The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, October 19, 2015


Boy from Balibo makes good                                  

Television news clips of Syrian asylum seekers desperate for a safe haven are distressing enough, even for those who’ve never looked conflict and its awful aftermath in the eye.

But for Jose Antonio Morato Tavares the tragic scenes recall his time as a refugee.

Born in Balibo on the Portuguese side of the border with Indonesian West Timor, Tavares was a junior high school student in the capital Dili when a military coup in distant Lisbon turned his life upside down.

His prescient parents thought the strife would not be confined to the Iberian Peninsula.  The left-leaning Fretilin Party and its rival UDT were edging towards a civil war.  The family fled south and crossed the border to Atambua.

“About 45,000 people were displaced,” Tavares said.  “Some went overseas to Australia and Europe, others moved into West Timor.  I was the eldest of nine; we lived in a four-room house with relatives.

“For a year I didn’t go to school. I could only speak Portuguese and Tetum. I just played around.”

Like many who’ve lived through searing times, the agreeable Indonesian Ambassador to New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga is reluctant to expand on his experiences. 

His father lost his government job and the family its home. While they survived on the generosity of others a great tragedy was underway.  If there was a future of peace and hope it wasn’t visible through the gunsmoke and sweat of fear.

In late 1975 the Indonesian Army crossed the border at Tavares’ birthplace killing five Australian journalists covering the invasion, creating a wound in international relationships that weeps still.

An Australian coroner ruled special forces deliberately killed the TV crews; Indonesia claims they were caught in crossfire.

Eventually Tavares’ mother despatched her son to a high school in Bandung. Although he doesn’t dwell on the situation, Tavares was clearly different; a Catholic teen bobbing in a sea of Islam, clumsy with Indonesian and ignorant of Sundanese.  Then there was the funny accent and a foreign name.

A lesser lad would have turned delinquent or run away, but Tavares was tough, determined to excel and make his family proud.

That he did splendidly.  From school to Padjadjaran University where he wrestled with English and memorized economic texts.

“I thought of working with a non-government agency,” he said.  “Instead I tried for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  About 7,000 applicants vied for 52 jobs.  Wow! I was selected.”

Tavares’ career trumps cynics who claim the only way to advance in the Indonesian bureaucracy is through nepotism.

“I had no relatives in the military and I don’t belong to any political party,” he said.  “I wanted to be a better person and make a difference to society.” 

After a year of in-house training and more English he won an Australian government scholarship to Perth’s Murdoch University for a masters degree.

“I learned to ask questions, something we didn’t do in Indonesia,” he said.  “I was amazed that students who put their feet up in tutorials could still pass.  The system was advanced and tough.  I studied 16 hours a day – even in the toilet.  I loved it.”

Eventually he penetrated the highest levels of the Ministry, the elite of all government agencies.  Along the way he even married the daughter of his boss, deputy foreign minister Triyono Wibowo.

Diplomats are different. Those at the summit breathe rarefied air. They enjoy exotic lands and foods, use archaic French terms, make speeches where all applaud, however bland. 

Shaking His or Her Excellency’s hand is greeting a nation by proxy, so first impressions are vital: Dignified, though not aloof. Relaxed, yet respected. Gregarious but not effusive.

 An easiness with euphemisms is handy; a volcanic row is presented as a ‘frank exchange of views’. ‘Further consultation’ indicates a policy heading towards the trashcan.

A group photo of sober suits smiling has probably been photoshopped. 

Tavares, 55, and his diplomat wife Fitria Wibowo, 38, shatter the image.  In egalitarian NZ they used a marae [Maori meeting house] for the 70th anniversary, overseeing a spectacular display of volunteers voted best ever.  Tavares welcomed VIPs and ordinary folk in fluent Maori, dazzling locals. 

There’s another difference – a yawn in NZ but a wake-up in Indonesia

He’s Catholic - she’s Muslim.  Inter-faith marriages are banned in the Republic.

The couple had been colleagues in Jakarta, then posted apart.  Tavares was ordered to Geneva but objected.  He’d done the meeting marathons before; was the next agenda disarmament or beef quotas?  Or was that yesterday?

His moans were ignored, but illuminating the Swiss sameness was rediscovering “this beautiful woman” across a crowded boardroom.  Tavares’ monochrome world burst into incandescence.

In 2012 the refugee battler from Balibo, and the cosmopolitan lawyer raised in a diplomatic household and educated in Vienna and New York were joined as man and wife at a civil ceremony in Bangkok. 

The reception was in Surabaya, but the bride didn’t get the finery and egg-crushing rituals of a traditional Indonesian wedding,

“Speaking personally, I don’t think the prohibition against mixed-faith marriages is fair or constitutional,” said Wibowo, who has just completed a master’s degree in law at Wellington’s Victoria University.

“I come from a liberal family that didn’t raise objections.  About a third of my relatives are Catholic.”

Said her husband: “Religion is personal.  Fitria has her faith, I have mine.  We respect each other’s beliefs and don’t interfere.  Sometimes she accompanies me to church.

“Mixed marriages aren’t uncommon among diplomats. The former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has a Thai wife. [She reportedly converted to Islam].

“I’ve never thought of changing my name or faith to get ahead.  The basis of my Catholicism is love.  Turning the other cheek and loving the enemy is nearly impossible to do, but we must try.

“Religion is a way to God. Everyone has their own path.  But the path is not God.  It is so tragic when people fight over faith, but I believe Indonesia is changing.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 October 2015)

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