Subject: Weekly Column - Wollongong Mercury 6 Feb.
From: "James Dunn" <>

>From James Dunn, Foreign Affairs Columnist

In Lisbon January was a month of extraordinary surprises. First there was the shift in Australia's position, which some received with disbelief; then followed Indonesia's decision to allow for an independent East Timor. These developments open up a new role for Australia, that could be of critical importance to the outcome.

What happens to Timor in the year ahead will have a defining impact on Indonesia's political future, and right now Australia is in a position to play a constructive and conciliatory role. But is Jakarta's change for real, or is it a tactical move? Are the East Timorese really going to be allowed to go their own way?

There is now great excitement among Timorese communities in Portugal and Australia at what appears to be a real prospect of setting up their own state, and there are reports that a shadow cabinet, led by Xanana, has already been put together. What has for a generation been an impossible dream is now quite possible, but the way ahead remains littered with obstacles. It is clear powerful forces are reluctant to let East Timor go, and conflicting statements continue to emerge from Jakarta. Most alarming are reports of mounting civil unrest in Timor itself, causing some to argue that the Timorese are incapable of ruling themselves. This week a Timorese delegation, led by the provincial governor, Abilio Soares, called on President Habibie not to grant independence to the territory, a view later endorsed by Abilio Araujo, a former Fretilin leader.

However, these matters need to be put into perspective. The civil unrest has little to do with conflict among the Timorese. Much of it has been engineered by elements of the Indonesian military opposed to letting East Timor go, fearing that the disintegration of the Republic could follow, an alarming prospect to our political leaders. It is at this point that Australia could help calm the situation, by persuading Jakarta to accept a UN peace-keeping force, along the lines proposed by Laurie Brereton. In my view, the internal conflict would quickly subside if ABRI were replaced with a UN-led force. Having in mind that the Portuguese ruled East Timor with 1,000 troops this force need not be large. With the Indonesia military presence reduced the situation would quickly be calmed.

The statements by Soares and Araujo are not representative, for few East Timorese want to stay under the rule of a country responsible for the deaths of a large part of their population. It is the collaborators who are most opposed to change, for they fear the loss of the privileges gained from co-operating with the Suharto regime. Soares owes his appointment to the now-disgraced General Prabowo, while Araujo has few supporters. Following the former Fretilin leader's dismissal this one-time Marxist befriended Suharto, switching sides and ideology, and setting up a profitable business in Indonesia.

Will an independent East Timor provoke the Republic's disintegration? I doubt it, but the challenge is up to the new regime to develop the kind of format that is not held together by the intimidating power of Indonesia's armed forces. As an Atjehnese leader put it to me, real autonomy is what most disgruntled minorities would prefer.

In these circumstances it is not good enough for the Howard Government to maintain its indifference. We should press at once for a UN presence, and encourage a conciliatory dialogue between the various Timorese political parties and interests. The various parties need to establish a consensual approach to self determination and start designing their new nation. At last we are in a position to do something to end this 24 year old crisis, which we ourselves helped bring about by our tacit support for the Indonesian invasion. But if we fail to respond disaster could return to our long-suffering neighbours.

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