Subject: NYT: E. Timor Seems Suddenly to Be on Verge of Independence
Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 09:06:47 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <>

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THE NEW YORK TIMES Thursday, February 18, 1999

*East Timor Seems Suddenly to Be on Verge of Independence


WASHINGTON -- For almost a quarter-century, relations between Indonesia, the world's fourth most-populous nation, and the United States -- as well as the rest of the outside world -- have often stumbled over the fate of half of an impoverished island so small and so remote that even many Indonesians would have trouble finding it on a map.

But with the utterance of a few words by Indonesia's new president last week, the territory, East Timor, suddenly appears to be on the brink of independence. That has left the Clinton administration and other governments puzzling over how to respond to Indonesia's turnaround.

Indonesia, on the verge of economic and political collapse as a result of the Asian economic crisis, seems eager to be rid of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that was invaded and annexed by Indonesia in the mid-1970s over international protest. Since then, the territory's name has become a rallying cry for human rights campaigners.

"We don't want to be bothered by East Timor's problems anymore," Indonesia's president, B.J. Habibie, said last week. "If someone asks me about East Timor, my suggestion is, give them freedom. It is just and fair."

While welcoming the move toward independence for the 750,000 people of East Timor, administration officials and foreign diplomats say that if the break with Indonesia is too sudden, it could lead to chaos and even civil war as Timorese factions maneuver for power.

While the vast majority of the population is thought to favor independence, East Timorese who oppose independence have formed small armed bands to fight to keep the territory part of Indonesia, with weapons provided to them by the Indonesian military.

"The Indonesians can't just pull out and expect it to be normal there," said Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. "Any viable solution in East Timor must avoid the type of bloodshed that occurred in 1975, when Portugal withdrew."

Portugal abruptly pulled out of East Timor that year after nearly four centuries of colonization. Indonesia quickly invaded, and declared East Timor a province in 1976. The western half of the island, a former Dutch territory, was already part of Indonesia.

International human rights groups have long accused the Indonesian military of a campaign of killing and torture to enforce the annexation of East Timor. Human rights groups say up to 200,000 East Timorese have died since 1975 as a result of human rights abuses or fighting with government forces.

Former Indonesian President Suharto, who resigned under pressure in May after more than three decades in power, insisted that East Timor would forever remain part of Indonesia.

But his successor and former vice president, Habibie, recognized that East Timor had helped turn Indonesia into a ripe target for human rights activists, and that rights abuses there by the military were damaging diplomatic and trade relationships at a time when Indonesia was desperate for international help.

"Indonesia is burdened with enough troubles now, without East Timor," said Daniel Lev, an Indonesian specialist at the University of Washington. "This is a very sensible decision that will work in Indonesia's favor. This would relieve Indonesia of an international burden and the international criticism it has faced since 1975."

Earlier this month Habibie agreed to remove the long-jailed leader of the East Timorese independence movement from prison and place him under house arrest.

He also ordered Indonesia's foreign minister to meet at the United Nations with his counterpart from Portugal, which is still recognized by the United Nations as the territory's administrator, to discuss greater autonomy or independence for East Timor.

The fear, administration officials and foreign diplomats say, is that Habibie may move too quickly, and that East Timor may find itself granted full independence from Indonesia before it is ready to govern itself, and with the territory awash in guns. Habibie has said he wants the issue of East Timorese autonomy resolved by the end of this year.

In testimony last week in Congress, Roth said the State Department had received "numerous reports that the Indonesian army has been arming" anti- independence militia groups in East Timor.

He said the United States welcomed a recent statement by the Indonesian government that it would would support an effort to disarm the groups before a withdrawal of Indonesian troops.

But human rights groups wonder whether the military, concerned that independence for East Timor could inspire independence movements elsewhere in the vast, ethnically diverse Indonesian archipelago, is trying to encourage turmoil.

Rights groups have called on the Indonesian government to allow the United Nations to station monitors -- and possibly even peacekeeping troops -- in East Timor to observe a transition to independence and to prevent outbreaks of violence among East Timorese factions and the Indonesian military.

"We feel it's urgent that there be an international presence on the ground to prevent further escalation of violence," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch Asia. "For this process to have any kind of transparency, any kind of credibility, it would obviously help to have some kind of U.N. presence."

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