Subject: AW: Editorial: What's the rush?
Date: Sat, 17 Jul 1999 09:32:35 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Editorial: What's the rush?

07/23/1999 AsiaWeek

Set a new date to ensure a fair, peaceful referendum in East Timor It's B.J. Habibie's fault. The Indonesian president was in an expansive mood when he declared back in February: "We do not want to be burdened by the problem of East Timor after January 1, 2000." Even before the headline-making statement, Jakarta had indicated that it was willing to consider independence for the province. But Habibie's date suddenly turned what should have been a gradual transition into East Timor 's own Y2K race.

So now, five months later, the province, the military, the government and the United Nations are rushing to get everything ready for a referendum on East Timor 's future, with autonomy and independence on the ballot. It's not a pretty sight. The faction favoring integration with Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, its rivals demanding independence have been going to great lengths to make their views bloodily clear to a terrified electorate, not to mention U.N. personnel caught in the crossfire. Dozens have been killed in attacks, mainly by integrationist militias abetted by the Indonesian army.

On July 12, a group of 13 cabinet ministers visited the territory to do their bit for the vote, which was recently postponed by just two weeks to Aug. 21 or 22. Foreign Minister Ali Alatas declared that the visit demonstrated the government's "great determination and our sincerity and seriousness" to hold the polls. Stirring stuff, but we have a better idea. Why don't we just forget what the president said in February and set a realistic date for the referendum, one that would give sufficient time for all necessary preparations?

Never mind if Habibie won't go down in history as the man who solved the East Timor problem and, possibly, set a new nation free. Better listen to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who already delayed voter registration by three days to July 16, to give Indonesia more time to improve security. He has also said that he would not hold the referendum if people could not vote without fear. Independence advocate and Nobel peace awardee Jose Ramos-Horta, hardly one who would countenance one second more under Jakarta's rule than is necessary, has himself urged a postponement if terrorism will mar the balloting.

At this late stage, should reason prevail over the race for a place in history, then there is a chance that essential conditions for a fair, peaceful and credible referendum will be achieved. It won't be easy, but first, all warring parties must be disarmed. Second, Indonesian troops should complete their pullout and be replaced by police. Third, foreign security advisers have to monitor the territory to make sure that the police only keep the peace and do not repeat the army's violations. All these conditions are already in the referendum pact, including a secret section requiring the army to be ready to disarm contending militias.

If delaying the vote means that it will transpire under a president chosen by the People's Consultative Assembly which includes 462 new MPs elected last month, so much the better. It had always been problematic for the Habibie government, which does not enjoy wide popular support, to decide an issue as fundamental and controversial as giving up territory. Indeed, in February one objector to the president's Timor timetable was Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle is leading the June election count. So let's slow down and get the East Timor vote right.

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