|Subject: AUSTRALIA: Major East Timor Policy Shift On
Eve Of General Election
Date: Tue, 29 Sep 1998 07:49:15 +0930
AUSTRALIA: Major East Timor Policy Shift On Eve Of General Election
By Sonny Inbaraj ETISC 29/09/98 -- In the runup to the Australian general election on Oct 3, the opposition Labor Party has made a major foreign policy shift on East Timor with East Timorese being given the sole voice in determining their future. Human rights activists, however, are cautiously optimistic over the opposition's new stand on the troubled territory.
The policy, unveiled by Labor's Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Laurie Brereton, conceded a succession of governments including Labor ones were wrong in supporting Indonesia's annexation of the former Portuguese colony following the 1975 invasion. According to international human rights groups over 200,000 East Timorese, a third of the population, died in the years following the invasion from either fighting the Indonesians or from disease and hunger.
The new policy also calls for the immediate release of political prisoners such as resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, for a special envoy on East Timor and for increased financial assistance for the troubled territory. Xanana, commander of the Falintil armed resistance is serving a 20-year jail sentence in Jakarta's Cipinang Jail for plotting to overthrow the Indonesian state.
"East Timor will be a key diplomatic priority for an incoming Labor government," Brereton told a press conference in Darwin last week.
"Political change in Indonesia has opened a window of opportunity to achieve progress toward a resolution of this tragic conflict.
"Labor is determined to seize this opportunity and do all that we can to encourage negotiation of a just and lasting solution to the problem of East Timor," he added.
Disowning some of the Labor's past history on East Timor as well as trying to make a fresh start, Brereton said the troubled territory has caused enormous concern in Australian society and affected the party's moral stand ing in the wider world.
"It is for these reasons that I have outlined a Labor commitment that says revisit East Timor and do everything we can to see that put behind us and an act of self-determination. Let's settle this matter once and for all. "
Brereton said a resolution of the unrest in East Timor was unlikely without negotiations towards self-determination.
"Substantive negotiations must of necessity involve participation by the recognised leadership of all East Timorese groups. It is difficult to see how talks can achieve substantive outcomes in the absence of the free part icipation of a figure such as Xanana Gusmao."
"Labor will continue to call for Xanana Gusmao and all other East Timorese political prisoners to be released unconditionally without further delay."
But Labor's new policy was rejected by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, of the ruling Liberal-National coalition, who said improving the situation in East Timor was better done by encouraging the Indonesian government a nd creating a dialogue about the area's future.
"I don't think anyone should take seriously Labor's position, they had 13 years to address this issue and stood on the shores of Australia and just stared at East Timor," Downer said.
Polls, late last week, indicate a swing to Labor which has to gain 27 more seats to return to government. In the current House of Representatives, the Liberal-National coalition holds 91 seats, Labor 49 and Independents, including the anti-Aboriginal and Asian immigration One Nation, eight. The result is likely to be close: the winner will have a slim majority in the lower House and a hostile Senate.
In April 1975, in a secret meeting with the Indonesians in Townsville, Queensland, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam maintained his earlier position that the best solution would be for East Timor to join Indonesia. In 19 79, under the Liberal government of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, Australia became the first Western country to recognise Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor.
In 1985 when Labor Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was asked about the international practice of not recognising territory acquired by force, he replied: "The world is a pretty unfair place."
"For 24 years there has been no macro difference between the alternate governments in Australia on East Timor. Both have been equally bad, eventhough Labor was more sympathetic in social policy," said Rob Wesley-Smith of Australians for a Free East Timor.
"It's up to the Labor Party, now, to prove their sincerity. For example the draft policy is too carefully worded when it suggests 'a process of negotiation through which the people of East Timor can exercise their right o f self-determination.' Does this include a free and fair vote, or allow for independence?" asked Wesley-Smith.
But Wesley-Smith in an advisory to all East Timor solidarity groups in Australia, advised them to vote Labor.
"Should Labor win the election on October 3 then I think we have fulfilled our first responsibility that is to get the Australian government to change its recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor," he wrote.
"The smaller parties, the Democrats and the Greens, having been in parliament for a shorter time, have both been principled and active over East Timor. The Greens have been particularly proactive for East Timor as well as on environmental issues. There is no doubt they deserve recognition and support for this. But now we must support Labor over the Liberal-National coalition at this election."
East Timor's Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta welcomed Labor's position, which he said followed years of Australian complicity in the annexation and occupation of East Timor.
"But we are prepared to put all of that back if Australia were to recommend such policy as recommended now by the Labor Party," Ramos-Horta told ABC Radio.
With the elections this Saturday, Australian activists are seeking a firm commitment from Labor to hold true to their promises to the East Timorese.
"The anger and disillusionment with the Labor and Liberal parties in our land is so great that reasonable people are prepared to vote unreasonably for One Nation. Australians aren't going to stomach further betrayals of East Timor so I strongly suggest Labor honours its moral stand on East Timor because if Labor breaks its word should it be elected, then Labor may end up as the great political tragedy on Canberra's doorstep," wrote Dr Vaclava Vlazna, convenor of the East Timor Justice Lobby, in a letter to Labor's Laurie Brereton.