the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. Thus they had to destroy the old mosque to make way of a temple construction. Politicians from the rightwing Hindu nationalist group took advantage of this situation and ignited the anger and religious sentiments of the majority community who then targeted the Indian Muslims and branded them as the invaders of the Hindu civilization that must be expelled. The violence in Ayodhya spread as far as Mumbai in Maharashtra.

Every one thought that the Ayodhya tragedy in the 1990s was to be the last communal violence ever to have occurred in the modern day India. However, India was shocked by a seemingly choreographed communal violence in 2002 in Gujarat in which an angry mob ransacked and killed thousands of innocent people after a freak train accident had killed some 50 kar sevaks (Hindu pilgrims) in a fire that burnt the coach of a train in Godra, Gujarat.

The communal violence that erupted after this train incident was seen by many as a choreographed and sponsored violence by certain political group as a strategy to win the support of the people, a similar scenario that was used in the 1990s of Ayodhya violence.

In last week of October 2005, during the busy days of a Hindu festival of Diwali and an approaching day of Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Fitr, series of bomb blasts rocked the Capital in which more than 50 innocent people have been killed and several others have been injured. Luckily, no communal flare up arose from this incident.

Yesterday evening, another series of bomb blast rocked the very city of Hinduism: Varanasi. 12 people have been reportedly killed and several others have been injured. This attack on the heartland of Hinduism is a clear sign by certain individuals or groups to ignite some communal sentiments of the majority communities for some personal or political gain, a grim reminder of the 1990s Ayodhya violence.

The governments, both in New Delhi and the state government of Uttar Pradesh, have quickly condemned the attack as an irresponsible act of terror and appealed to the people to remain calm and cautious. Security has been beefed up throughout the country and an appeal to maintain communal harmony has come from different quarters.

It is now the need of the hour to keep vigil and cautious toward any provocative actions by certain groups or individuals who want to break the tradition of harmony and tolerance that long has been practiced in India. The communal violence that occurred in the earlier periods must be taken as hard lessons that need to be remembered and avoided in the future.

Democratic tradition in India has long been entrenched in the society and such kind of provocation should not let the conscience of the people to be replaced by anger and sentiments that are destructive. Preserving communal harmony in a heterogeneous society is an important key to build a strong and powerful society. Falling victim to communal disharmony and intolerance will only lead to destruction and disintegration.