Subject: IHT: Ramos-Horta: Only a Fair Vote Can End the E.Timor Conflict
Date: Sat, 14 Aug 1999 09:58:14 -0400

International Herald Tribune Saturday, August 14, 1999

Only a Fair Vote Can End the East Timor Conflict
By Jose Ramos-Horta International Herald Tribune

SYDNEY - On Aug. 30 the people of East Timor will go to the polls in a self-determination referendum supervised by the United Nations. Our hope is that it will settle a bitter international dispute that erupted in 1975, when Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony.

Most observers believe, as I do, that in conditions of freedom an overwhelming majority of East Timorese would opt for independence. But conditions on the ground remain far from appropriate for a free and democratic vote. Indeed, there is a real danger that the ballot could turn into the biggest electoral fraud of modern times.

Despite repeated assurances and promises by Indonesian authorities to end a terror campaign against independence supporters waged by militia groups in East Timor, intimidation and violence remain widespread.

The militias want East Timor to remain part of Indonesia. They are, in fact, gangs of common criminals recruited, trained and financed by the Indonesian Army. Their members, numbering many thousands, come from various Indonesian towns where unemployment and criminality are high. Militia violence this year has cost the lives of more than 1,000 civilians, has razed entire villages and has uprooted more than 80,000 people. Yet not a single militia leader or Indonesian military officer has been brought to justice.

It is understandable that at times the United Nations has to agree to some unpalatable ''peace'' agreements. But the East Timor agreement that was signed in New York by Indonesia, Portugal and the United Nations on May 5 entrusts the Indonesian police with responsibility for ensuring security before and after the self-determination vote, even though the police are known to be notoriously corrupt and violent.

The Indonesian Army has not withdrawn any of its combat battalions from East Timor in advance of the vote. There are more than 18,000 Indonesian troops and 8,000 police in the territory. To make matters worse, hundreds of members of the Indonesian Army's special forces unit have been sent to East Timor disguised as police. As a result, East Timor has become one of the most militarized territories in the world.

This is an extremely dangerous situation. Full-scale violence before or after the ballot this month is now almost certain. The Indonesian Army hierarchy is still clinging to the illusion that it can secure a pro-integration vote through terror and fraud. It fails to realize that if the ballot is not free, the East Timor conflict will continue.

The next phase of the resistance against Indonesian control would be much more desperate and ferocious, and it would not be confined to East Timor. The costs for Indonesia, which is attempting a political transition to democracy as it tries to recover from deep recession, would be much greater than in the past 23 years.

To start with, no Portuguese government would recognize the result of a fraudulent ballot. Lisbon would demand a mandatory arms embargo and economic sanctions against Indonesia by its partners in the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, would be asked to call for an ad hoc war crimes tribunal on East Timor. A number of active and retired Indonesian military officers, as well as militia leaders, would be indicted.

The World Bank, already under severe criticism for fueling corruption during the authoritarian rule of former President Suharto, would be under strong pressure from many quarters to freeze the release of new funds for Indonesia. The U.S. Congress would also vote against allocating money to a country whose elected authorities are unable or unwilling to rein in their army.

East Timorese groups have set aside a ''war budget'' of several million dollars to wage a sustained public relations war aimed at hurting Indonesia's tourism industry.

More than 100 computer experts in Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Brazil, the United States and Canada are preparing their own battle plan. They are targeting the entire computer network of the Indonesian government, army, banking and finance institutions to create chaos. A dozen special computer viruses are being designed to infect the Indonesian electronic communications system, including aviation.

In 1975 Indonesian military planners anticipated a quick war and easy victory in East Timor. Instead thousands of Indonesian soldiers lost their lives in an inglorious and protracted conflict with pro-independence fighters.

The Indonesian Army must not make the same mistake again. It must back off, and allow a free, fair and internationally acceptable act of self-determination to take place in East Timor. Otherwise Indonesia will be plunged into a new and even more costly war when it can least afford such a conflict.

The writer, a Nobel peace laureate, is vice president of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, the main group supporting independence for East Timor. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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