"Destroying local structures was Indonesia's great mistake" in Timor

Yenny Wahid

Indonesian activist Yenni Wahid said today that destroying local structures was, along with the atrocities, Suharto's biggest mistake in East Timor.

In an interview with Lusa, the daughter of former President Wahid - who covered the 1999 referendum as a journalist - criticized Suharto's administration model in East Timor, which she says has destroyed the traditional model.

"One of the biggest mistakes of the New Order in Timor was to destroy the Timorese people's social structure. And to transplant the system used in Java and other Indonesian villages, overriding East Timor's social system," Yenni Wahid argued.

"Timorese communities had their own traditional leaders, and Indonesia replaced them with administrators from Java who did not understand the language, the culture," she said.

The country underwent several abuses, which then became "the fire that cemented everything." But the population's dissatisfaction was much more comprehensive, it was "about a change of lifestyle," she argued.

Yenny Wahid - a former journalist, activist and politician who will turn 45 in October - is now one of the voices of moderate Islam in Indonesia. She is the head of the Wahid Institute, an organization with projects in areas such as democracy, peace, and social welfare.

Prior to her career in politics (she headed the communication department of her father's government and is now involved in Joko Widodo's presidential re-election campaign), Yenny Wahid became acquainted with the other side while working as a journalist for the Australian group Fairfax Media.

In 1999 she was part of the team which won the most prestigious Australian journalism award - the Walkleys - for their East Timor coverage.

Indonesian analysts argue that Yenny's coverage, and especially her conversations at home, changed the way her father (who, like most Indonesians, did not know in detail what was happening in the region) perceived the situation in East Timor.

The impact was so great that Wahid - Habibie's successor as Indonesian president - decided to hold a state visit to Dili on February 29, 2000, during which he laid a wreath in Santa Cruz and later on, alongside Xanana Gusmão, outside the Government Palace in Dili, apologized to the Timorese people.

"I apologize for all that has been done to the victims of Santa Cruz and their families. They were the victims of what happened in the past. I hope it does not happen again," he said.

Yenny Wahid argues that more than the East Timor issue, Suharto's New Order - which persecuted and threatened her family - added a personal element to the plot, fueling the urge to expose a reality which was virtually unknown in Indonesia.

"Most Indonesians had no idea of what was going on in East Timor, just like they had no idea of what was happening in Aceh, Papua, or other parts of Indonesia," she says.

Before the reform, "most issues were concealed. The media only disclosed what was approved by the Government, and even parliament, instead of being the voice of people's hopes, was just a tool of the New Order," the regime's ideology.

Even those who had heard something did not really understand what was at stake, she points out, saying it was just "a small group of ungrateful rebels who had received Government help and did not recognize it."

Her work as a journalist in East Timor, during which she had the opportunity to talk directly to the East Timorese people, allowed her "to have a new perspective, a better understanding of what was going on" - and to realize there were many variables at work.

"As you go deeper, you realize it's not only about the atrocities. That the atrocities were not only committed by the Indonesian military, but also by the Timorese against other Timorese," she pointed out.