Subject: SCMP Focus: East Timor holds breath
Date: Mon, 23 Aug 1999 01:45:36 EDT

South China Morning Post Sunday, August 22, 1999


East Timor holds breath

Photo: Leading the way: the UN faces an enormously difficult task after August 30 when East Timor is transferred to its authority. Reuters photo


It starts on arrival at East Timor's Comoro Airport. Before getting out into the dense, hot air of the provincial capital Dili, a policeman with a soldier nearby demands the new arrival's passport to make a note of name, origin and intentions. According to Indonesia, this is its 27th province, rightfully gained through a fair poll in 1976, after military invasion and occupation had helped clarify East Timorese minds. So this extra security check should be unnecessary.

But the militaristic intervention at the airport shows how tenuous is Jakarta's hold, 23 years on, and how stubborn is Jakarta's refusal to admit it.

Now international pressure, and Indonesian president Bacharuddin Habibie's desire to impress, have brought East Timor to the brink of its first free and fair chance to decide its own future.

On August 30, the almost 450,000 East Timorese registered to vote - both at home and among the diaspora - will be able to say yes or no to Indonesia's offer of "comprehensive autonomy". A no vote will indicate a wish for independence. Indonesia's highest constitutional body, the Peoples' Consultative Body or MPR, must signify acceptance of the result and gradually hand authority over to a United Nations transitional body, preparatory to the granting of either full independence, or comprehensive autonomy, to East Timor.

It is anything but straightforward. Since Mr Suharto resigned as president 18 months ago it has become impossible to speak of Jakarta policy as splits have emerged and East Timor has become a football to be kicked between competing factions.

Thus Mr Habibie's office presents an enlightened, peace-loving front on the question of East Timor. From here, last January 27, came the astounding policy announcement that the East Timorese would be given a say in their future.

The United Nations grabbed the chance and produced the May 5 agreement which allowed for the holding of a "UN-sponsored ballot" in East Timor which, unlike that mounted by the Indonesians in 1976, the UN hoped it could accept.

The critically important concession to Indonesian sensibilities was the agreement's clause that security in East Timor is the responsibility of the Indonesian police.

But many in the armed forces remain adamantly opposed to any relinquishing of "Indonesian" soil, particularly where soldiers have shed blood. "It's their Vietnam," notes Indonesian historian, Ong Hok Ham.

Just as "Jakarta" no longer implies a unified ideas-bank for the nation, "the military" no longer stands for a monolithic, disciplined body - if it ever did. Elements within the military, such as the Kopassus elite special forces, could be following their own agenda in East Timor without the full support of the army's top brass.

No major moment of nationhood in Indonesia has been without blatant deception, both of the public and between layers of authority. So there is perhaps genuine astonishment when generals are challenged on wrongdoing in East Timor. "We went [into East Timor] for humanitarian reasons. Our presence is to prevent more killing in their civil war, not because we want more land," says General Yunus Yosfiah, now Minister for Information.

International diplomats have had to grapple with and accept this firmly held belief as a factor in any deals over the territory.

For example, the extension of voter registration by two days was a calculated kowtow to pro-Indonesian leaders' demands that thousands more alleged East Timorese be allowed in from West Timor to register.

But the face-saving extension was regarded as an acceptable price to pay as part of a larger game, in which the UN Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) knows it has the world on its side, and probably much of the East Timorese population as well.

International diplomats also believe Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas when he says "Jakarta has no interest" in messing up the ballot, but they also know he represents but one part of "Jakarta". UNAMET seems prepared, and skilled enough, to conduct active politics on a daily basis to sustain its pivotal role somewhere in the middle.

For instance, UNAMET chief, Ian Martin, cheerfully presides over signing ceremonies such as that on a code of conduct for the campaign period, with pro-independence leader Leandro Isaac on one side, and pro-autonomy leader Domingo Soares on the other.

Behind the visible process of campaigning and voting lie literally life-and-death discussions between the most unlikely partners, in many different places at once. Much of this work will be far more important to East Timor's chances of peace than the formalism of the vote itself.

Just as important is the conclusion of close political observers that the Indonesian side in East Timor, because it must employ many native East Timorese, is "massively infiltrated" by pro-independence people. Dili is a small town, so watching exactly who jumps ship, and when, will help indicate prospects for peace.

Phase One of the May 5 agreement covers the period up to the ballot.

Phase Two is what the negotiators are now deeply worried about - the period from September 1 until "the implementation of the outcome" of the ballot, meaning whenever Indonesia's yet-to-be-formed MPR accepts the result and agrees to the transfer of East Timor to UN authority, for a period of three to five years.

