|Subject: IPS: East Timor Frets About Independence
Date: Sat, 20 Mar 1999 09:17:10 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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*East Timor Frets About Independence Vote
By Kafil Yamin
DILI, East Timor, Mar 15 (IPS) - Indonesians are caught up in election fever as the June election nears, but the East Timorese are fretting about a different type of balloting: a vote for autonomy or independence.
So here in East Timorese capital, the colourful war of flags and banners of rival parties seen across the archipelago, in preparation for the June general poll, are nowhere in sight.
There are no vehicle convoys led by political partisans or mass gatherings among the 48 parties contesting seats in the consultative assembly.
In short, this island on Indonesia's eastern end seems totally excluded from election activism peaking elsewhere in the run-up to the country's first multi-party polls in four decades.
''We have no business with Indonesia's election,'' said Domingus Soares, field commander of the CNRT (Concelho Nacional Resistencia de Timorese), the Timorese national resistance movement, said in an interview.
''We are concentrating more on how to turn the new agreement into reality,'' said Soares, referring to last week's landmark United Nations-brokered agreement between Indonesia and Portugal on the holding of balloting on East Timor's fate.
Under a ''direct ballot'' for East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, the Timorese will decide whether or not they accept the so- called 'unlimited autonomy' proposed by Indonesia, which would allow election of their own representatives.
If rejected, the Indonesian government says it will let East Timor become independent.
Jakarta is adamant in not calling this balloting, which is widely expected to be held by August, a referendum. It says holding one would spark more violence and would be costly.
So, the direct vote will be held under UN auspices but without the other official trappings of a referendum. Still, analysts say that is essentially what the vote is.
Jailed East Timor resistance leader Jose Alexandre Xanana Gusmao has hailed Indonesia's stance, saying the country ''took an important step'' with the accord on a vote.
But exiled East Timor leader and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta shrugged it off, saying Jakarta should first prove its trustworthiness. ''I judge them (Indonesian officials) on their actions on the ground and not their promises. Their actions speak much louder,'' he said.
There are some 600,000 eligible voters in East Timor, which has a population of 800,000. Up to 30,000 East Timorese reside in Australia, Canada, Macau, Portugal and in the United States.
Many Timorese here can accept the agreement on certain conditions, viewing this as a step forward in the decades-long stalemate on the status of their homeland.
To many, it also offers respite from the uncertainty today that has led to violence between groups supportive of and opposed to independence, and triggered an exodus of residents with harmful effects on the economy and social services.
Residents here say the realisation of the direct ballot should be subject to tight monitoring, given the Indonesian government's past records in restricting demands for democracy.
''Actually we want a referendum. But we can accept such a manner (direct ballot) on condition that it is tightly monitored. I think the presence of international monitoring institutions will be good,'' said Licinio Branco, a student at East Timor University.
''We are concerned more with this ballot, not the (national) election,'' he said.
Meantime, the Indonesian government has decided that East Timor, which it considers the country's 27th province, is included in the June election despite the new agreement.
''As long as the final result is not there, East Timor remains to be part of Indonesia,'' said Home Minister Syarwan Hamid.
Many Timorese actually prefer the autonomy vote to be held before the rest of Indonesia goes to the polls in June. ''It is fair that when Indonesians have new government, we here have our own,'' said another student.
So far, it is also not immediately clear whether the Indonesian military will withdraw its troops from the territory, a move many Timorese would like to see.
''People here are scared of the military. They will not feel free to choose during the ballot. From now on, we prefer not to see Indonesian troops in this land,'' the student asserted.
There is little love for the Indonesian military here, an institution remembered for human rights abuses, killings and torture since its soldiers invaded East Timor in 1975.
Ironically, as independence grows to be a real option, the territory finds itself coping with renewed violence.
Reports say torture, rape and killing by military-linked militia forces are on the rise, resulting in the exodus of villagers from one area to another.
Activists say that pro-integration militias, among them those called Mahidi, Halilintar and Besi Merah Putih, are spreading fear in various villages of East Timor.
''They are well-armed. No single institution here can stop their action because the military are behind them,'' said Isabela da Costa Perreira, who chairs the Victims of Violence and Missing Persons (Kontras) of Dili office.
Factionalism has also prompted the exodus in waves of non- Timorese traders, teachers, doctors and medical people out of the enclave.
Everyday in Dili harbour, huge ships come and go to carry thousands of people and their belongings, to other islands of Indonesia. ''There is no life here anymore. We will seek better life somewhere else,'' said a trader from South Sulawesi.
Marketplaces here are no longer as busy as before, some shops are closed and prices of basic necessities are skyrocketing.
Perreira says the best way of building a sense of security and guaranteeing the smoothness of the planned ballot is to withdraw Indonesian troops from East Timor. Some units were pulled out last year.
The military should concentrate on escalating violence in its own areas, like riot-torn Ambon and Aceh, instead of distributing arms to pro-integration civilians in East Timor, she suggests.
Reports quoted UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as saying the world body would not require a complete pullout by Indonesian troops, but wants them to ensure law and order ahead of a vote. (END/IPS/ap-ip-hd/ky/js/99)