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Mandela: Friend of Timor Leste and Indonesian Batik Fashion Icon

Southeast Asian nations joined the world in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero and first black president. Mandela is also remembered in the region as a leader who supported the independence struggle of Timor Leste and the most popular endorser of batik, a traditional Indonesian shirt.

Following his release from jail in 1990, Mandela visited Jakarta and received a souvenir batik shirt from then President Suharto. He eventually made the batik shirt his trademark suit in international gatherings which impressed Indonesian leaders including former Vice President Jusuf Kalla:

He had the courage to wear batik during a United Nations’ session. Even I might have had doubts wearing a batik shirt and speaking before the audience at a UN meeting.

Some of Mandela’s batik shirts were designed by Indonesian batik maestro Iwan Tirta. In South Africa, the batik came to be known as the Madiba shirt. Iwan believes that the batik has enhanced Mandela’s charisma as a fighter:

Mandela is a strong prominent figure who suits my batik collection. He does not only look appealing, but his fighter’s charisma is enhanced even more when he wears batik.

Jakarta Globe’s editorial urges Indonesian leaders to emulate the leadership of Mandela:

His passing is a moment for all of us to reflect on our own lives. Too many politicians today, including those in Indonesia, are too self-centered and concerned with immediate gain rather than working for a long-term goal.

On Twitter, Indonesians praised Mandela for wearing the batik:

Meanwhile, journalist Aboeprijadi Santoso recognized Mandela’s role in raising the prestige of the liberation movement in East Timor. When Mandela met Suharto in November 1997, he insisted to have a talk with Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao who was imprisoned for leading the independence struggle against Indonesia. Aboeprijadi Santoso wrote:

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.

Xanana Gusmão recalled the circumstances of that historic meeting:

He had told Suharto that it wasn’t possible for him to avoid bringing up the problem of East Timor since prior to his departure from Africa various human rights organisations had demanded that he do just this. And he had requested a meeting with me. At first, Suharto didn’t accept the request. However, Mandela explained to the dictator that when he himself was in prison he had received visits from various foreign entities (he named them all one by one, but I don’t remember now who they were) and also South African government officials. And apparently this had the effect of changing Suharto’s mind. He told me that his intervention was in the context of achieving peace, and he spoke of the need for peace …. and we began our meal.

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