Loss of `Tim-Tim' puts the president in peril

HARRY, a heavy-set Javanese man who works in an offshore oil field, was at the counter of a cellphone shop yesterday in Jakarta's Roxy Mas shopping mall, a glimmering emporium of electronics goods and three-piece suites. Asked about President BJ Habibie's decision to let foreign troops into East Timor, he reasoned: "It's a good idea. The people of East Timor have made their decision. We must let them go."

President Habibie could do with a few more like Harry, especially tomorrow, when he must travel from his imposing white palace overlooking National Square to the ugly concrete complex where parliament sits, a mile and a half away. He will not go willingly - the President, already a political cripple, has been summoned to explain how what many regard as Indonesia's humiliation in East Timor ever came to pass.

It will be just one of several critical moments in Jakarta this week. They will determine whether the relative political stability that has settled over Indonesia since the deadly riots of May last year, which toppled Mr Habibie's predecessor, President Suharto, will persist, or whether instead the fourth most populous country in the world will once more be plunged into political chaos and violence.

There is every possibility that Mr Habibie's appearance at parliament, itself an assault on his prestige, will coincide with the landing of the first troops of the multi-national force in East Timor. If so, he will be clinging on to the hope that the international mission goes smoothly. Most Western observers here agree: if Indonesian blood is spilled in East Timor, there could be a popular eruption across the whole country.

But the capital is on edge also for other reasons. It is bubbling with intrigue as to the likely fate of Mr Habibie, who faces re-election in the parliament's upper house in November. Among those manoeuvering for power is the army chief, General Wiranto. And then there is a parliamentary vote, scheduled for Thursday, on a bill to give sweeping new powers of repression to the military. Some 2,000 stone-throwing students marched on parliament on Friday to voice their anger, which could explode if the bill passes.

All these elements make a powerful prescription for political unrest, in which the most potent ingredient is Indonesian nationalism. And few issues could be better suited to spark that sense of xenophobia than the debacle in East Timor. Wander the streets of Jakarta, particularly if you stray beyond the middle-class enclaves like Roxy Mas, and you will find few voices so restrained as Harry's. Instead you will find ridicule and anger directed at two main targets: Habibie and Australia.

Some of the emotion can be found in graffiti scrawled on a cricket pitch- length banner of white cotton that has been strung along the roadside in the heart of the bustling Cikini district, near the centre of Jakarta. The first, entitled a "Million Signatures for Concern Toward Tim-Tim" (East Timor), is now full, and a handful of youths were putting up another banner yesterday on the other side of the road. Among the bluntest of the messages, some in English, there were "Hang Habibie" and "Fuck Yuo (sic) Australia".

Ningsih, a 17-year-old girl dressed in the smart uniform of a local high school, had stopped after Saturday afternoon classes with some friends to add her own thoughts to the banner. (Or thoughts, she readily admitted, that she had synthesised from what she had read in magazines.) "Indonesia's problems must be solved by Indonesia and not by inteferers from outside," she wrote. She said she was sad about losing East Timor. "I think we will miss our 27th province, because we will have only 26 provinces left."

The anti-Australian fervour is everywhere. In a slum quarter of shacks and squalid lanes in the shadow of the business district and its five- star hotels, sullen-faced men saw this white reporter and shouted out to know if I was Australian. "Inggris, Inggris," I replied again and again, attempting a insouciant smile. Multinational corporations have begun withdrawing Australians and Canberra has shut one of its consulates. The others are heavily guarded.

Along the littered railway track that cuts through the slum, the views on East Timor were bluntly expressed. "I want Tim-Tim returned to Indonesia because so many Indonesia soldiers died fighting there," explained Warjo, a squat man who lives with his extended family in a tumble of scavenged wood and corrugated metal. It was of absolutely no concern to Warjo, who has no work, that so many have died in the carnage in East Timor, perpetrated by the militia and the army. "Why should we worry about East Timorese dying? There are plenty more people in Java who can move there afterwards."

There was less willingness to speak out about Habibie or Wiranto. "We're such poor people, we don't want to blame anyone for what happened. We just follow the good politicians," Warjo offered, triggering mischievous laughter from the women around him. Perhaps he was intimidated by the policeman riding by on a motorcycle.

If Timor is the catalyst that triggers an uprising in this and other cities this week, it will be one fed by easy nationalism and by ignorance of the facts. Few ordinary Indonesians have any real grasp of the enormity of the murders, the destruction and the mass deportations committed in East Timor in recent days. Many, aside from the students, have no inkling of the complicity of the Indonesian army.

Even Harry, who seemed so reasonable back in the Roxy Mas mall, has had his perception polluted by misinformation. He may not blame Mr Habibie for what has happened, but Australia, he is sure, has been wicked. "I read an article about how the pro-independence groups were receiving arms from helicopters along the south shore of East Timor," he said. Oh? And where did the arms come from? "From Australia."

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