In a rare public apology, a former Umno Youth leader, Saifuddin Nasution, said at a public forum last night that the storming of the Asia Pacific Coalition for East Timor II (Apcet II) conference in Kuala Lumpur four years ago, was orchestrated by the government.
"With deep regret, I am here to offer my apology to all of you," Saifuddin told a 400-strong crowd who attended the public forum held at the Federal Hotel in conjunction with the visit of East Timor independence leaders Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta.
Recalling the events that led to the storming, Saifuddin who was then Umno Youth secretary, and now a KeADILan supreme council member, said that he was asked to lead a mob and stop the NGO-organised conference by the then Deputy Home Affairs Minister Megat Junid Megat Ayob.
"At 4pm, Oct 9, 1996, I was called by Megat Junid. I went to meet him, escorted by a few senior police officers," he said. He added that the minister then told him, "By hook or by crook, you must stop the conference. Kalau tidak, saya anggap Pemuda Umno tiada telur (Otherwise, I would assume that Umno Youth has no balls)."
Saifuddin added that as secretary he was No. 3 in the Youth wing. Youth chief Zahid Hamidi was at that time away in Ghana with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad while deputy Youth chief Hishammuddin Hussein was in Sentosa Island, Singapore, for a meeting with the republic's Peoples Action Party Youth chief George Yeo.
"I called up Zahid (about the plan) and he consulted Dr Mahathir who gave his support. Hishammuddin also supported the action. I then organised a 1,000-strong team with the order to stop the conference," Saifuddin said with a hint of regret in his voice.
Apcet II, held in Kuala Lumpur in November 1996 at the Asia Hotel, was an offshoot of Apcet I in Manila, held in May 1994. The conference had hardly begun when it was violently stopped by a mob of Barisan Nasional youth members led by Saifuddin. The angry mob broke the doors to the conference hall, overturned tables, threw chairs and verbally as well as physically assaulted the participants.
The police, who are normally quick in stopping illegal demonstrations, did not appear for one full hour to stop the fracas. Fifty-nine participants and journalists covering the international conference were detained for up to six days under remand orders while a few Umno Youth leaders who were also arrested, were released the same day. In addition, another 40 overseas participants were deported.
Saifuddin added that after the successful attempt in stopping the conference, he was brought to the Bunga Raya VIP room in the Subang Airport by Megat Junid and was introduced to Mahathir upon his arrival from Ghana.
"Megat told Mahathir that it was all orchestrated," he continued.
"I do not have any significance to the struggle of the independence in East Timor. On that spirit, I apologise to all of you and to those who were detained by the police," said Saifuddin to the applause of the crowd.
Also at last night's public forum, Gusmao, who arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Monday night for a three-day visit, thanked all Malaysian supporters and those who believed that the values that the Timorese fought for were also the values desired by all.
"We have won a battle but what lies ahead is an even tougher and heavier fight," Xanana said in halting Malay and English.
"Independence is only a means to achieve liberty, peace and prosperity. The task ahead of us is of a mammoth proportion. What the people of East Timor need is the creation of a truly civil society," said the leader who has earned the recognition of the international media as the "Mandela of Timor".
Gusmao added that the international community could offer much assistance to help rebuild the half-island state that has suffered through three invasions: the Portuguese, Japanese and Indonesian.
"We ask for help from institutions, governments and solidarity groups. We are now in a period of emergency. We lack everything - houses, food, health care - our people want to start a new life," Gusmao said.
Ramos-Horta, on the other hand, also thanked the people of Asia, with particular mention of South Korea's President Kim Dae Jong who he claimed had worked behind the scenes with Japanese and Chinese leaders to speak with Jakarta in an attempt to resolve the recent violence in East Timor. Ramos-Horta later answered questions from members of the floor.
The two leaders had earlier met Mahathir, Foreign Affairs Minister Syed Hamid Albar and Defence Minister Najib Tun Razak. Their visit to Kuala Lumpur is the last leg of an 18-day six-nation Asian tour which began on Jan 23.
Among the main objectives of the tour are to seek understanding, cooperation and diplomatic relations with leaders of Asean and East Timor and to get feedback on the possibility of East Timor becoming a member, or at least, observers of Asean.
Gusmao, a former guerilla leader, was arrested in 1992 and later jailed in Indonesia for 20 years on firearms charges and for plotting against East Timor. He was released from prison last year to head a newly independent East Timor after a historic referendum. Ramos-Horta, a Nobel laureate, had been the leading international spokesman for East Timor's cause since the half island was invaded by Indonesia in 1975.