Subject: JRH: Asean role in an independent E. Timor
From: sonny inbaraj <>

This comment was published in The Nation, Bangkok on Feb 3, 1999.

Asean role in independent E Timor

Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta questions the future moves of Indonesia towards giving East Timor independence and presents his own perspective of what to expect.

IN Pablo Neruda's ''Memoirs'', one chapter that really moves me is the description of his country, Chile, under the dictatorship of Gen Augusto Pinochet. In ''My Country in Darkness'' the poet writes: ''I can live only in my own country. I cannot live without having my feet and my hands on it and my ear against it, without feeling the movement of its waters and its shadows, without feeling my roots reach down into its soil for maternal nourishment.''

After 23 years in exile, I feel I can finally go back home to my country, East Timor. I too want to feel the waters and the soil of my beloved home and revive the memories that have been immersed in me since my childhood. Unlike Neruda, however, I won't be going back to darkness.

Recent statements from Jakarta offer some hope that Indonesia is finally ready to recognise East Timorese aspirations by allowing independence, but I'm not yet uncorking the champagne bottles. Serious points of contention remain.

Indonesian President B J Habibie has said that if East Timor rejects Indonesia's autonomy offer he will suggest that the new Indonesian parliament in June consider granting East Timor independence. There are no proposals from Jakarta on how Indonesia intends to consult the East Timorese people on its own autonomy proposal. Indonesia's Foreign Minister Ali Alatas has warned that a referendum to decide East Timor's future could spark a civil war.

I do not accept Alatas' view. Independence is our legal and moral right in an act of self-determination to be supervised by the United Nations. It is not up to the Indonesian parliament to decide East Timor's future.

Yet I am confident an amicable peaceful solution, acceptable to all parties, will soon be found. Indonesians don't have to fear losing face. Moving out of East Timor is not defeat. This move will be praised and honoured. In the attainment of peace there are no losers, only winners.

It is indeed a myth that Indonesia will fund an autonomous East Timor. If we are autonomous in the transition to becoming independent, we will seek international funds without being subject to the bureaucracy and cronyism prevalent in Jakarta. Under such circumstances Jakarta's contribution will be minimal.

The new Indonesia should not fear an independent East Timor. We will help them in West Timor and in the rest of the Nusa Tengara Timor islands. We will offer our humble political experience in fostering a better relationship between the outer islands of Eastern Indonesia and Jakarta to help prevent the Balkanisation of the republic.

The 23 years of repression in East Timor have brought us closer to the new generation of Indonesian leaders and intellectuals. Few know the Indonesians as well as we do. Ironically, Xanana Gusmao in particular is uniquely qualified to deal with Indonesia.

The Indonesia that will emerge after the elections in June this year can rest assured that the East Timorese leaders are sensitive and wise enough to realise that we are condemned by geography to coexist, regardless of our bitter experiences of the past.

In the light of these developments in the region, I call upon member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to abandon their previous policy, out of fear of Indonesia, of refusing any contact, even in an informal dialogue, with the East Timorese resistance.

Under the pretext that ''we in Asean do not interfere in the internal affairs of a member state'', many Asean governments previously were more than willing to bend over backwards to whitewash the truth about East Timor, but that hopefully will change with the offer of an olive branch of peace by Jakarta.

The signs already are emerging. Last Saturday the first envoy from Portugal to Indonesia since the annexation of East Timor 23 years ago arrived in Jakarta to open an interests section in the Netherlands Embassy. Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan said this diplomatic step would benefit broader relations between Asean and Europe and ''pave the way for solving other disputes''.

I hope the Asean Regional Forum this year will discuss East Timor and engage us in dialogue, thus giving the East Timorese people an opportunity to put forward their views. The regional grouping must prepare itself for an independent East Timor.

East Timor is a natural part of the Asean region, but we realise we will not immediately qualify to join Asean because of the level of development of East Timor. Our firm intention is to seek membership at the first opportunity.

Asean has in the past given assistance to potential new members in the region prior to admitting them into the regional grouping, and I sincerely hope this precedence will apply to East Timor.

We need Asean's expertise in agriculture, and I believe Thailand and the Philippines can provide the best possible expertise in this area. We also seek support in the medical field and need paramedics urgently, and I appeal in particular to the Philippines, because they've already got experience in East Timor.

We'd also like to see Asean countries put together an aid package for East Timor's needs. However modest, it will nevertheless show the world that the region cares. We don't want to be accused as leaning only on Australia, the United States and Europe. Asean indeed has a role in the reconstruction of East Timor, a similar role played by the regional grouping in reconstructing war-torn Cambodia.

In our foreign-investment policies in an independent East Timor, priority will be given to Asean member countries. We welcome countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines to invest in industries tapping our petroleum and natural-gas resources in the Timor Gap.

Though the economic prognosis of the region is not that cheerful, economists say there's a ray of hope. This involves greater trade dependence on each regional member country and other developing countries, bypassing dollar-based flows as far as possible. East Timor has much to offer Asean in terms of natural resources and tourism, and we look forward to trade with our immediate neighbours.

There have been positive developments in the region. Peace is finally restored to Cambodia, countries which have territorial claims in the South China Sea have begun to participate in a process to explore ways to manage potential conflicts in this volatile sea area, and Asean itself has started to expand to eventually include all the 10 countries in Southeast Asia.

It is only a matter of time before a free and independent East Timor is included as its eleventh member.

In 1996 Jose Ramos-Horta, together with East Timor Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr Ramos-Horta is also vice president of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) and a visiting professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

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