Opinion

Mandela, Indonesia and
the liberation of Timor
Leste

At 95 years old, former South African president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela may reflect on his struggle and his contribution with great satisfaction more than anyone else could. Popularly known as Madiba, he has become an icon of freedom, reconciliation and hope the world over. Much less known is his legacy to help liberate the people of
Timor Leste.

In 1955 Mandela lauded the historic Asia-Africa Conference held in Bandung. Two leading members of the African National Congress (ANC) — including his close ally Walter Sisulu — were there to represent their country. Indonesia continued her support for the movement and provided the platform for the Asian struggle against apartheid, which Mandela respected.

Mandela, fond of batik shirts, loves Indonesia and visited four times: 1990, 1994, 1997 and 2002. The first time he came he visited the site of Bandung conference and said he was inspired by the Asia-Africa Conference and Sukarno’s role.

Unlike many, Mandela remains loyal to the principles of Bandung that included the right to self-determination. Indeed, contrary to leaders of Indonesia’s New Order, he threw his full weight behind the liberation of Timor Leste.

Back in November 1997, I was fortunate to have witnessed Mandela welcoming Soeharto on a sunny day at the Tuynhuys Palace in Pretoria. As he walked and showed him the beautiful palace garden, a number of children were waiting and sang Tweedly Dee, Tweedly Dee. Mandela joyfully joined them, not expecting his guest to sing along Soeharto, not knowing what to do, responded with a small smile.

For Mandela, that morning he was to have a tete-a-tete with Soeharto, in which he would persuade him to let then imprisoned Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao join the United Nations-sponsored negotiation on Timor Leste. Not only did Mandela have to respond to pressures from home and abroad but he himself could not suppress his concerns over Timor Leste.

In the end, Mandela may have achieved little during the visit, but he had made abundantly clear to the world the need to pursue a peaceful way to resolve the issue.

Mandela, reflecting on South African transition, actually wanted a cease-fire period to continue negotiation, in which Xanana would directly participate, toward a peaceful resolution.

Only a few months earlier, in July 1997, it would have seemed possible for Mandela to push forward when he, acting as a Trojan horse, met with Soeharto during his visit to Indonesia.

UN envoy Jamsheed Marker, in his East Timor: A Memoir of the Negotiations for Independence relates Mandela’s encounter with Soeharto:  

“Mandela not only called for the release of Xanana Gusmao, but also insisted on meeting with the latter – and got his way […] Soeharto at first refused Mandela’s request to meet Xanana with the question ‘Why do you want to meet him? He is only a common criminal.’ When Mandela responded by saying ‘that is exactly what they said about for 25 years,’ Soeharto promptly and magnanimously responded by arranging for Xanana to be brought from prison to the State Guest House for an intimate dinner with Mandela. [T]his story, if true, has a legendary touch which says much for the caliber of both presidents.”

Xanana reportedly talked little when Mandela suggested that he should stop fighting to avoid greater suffering and persuaded him to participate at the negotiation.

Meanwhile, in Lisbon, the Timorese resistance representative Jose Ramos-Horta confirmed that Soeharto, when he met with Mandela, had indeed spoken of Xanana as “common criminal”.

Hence, while Mandela may have had “most useful discussion” with Xanana, whom he addressed as “comrade”, the hope he could be released and take part in the negotiation, or be brought to South Africa, was dashed as Soeharto remained unchanged.

But Mandela was patient and in August 1997 he wrote a letter requesting Soeharto yet again to release Xanana but to no avail: The stubbornness of Soeharto being the biggest stumbling block toward a peaceful resolution of the issue.

It is significant; however, that Mandela and Xanana — both popular resistance leaders of oppressed nations who fought for decades and were put in jail for years — were increasingly seen as sharing a common bond when their paths crossed in unprecedented way in the most critical years of the 1990s.

The defining moments for Mandela and Xanana were at the expense, slowly but surely, of Soeharto.

After all, the issue of Timor Leste had in the wake of the St. Cruz 1991 killings seized the world’s attention, and Xanana Gusmao, in 1993, had just been incarcerated in Jakarta amid worldwide protests — just like Nelson Mandela, having been freed in 1990 after 27 years in jail (of which 18 years were at Robben Prison island), stepped onto the world stage as a leader with great stature, armed with moral authority.

Mandela’s intervention and encounter with Xanana became public relation’s greatest victory for the Timorese.

The 1997 momentum had, therefore contributed to the changing circumstances and awareness among both the Timorese resistance and in the international community. It took a financial crisis and President BJ Habibie’s courage to help swing the pendulum toward the liberation of Timor Leste two years later.

In retrospect, then, it may be argued that Mandela, not in spite of, but precisely because of his predictable failure to persuade Soeharto, and surely because of his determination and tireless efforts toward a peaceful resolution, had greatly contributed to changing Zeitgeist that shaped the trajectories for both Mandela and Xanana and their
respective countries.

Like Mandela — and thanks partly to him — Xanana became a big prize: in both cases, they were kept alive and well as the ruling powers needed them to guarantee a peaceful transition; the same goes, for that matter, for Sukarno and Hatta when they were incarcerated by the Dutch.

Happy birthday Nelson Mandela, a great freedom fighter, man of forgiving, not forgetting.

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The writer is a journalist.

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