04 January 2009

The shoe that was thrown at mass murderer Soeharto

Jakarta Post 4 January 2009 - The 'shoe' that was thrown -- not at Bush but Soeharto by Aboeprijadi Santoso, Amsterdam - When Iraqi journalist Muntader Al-Zaidi threw his shoes at President George W. Bush it was to many, myself included, a deja vu. It was not the first time a head of state was vulnerable to attack because he was seen as most responsible for an unjust war that took thousands of lives and destroyed people's livelihood and infrastructure in an occupied country.

We can draw an analogy between Bush's Iraq policy and former president Soeharto's East Timor policy. And Bush was not the first president to receive a deeply symbolic insult.

Like Bush, President Soeharto presided over acts of aggression and invasion that led to war, occupation and hardship. Soeharto's New Order may not have been the same as Saddam's Iraq or the U.S. occupation of that country, but undoubtedly Soeharto's military occupation of the former Portuguese colony was, to the East Timorese, akin to Saddam's rule over Iraq: a Republic of Fear, as one Iraqi writer dubbed it.

This sentiment was only too clear if you listened to the victims, something which Bush, Soeharto -- and Jakarta officials for that matter -- never did.

Like Iraq, East Timor suffered war and occupation and saw its infrastructure destroyed just when freedom was at last made possible, by the fall of Saddam in Iraq's case and by the UN plebiscite in East Timor's case. For this reason, Al-Zaidi's shoe throwing should be understood as he and most Iraqis viewed it: an insult that demonstrates the collective anger over what they went through after the fall of Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime.

Just as the Bush shoe incident became headlines and gained sympathy from many, Soeharto faced a similar humiliation, hitherto unknown to the outside world, from East Timorese when he visited the Zwinger Museum in the German city of Dresden on the morning of April 5, 1995.

Soeharto's state visit became a fiasco because many Europeans were deeply disturbed by the East Timor situation. Remember, it was only a year before the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Bishop Belo and J. Ramos-Horta. Soeharto's visit -- his second to Germany -- was aimed at strengthening the relationship with this key European country. He thus brought a large delegation and his then minister of research and technology, B.J. Habibie. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, I recall, was so proud of the German-educated aeronautics engineer Habibie that he specifically mentioned him when he welcomed President Soeharto at Hanover Fair.

Things began going wrong when shouts of protest were heard on the streets of Hanover and municipal authorities canceled its plan to invite the president to sign its guestbook as a token of friendship.

The worst, however, came four days later, on April 5, at Dresden's famous Zwinger Museum where the guests of the state were to view Raden Saleh's painting hanging there. Soeharto's entourage arrived by car, and started to walk the few meters across the parking lot to enter the museum. Activists -- mostly Germans, many East Timorese and a few Indonesians -- were waiting for them. The protesters pelted them with rotten eggs. The guests, not flanked by security, used umbrellas to protect themselves.

Just as the visitors entered the main gate, some Timorese managed to get close to Soeharto. The hit him with batons made from rolled-up newspapers.

This is how then-exiled painter Yayak Yatmaka described the incident:

"Hundreds of protesters yelled in chorus. Simultaneously they made enormous noise with cooking pots and various kitchen tools the same way we used to evict chickens from the rice field. This went on and on. And from the upper level of the gate, Soeharto and his entourage were welcomed by flying pamphlets with names of the New Order victims. Imagine, the chorus was sung by Germans who only learned the Indonesian words the night before."

"There was no violence," Yayak said, "just an incident. No pain. Some Timorese managed to punch Soeharto's cap until it fell. As I recall, his face was gray as he left the museum."

Returning to the Kempinsky Hotel, the president was greeted with Indonesia's red and white flag at half-mast signifying sympathy for Soeharto's victims. Later that day protesters rocked the four buses that were to bring Soeharto's entourage to the opera. The buses had to stop entirely when the protesters laid down on the street. Minister Ali Alatas' angry gesture from inside the bus made the next day's front page.

Interestingly the opera Soeharto failed to attend was Richard Strauss' Elektra -- a story about a terribly bloody war, possibly on oblique reference to Soeharto's responsibility for the East Timor tragedy.

None of these actions brought about any immediate change in East Timor. Instead, when the president returned home, the state overreacted. The Zwinger incident was never specifically mentioned, but Army head Gen. Hartono declared some compatriots -- the dissident Sri Bintang Pamungkas, activist Yeni Rosa Damayanti and writer Goenawan Mohammad -- as traitors for organizing the Dresden event.

The truth was, they had nothing to do with it. None of them were in Dresden on April 5; Sri Bintang was in Cologne, Yeni in Hanover and Goenawan elsewhere in Europe.

"What did this (Zwinger incident) signify?" asked Yayak Yatmaka. "Would such a thing have been possible in a demonstration in Jakarta?"

In retrospect Yayak's question was an implicit demand for democracy. The Zwinger incident may be viewed as a symbol which, by way of analogy, was confirmed by the Iraqi public's demonstration of support for al-Zaidi's flung shoe. In both cases, the incidents are expressions of collective anger, reflecting people's suffering the state leaders fail to notice. Asked to comment on al-Zaidi's subsequent fate, Bush reportedly said: "I don't care!" At the Zwinger Soeharto might have appeared sad, but once back home he allowed himself a misplaced outburst of anger.

Hence, it's important to remember both essentially non-violent protests -- the Timorese paper batons and Al-Zaidi's shoe -- were symbolic acts against state violence.

The writer is a journalist. He covered the events described above for Radio Netherlands.


Image added by ETLJB: Caricature of the mass murderer, Soeharto, Second President of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia 1965-1998.

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