Subject: AFR: East Timorese face an uncertain future

Australian Financial Review August 23, 2000

East Timorese face an uncertain future

Dili Observed,

By Tim Dodd

Next Wednesday, August 30, is a political anniversary of note - a year to the day since 78 per cent of East Timorese voted to leave Indonesia and immediately suffered dreadful retaliation from the departing Indonesian military and their puppet army, the militia.

Unlike most political anniversaries, this is not an empty one. Events have conspired to bring all the issues facing East Timor to a head just as its people are readying themselves to celebrate the first birthday of freedom from Indonesia.

On Monday, Xanana Gusmao's National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), which led the independence movement to victory, opened its first congress on home soil in an old gymnasium in Dili, one of the few public buildings left relatively intact by the departing Indonesians.

Over 10 days of meetings the congress will make key recommendations about the shape of the new nation. What system of government does East Timor want? What will its constitution say?

And, in the absence of an elected government, the 460 delegates are East Timor's most credible voice on other issues critical to the success of the new state. What will be its stance on foreign policy, on a defence force, and on measures to encourage foreign investment?

The CNRT also has to decide on its own future. It is an umbrella group representing a coalition of political interests that were united by their desire for independence. Now the constituent groups are likely to form their own political parties and contest the first election - likely to be held next year - independently.

Under Indonesian rule, the CNRT was like an underground alternative government with sections dealing with a range of social affairs issues. The question is, now that the victory has been won, should it pull out of its shadow government role or should these parts of the CNRT be co-opted into the new government?

The main political factions in the CNRT are the two that have dominated East Timorese politics since the Portuguese began to lose its grip on the territory in 1974. They are Fretilin, once socialist and opposed to Indonesia from the start, and the UDT, a more conservative group representing the East Timorese elite, who valued links with Portugal.

Although UDT leaders are politically strong, with good business contacts and close links to Portugal, the party itself is moribund. A leading UDT figure, Mario Carrascalao, last week announced a new party, the Social Democrats, which will probably supplant the UDT.

While the hopes for the future are being debated in Dili, the ghosts of the past are reappearing on East Timor's border. Over in Indonesian-ruled West Timor, the losing side is becoming restive. In the past month the militia groups have resumed hostile incursions into East Timor, threatening locals and engaging United Nations peacekeeping troops.

The death toll in the latest engagements is two peacekeepers - a New Zealander and a Nepalese - and perhaps several militia. And UN commanders report that the militia's weaponry and grasp of combat tactics have improved, indicating they are getting support and training from somebody.

But the incursions - although worrying in themselves and tragic for the families of the dead - are not anywhere near a serious threat to the security of East Timor. As long as the United Nations peacekeeping force is present they will only be an irritant.

A greater problem at the moment is that the militia is still very active in the refugee camps in West Timor. Staff from the UN High Commission for Refugees, whose job is to register refugees and help them make a free and informed choice whether or not to return to East Timor, have left in the face of militia harassment.

But there are still an estimated 120,000 East Timorese in the West Timor camps and the rate of return has slowed to a trickle. Some have genuine reasons not to return. East Timorese who were public servants, or who served in the Indonesian military or police, are eligible for pensions they will not receive if they go home. Others believe militia rumours they would be far worse off in East Timor.

One way or the other, the camps are meant to be closed - both for humanitarian reasons and to cut away the militia's base. Those who do not want to return are meant to be resettled in Indonesia by the Indonesian Government.

It is very important for East Timor's future stability to solve the refugee problem. "An unhappy group in exile will only continue to cause trouble," said Colin Stewart, a UN political affairs officer, in the UN's fortnightly newspaper for East Timorese. After strong pressure the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Alwi Shihab, last week set a six-month deadline to resettle the people and close the camps.

So one year after the decisive act of choice, East Timor faces more choices and more uncertainty on the path to full independence - which is not far off. By the end of 2001 East Timor is expected to be a sovereign state. But there is much to be done before then, including holding elections. A favoured date for East Timor's first free election to choose its own government is August 30, 2001.

It is a date full of symbolism for East Timorese democracy and would make the second anniversary even more momentous than the first.

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