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Trip to Philippines, Taiwan, and Indonesia

By Jimmy Carter

After careful briefings by experts on both the Peoples' Republic of China and Taiwan and an assessment of the situation in Indonesia, Rosalynn, Chip, Jeff, Annette, and I left Atlanta on March 18 for the Philippines, where we were to join other volunteers and build Habitat houses. Then we would make our first visit to Taiwan since I normalized diplomatic relations with China 20 years ago. I planned to make a major speech, give a press conference, and visit with top officials. From Taiwan, we would proceed to Jakarta to assess whether The Carter Center should monitor Indonesia's parliamentary election early in June.

In the Philippines, we joined 1,100 other Americans, 2,000 other foreigners, and about 6,000 Filipinos. In five days, we built 293 homes for poor families in six locations throughout the country. This was our 16th annual Jimmy Carter Work Camp for Habitat for Humanity.

The houses were of concrete block with corrugated steel roofs and very small by American standards, ranging from 24 to 30 square meters (no larger than an average American living room). We helped construct two of 130 homes south of Manila in the Cavite area, just across the bay from the island of Corregidor. It was difficult masonry work, new to us, and in very hot weather. One of our families had nine children, and the other had five children and 13 grandchildren. There will be five people to a bedroom, each of which measures 6 by 9 feet. The older woman, Leonisa Salas, probably owns the only house in the world which four presidents helped to build (current President Estrada and former presidents Ramos and Esquino of the Philippines and me). Rosalynn and I also flew to the five other sites to thank and congratulate the volunteers and new homeowners.

The following day we visited Corrigedor, one of the most interesting battle sites we've ever seen. It really brought to life our devastating defeat in the Philippines during World War II and the terrible death march, when only 54,000 of 70,000 American and Filipino captives reached their destination: Japanese prison camps. I thought about my favorite uncle, Tom Gordy, who was captured on Guam shortly after Pearl Harbor and spent four years as a prisoner of war.

Later, we enjoyed a reunion with one of our White House stewards, Cesar Catuba. After spending one additional night in Manila with President Estrada and public officials, we went to Taipei.

There was great trepidation among our staff and advisors about this visit to Taiwan, but I decided to confront forthrightly my decision in 1978 to normalize diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, to maintain cultural and economic relations with Taiwan through an unofficial institute, and to provide defensive weapons for the people of Taiwan. It was a momentous event at the time, and when I sent Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Taipei to explain my position, he was physically attacked.

We were received warmly by the president and all other officials. I weathered without difficulty some sharp questions after my speech to the Institute for National Policy Research and later in a heavily attended press conference. The subject of the address was "The Greatest Challenge of the Next Millennium," which I think is the growing chasm between the rich and poor people of the world.

We also visited the remarkable national museum, with an especially exciting display of discoveries made near the headwaters of the Yangtse River. What pleased me was that these artifacts were found in 1986 and were on loan from the People's Republic of China! We also toured the science industrial park, on a site that was sugar cane fields 15 years ago and now produces a substantial portion of the world's computer chips and other advanced high-tech components.

We approached Jakarta with considerable doubt about whether to accept invitations to monitor their elections on June 7, when 462 members of parliament will be chosen. Subsequently, 200 others will be added, and the larger group will, in turn, elect a president in November. However, we were impressed by our enthusiastic reception by those with whom we discussed the key issues, including

President Habibie, General Wiranto and his staff, Chairman Rudini and the national elections commission, leaders of five major political parties and human rights groups, four domestic observer organizations, other international organizations providing technical support to the elections commission, and US embassy staff. Political, social, and economic considerations provide strong incentives for Indonesians to have a fair election, and there is a pervasive belief that our presence can be crucial in the process. Gordon Streeb, Associate Executive Director of The Carter Center, met us there, and we announced before leaving that The Carter Center will participate, provided we can obtain adequate funding.

It will be our most difficult monitoring assignment to date. Indonesia is the world's fourth-largest nation, with 27 provinces, 4,000 inhabited islands, about 300,000 voting places, 48 political parties, and continuing dissension among the young and old, Moslem and Christian, Malay and Chinese, and public officials and dissidents. The future of East Timor is just one of several crises that the nation faces. There were several people killed in confrontations in outlying islands while we were there. A successful election will be vital to the country and its people's future.

We arrived back home on April 2, the day before Easter, having had a full, exciting, and gratifying trip, and having learned a lot about three important places in Asia.

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