Subject: ECON: Let E Timor Vote
Date: Fri, 17 Jul 1998 08:48:24 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <email@example.com>
Let East Timor vote 4 July 1998
If Indonesia is correct in saying the East Timorese do not want independence, it has nothing to fear from a referendum
MORE people than ever before took to the streets this week in Dili, the capital of East Timor. They were protesting against rule by Indonesia, which invaded in 1975, and formally annexed the territory the next year. Expectations of change have been mounting since President Suhartos resignation in May, which was followed by an easing of repression. They have been heightened by an unprecedented visit by a group of European Union ambassadors. The protesters main demand is modest: not the independence which many East Timorese believe is their birthright, but merely a referendum on their future status. Indonesias new president, B.J. Habibie, has offered East Timor an ill-defined special status, but still rules out a referendum. That is a mistake.
It is an historical fiction to claim, as Indonesia does, that East Timor voluntarily agreed to annexation in 1976. The evidence of the streets suggests it is equally untrue that only a minority of the East Timorese oppose integration with big brother. Indonesia likes to argue that this must be so since its 23-year rule has done so much more for the economy than did 400 years of Portuguese colonialism. Certainly, Portugal exploited and neglected its colony, and left it in a mess in 1975. It is also probably true that Indonesia spends more in East Timoron road-building as well as soldieringthan it does in other outlying provinces. Less probable, but just as irrelevant, is the assertion that East Timor, which is desperately poor and produces little of international value other than coffee, would not be a viable country.
So far as Indonesia (itself facing economic collapse) is concerned, these are arguments for letting East Timor go, not for bludgeoning a people into professing a gratitude they manifestly do not feel. Likewise the worry that the main pro-independence group, Fretilin, has leftish views. In 1975, the notion of a South-East Asian Cuba could persuade America to ignore an act of international piracy. Now Fretilin has changed. And, unnoticed by Mr Suharto, the cold war has ended.
In the world of real politics, rather than of truth and justice, two arguments against a referendum deserve more serious consideration. One is the fear that the secession of East Timor could start a chain reaction that would lead to the disintegration of the whole country. It would certainly be wrong to take Indonesias continued existence for granted. But East Timor is unique historicallyin being part of the Portuguese, not the Dutch empire? 151;and legally: the United Nations still regards Portugal as the administering power.
The second serious worry is that of civil war. That was the pretext for the 1975 invasion, and the East Timorese opposition has remained fractious (see ). Indonesia can point to clashes last week between pro-and anti-integration forces. But these clashes can be put down to one enduring legacy of the Suharto era: the reliance on dividing to rule. The integrationists demonstrations were not spontaneous. In fact, the most likely source of civil war in East Timor at the moment seems to be Indonesian efforts to provoke unrest.
By allowing a referendum, Mr Habibie would be both doing the right thing and advancing his standing internationally. He would also be showing domestic sceptics that his reformist talk is not just hot air. He might have trouble convincing his generals, for whom East Timor has been training school, business enterprise and killing-field. But he could at least try, and the world has a responsibility to help him. At least 100,000 East Timorese have died of war or famine since 1975, out of a population of about 800,000. Countless people have been tortured. Everyone has known fear. Portugal, and hence the European Union of which it is a member, has a duty to help make amends. It is time to bring to an end one of the sorriest episodes in Indonesias short history.