Phase Three is the final achievement of either autonomy for East Timor within Indonesia, or full independence.

According to sources that include UNAMET, various diplomats and Indonesian government officials, Phase One is proceeding better than expected, despite free-roaming, gun-toting pro-autonomy militias in Dili and across the countryside that have attacked both locals and UN personnel.

"We made very negative assessments of the security situation and argued that the voter registration period should be postponed," says a UN source. "But [UN Headquarters in] New York said we should go ahead, led by the two main governments involved, Australia and the US.

"They were right," the source said. "But we weren't wrong either, because the world made a fuss about the violence, and the pressure on Indonesia to clean up was intense. We had all these killings and kidnappings going on. But then the 14 Indonesian ministers arrived and all the bupatis [district heads] and commanders came down to Dili for briefings."

Militia activity, at least in Dili, became less obvious. The UN set specific criteria by which to judge Indonesian promises of peace, such as the ability of the pro-independence movement to re-open its office in Dili, and the reassignment of soldiers found working with the militias.

The militias, though more discreet, carried on using the budgets (illegally) provided through Indonesia's district offices in East Timor, to sponsor coercive bonding sessions featuring shared blood-drinking. Pro-autonomy leader Lopez da Cruz managed to tour all of East Timor's districts in this cause, and continues to live in a gracious cream house on the Dili seafront.

But some improvements did take place. The National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT) was able to raise its independence flag at its new office on Dili's waterfront on August 17 - Indonesia's own anniversary of independence from Dutch colonialism. One UN officer involved in providing for East Timorese held in Indonesian prisons to register noted that not only did Jakarta allow prisoners' registration, but also allowed all those held under police detention to do so.

"Dili really did calm down after we came," says another UN staffer. "But then the militia incidents in the field came as a bad shock. We all thought it was too bad to accept, but we went ahead and we're happy with that now."

Phase Two is a different matter. There has been no evidence that the loser will accept defeat gracefully. The Catholic church, foreign conflict resolution experts, UN political officers, the Indonesian and Portuguese governments, and the leaders of pro-independence and pro-autonomy forces are all trying to find ways to avert further violence, or further defeat.

The worst scenario as far as peace for East Timorese is concerned is that Indonesia will refuse to let East Timor go, regardless of the vote. There is some evidence for this, from carefully leaked documents to public statements by some generals.

But with the aim of ensuring smooth acceptance by all, daily diplomacy goes on. At his place of house arrest in Jakarta, independence leader Xanana Gusmao receives all visitors, from Madeleine Albright and Nelson Mandela to delegations of Canadian trade unionists, New Zealand bishops and the world's journalists. He also meets the pro-autonomy leadership.

East Timor's two leading bishops - Basilio do Nascimento in Baucau and Carlos Belo in Dili - helped sponsor the reconciliation talks, the second session of which produced the June 18 agreement this year, on the desirability of disarming everyone involved.

"I was amazed by the pro-autonomy lot, they agreed to everything!" said an observer at the talks. "But indeed little came out of it, practically speaking. The pro-integrationists had to check new ideas on their cell phones all the time, something which told all of us that they probably were not allowed much room for manoeuvre from their paymasters in Jakarta."

The depression felt by many after June 18 - when disarmament was left inconclusive, and a proposed commission to carry on reconciliation rejected - is now being tackled by less formal meetings between Mr Gusmao, pro-autonomy leaders and UN personnel, with the odd bishop, diplomat or conflict resolution expert thrown in.

UN bureaucracy grinds on through senior officials' meetings in Jakarta, while on the ground in East Timor the independence army, Falintil, has voluntarily restricted itself to four locations and a few pro-autonomy groups are, slowly, following suit.

As UN officials in New York debate the chances for sending peace-keeping troops to East Timor straight after the ballot, pro-independence and pro-autonomy leaders in Jakarta agreed to set up a 25-person transitional council to include winners and losers after the ballot.

No one doubts that the stakes are high. If UNAMET fails to hold a clean vote, with its concomitant demand for a stop to armed action, it is unlikely to have another chance to give East Timor a shot at self-determination.

If Indonesia fails to go along with international demands on East Timor, it will gain pariah status and perhaps lose vital international funding. If it does go along with all that is implied by the forthcoming judgment on its rule of East Timor, it risks the delicate compromise between government and military which has kept Mr Habibie in power this long. It may also risk a domino effect of losing further parts of the archipelago such as Aceh and Irian Jaya.

Will all the hard work be vindicated in a peaceful post-poll process? "The campaign period could go wrong," says a UN source in Dili, "the vote could go wrong, and the post-vote period could go wrong."

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