Subject: UPDATE # 7 - Indonesia's East Timor offer draws excitement, suspicion and questions
Date: Wed, 27 Jan 1999 15:28:01 -0000
From: "Paula Pinto" <paularoque@mail.telepac.pt>

10:59 (Jkt. local time)

Indonesia's East Timor offer draws excitement, suspicion and questions

JAKARTA, Jan 27 (AFP) - A mixture of excitement, apprehension and suspicion greeted Indonesia's announcement Wednesday that if the people of East Timor did not want autonomy, Jakarta would recommend the possibility of independence.

The announcement on the former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesian troops in 1975 took diplomats here by surprise and came on the eve of the resumption of talks in New York between Indonesia and Portugal on the autonomy plan.

It said essentially the current transitional Jakarta government would recommend to a new parliament to be elected in June that if East Timorese don't want a Jakarta autonomy offer, then it should consider granting independence.

That would delay any decision until almost the end of the year, but it was as diplomats here pointed out, the first time since the invasion and years of dragging ground and diplomatic war that Jakarta had mentioned the possibility of independence.

"There may be catches, but no matter what the catches, it is a very important development," an ambassador closely involved in the East Timor issue told AFP here.

"It is the first time they (an Indonesian government) have been able to countenance in a public way the prospect of East Timor being independent," he said.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Biship Carlos Belo, speaking to AFP from his home in the East Timorese capital of Dili, said he welcomed the offer but still wanted a referendum on self-determination.

"Yes, I will be happy if it is put into practice. But as I have said for the past 10 to 15 years, the offer for wide ranging autonomy should be accompanied with a referendum to decide whether it's what the people want," Belo said.

But his co-Nobel laureate, self-exiled resistance leader Jose Ramos Horta rejected the proposal.

"My response is scepticism. I don't trust the Indonesian side. They never deliver what they promise," he told AFP in Sydney.

"I believe it is no more than a smokescreen, a diplomatic stunt. Their aim is to win the good favour of the international community, while at the same time, they create terror in East Timor," he said.

Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio told Portuguese Radio TSF the announcement was "not negative in itself ... It signifies there are very divergent opinions among Indonesians.

"This is positive and that will advance things, but it is still premature to talk about it," he said.

In Jakarta East Timorese MP Salvador Ximenes Soares said Foreign Minister Ali Alatas' statement represented a major shift in policy, but worried about the fallout in East Timor.

Like Horta he said he was suspicious of the government's intentions.

The announcement was premature as talks on the government's autonomy proposal have not yet been expanded to include East Timorese representatives, he said.

"I'm very, very suspicious of this news. I don't know if there are good intentions behind this statement ... or if it's only a political statement," Soares said.

"But I can say one thing, this does represent progress in the position of the Indonesian government.

"Because before, in Suharto's time, any statement from the government was always about integration or nothing," he said, speaking of former Indonesian president Suharto who ordered the 1975 invasion.

Soares said he thought one potential obstacle was the firm foothold the military has managed to keep in Indonesia's parliament.

"East Timor is a matter of pride for them (the military)," Soares said.

But a separate source who asked to be unnamed disagreed.

"A substantial part of the military, which suffered unanncounced heavy losses in East Timor, would like to stop pouring money in there," the source said.

Soares also predicted mixed reactions from East Timor, raising the expectations of those who are pro-independence and taking by surprise those who are pro-autonomy or integration, he said.

"Polarisation among the people will increase," he warned.

"My view is we have to discuss the status of wide-ranging autonomy or independence and then let the East Timorese people know the consequences of their choices.

"That's my fear -- people will have to make a choice without knowing all the arguments.

"Politically we may have a president but economically we will continue to be very dependent on Indonesia," Soares said.

Some 200,000 East Timorese are believed to have died as a result of the 1975 Indonesian invasion, which also left Indonesia with some 20,000 casualties, experts say.

©AFP 1999

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