|Subject: Asiaweek: Behind Habibie's offer to the
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Received from Joyo: Asiaweek Week of February 12, 1999
With Us or Against Us?
Behind Habibie's offer to the East Timorese
"IF 22 YEARS OF historic unity is not sufficient for the East Timorese to choose to remain with us," said Foreign Minister Ali Alatas recently, then the territory should be "separated in a dignified and honorable way from Indonesia." The stunning announcement - the first time Jakarta has floated the possibility of an independent East Timor - represents a savvy political decision by President B.J. Habibie. It effectively rids his administration of one potentially huge headache.
Annexed in 1976 after Portugal quit the territory, East Timor has long been a headache for Jakarta - and vice-versa. "The idea to abandon the East Timor problem as soon as possible existed long before Suharto stepped down," says Arief Budiman, a political observer. But Suharto used the specter of wide instability if East Timor split away as justification for harsh martial policies.
Habibie has no such baggage, and the notion that independence for East Timor will set off a domino-like disintegration of the nation has lost currency. Nevertheless, Habibie reacted bitterly to a letter from Australia's Prime Minister John Howard urging Jakarta to allow East Timor an act of self- determination - such as a referendum - after a period of autonomy. The president and his ministers are loath to fund years of autonomy for East Timor only to have it later choose to leave. Their decision: the issue of independence can be decided by the next People's Consultative Assembly elected in June. That effectively presents East Timor with an ultimatum: Stay with Indonesia or go as soon as possible. The approach also puts a heavy burden on the coming Assembly, expected to be stacked with followers of Habibie's main rivals. Megawati Sukarnoputri and Abdurrahman Wahid oppose independence for East Timor. Jailed rebel leader Xanana Gusmao, who is expected to be released to house arrest soon, wants to wait before passing judgment on the proposal.
And how is the independence option playing in the province itself? Many - but not all - East Timorese have suffered during Indonesian rule. A lucky few profited, and this faction has tried, sometimes with military-supplied arms, to eliminate independence sentiment by spreading terror. That may explain why initial reaction to the proposal has been muted. "In their hearts, they are happy," says Dili human-rights advocate Jose Luis de Oliveira. "But in their expression, they are still fearful."
Habibie's new tack on East Timor is mercurial and unexpected. That does not make it less clever. Not only does it force East Timorese and the opposition to handle the worrying prospect of immediate independence, it also challenges foreign powers to consider the costs of assuming what was once Indonesia's responsibility. First to feel the burden: Australia. Addition by subtraction - the intricacy, if not the policy, would bring a smile to Suharto.
- By Jose Manuel Tesoro/Jakarta