Subject: ST - Indon's E.Timor shift: The inside story
From: "Paula" <>

Straits Times Feb 5 1999

*East Timor shift: The inside story

by Susan Sim, Jakarta correspondent

In a dramatic move to end years of conflict in its 27th province, the Indonesian government last week announced that it was willing to consider independence for the restive territory. Straits Times Indonesia correspondent SUSAN SIM looks at how the decision, once unthinkable, was made in Jakarta.

THE first inkling that President B.J. Habibie was prepared to break with the past and bow to international pressure on the East Timor issue came in one of the first interviews he gave to the foreign media in June.

Asked by the BBC what reform he planned to offer the country's youngest and most troubled province, he said: "I'm going to give it autonomy. What kind of autonomy? A special autonomy. I don't know, but autonomy."

A major policy shift had just been announced, and the world was about to find out about it before the president's men.

Recalled presidential spokesman Dewi Fortuna Anwar in a column in the latest issue of Tempo magazine:

"I went to the President and asked him: 'Do you know what you said?' 'Yes,' he said. 'Then you must tell Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, Home Affairs Minister Syarwan Hamid and the Defence Minister,' I told him.

"So he called Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and told him: 'Hei, Pak Ali, I have just said that I will give special autonomy to East Timor'," she wrote.

The veteran diplomat was unfazed and produced quickly several models his ministry once tried, in vain, to persuade former president Suharto to consider.

Now Indonesia had a new card to play in the long drawn-out negotiations with Portugal under the aegis of the United Nations.

It was no longer full integration or nothing; the ball was finally moving.

Other sources said Dr Habibie had decided by July that Indonesia would have to let East Timor go because pressure from the international community would only mount and the Catholic province itself was only a drain on national resources.

The trick was to find the right modalities.

And along came Australia's John Howard, who in early December sent a letter urging Jakarta to allow East Timor some form of self determination after a period of autonomy.

The gradual path to a plebiscite in New Caledonia was one possible model, the Australian prime minister wrote.

East Timor was not a colony, and self-determination had already been ruled out with Portugal's agreement, Dr Habibie replied.

More to the point, his aides have since noted, where was the advantage to Jakarta of pouring more money into the province over another five to 10 years, only for it to vote to break away later?

Still, sources said, he sent the Howard letter to former Finance Minister Frans Seda, who is often considered the community leader of eastern Indonesian Catholics. Scribbled several times in the margins in his handwriting was the word, "agreed".

On Jan 21, the President finally took the plunge.

A well-informed source said he sent the Howard letter to his security and foreign ministers with this note:

"If the question of East Timor becomes a burden to the struggle and image of the Indonesian people and if, after 22 years, the East Timorese people cannot feel united with the Indonesian people who proclaimed their independence 53 years ago and have a 400-year history, including 350 years under Dutch colonisation, it would be reasonable and wise if, by a decision of the People's Consultative Assembly, the 27th province of East Timor can be honourably separated from the unitary nation of the Republic of Indonesia who, in fact, had the good intention to accept them in the struggle to achieve a civil society in the coming millennium."

The shockwaves still unsettled, the ministers met four days later and in what is usually described as a lively discussion, concluded that as an alternative to special autonomy status, "letting East Timor go" was "not only reasonable and wise, but also democratic".

But they also asked the President for more time to study the implications and take the necessary steps to secure the safety and interests of pro-integration East Timorese and other Indonesians living in the province.

Key on the mind of armed forces chief and Defence Minister Wiranto was that history should not now interpret the original decision to integrate the territory as a mistake.

A classified memorandum sent by the Foreign Ministry to all Indonesian missions abroad last Thursday, one day after a full Cabinet meeting agreed that independence for East Timor could now be considered an option, ended with this reminder from Gen Wiranto:

"The political decision to accept East Timor as the 27th province in 1976 was a political decision that was appropriate at that time and was a humanitarian obligation in order to avoid further bloodshed because the Portuguese government abandoned their overseas province.

"Therefore, the sacrifice of 1,419 soldiers of Abri who died in the area of operation was not meaningless."

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