Subject: SMH: Dangers on the road to E Timor peace
Date: Sat, 06 Mar 1999 08:47:06 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo:

Sydney Morning Herald 05/03/99

*Dangers on the road to E Timor peace


Despite encouraging developments on East Timor, some worrying questions remain.

FOREIGN Minister Alexander Downer's busy schedule of talks in Indonesia and Portugal last week put Australia in touch with all the right people negotiating the future of East Timor, but left unanswered some worrying questions.

We still don't know much about the act of consultation Jakarta is proposing to determine whether the East Timorese want to stay on as a more autonomous province of Indonesia or opt for independence.

It is clear that Jakarta rules out a plebiscite, apparently on the grounds that other restive parts of Indonesia, like Aceh, might want the same. But election, or selection perhaps, of a representative assembly able to choose independence somehow doesn't bear this danger. Downer agrees a referendum is not necessary.

We don't know the timing. Downer says President Habibie is talking of a decision by the East Timorese before the June 7 parliamentary elections in Indonesia. Indonesia's supreme legislature, the People's Consultative Assembly (or MPR), would then ratify the territory's exit, if that is the choice, by year's end.

We don't yet know anything much about the wider autonomy offer Jakarta will make, based on long negotiations with Portugal, which are due to be wrapped up at the United Nations next week. The central government is also working on expanded autonomy for its other provinces as well.

We do know that Jakarta is willing to let Canberra reopen a consulate in the East Timorese capital, Dili, but only in some months' time, after the East Timorese have made their choice.

We do know that Canberra is willing to join an international police presence - or, if necessary, a military peace-keeping force - but only if and when the act of consultation in East Timor results in independence.

The Federal Opposition advocates a UN force as quickly as possible, to assist the political process.

We do know that the pro-integration militias in East Timor have not been disarmed, and that Jakarta is now talking of sending in more weapons to counter threats to Indonesian settlers, many of whom are fleeing.

A pessimist would say this points to another quick, engineered act of self- determination in an atmosphere of intimidation, with foreign observers excluded as much as possible.

Given their brutal experience of the past 24 years, a free decision by the Timorese - without a long trial of the wider autonomy option accompanied by international support - would inevitably be for independence.

But there is a more optimistic perspective.

Indonesian policy-making is no longer as centralised as it was before President Soeharto resigned last May: President Habibie's interventions seemed to take the Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, by surprise, and Armed Forces commander Wiranto may not control everything that the Bali-based Udayana Command is doing in Timor.

Jakarta has a lot of climbing down to do, a lot of face to save. But it has already moved a huge distance on the East Timor question, and Indonesia's own political system is, at many levels, in the throes of what could be far- reaching democratic reform.

Despite the arming of the integrationist militias, a dialogue has already started among the East Timorese parties with active encouragement by local army and police commanders. The resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, moved from jail to a fairly open house arrest in Jakarta, may soon be fully freed to participate.

Finally, Jakarta may be in private discussions about a de facto international presence, which Downer may be reluctant to talk about yet.

The former foreign minister Gareth Evans, on a private visit to Jakarta, has proposed a multi-faction police force in East Timor, trained by foreign advisers, which would be needed for either autonomy or independence. It's unlikely this idea was plucked from the air.

But the unanswered questions remain. It may be that President Habibie's acceptance of the independence option has created an "unstoppable momentum" towards that outcome, as Evans says.

However, the danger remains that significant power groups in Indonesia will try to divert that momentum through force and manipulation. The international community is unlikely to accept this, but the exercise could still leave a thoroughly poisoned well for whoever tries to create a new State in East Timor.

Hamish McDonald is the Herald's foreign editor.

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