Subject: AsiaWeek: Making The Case For E.Timor 'Autonomy'
Date: Sat, 14 Aug 1999 09:14:55 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo Indonesian News:

AsiaWeek week of August 13, 1999


It's a bridge between integration and independence

By Dino Patti Djalal

AFTER 16 YEARS OF roller-coaster diplomatic negotiations, on 5 May 1999, the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Portugal and the U.N. Secretary-General signed a series of Agreements in New York to ascertain through U.N.-conducted direct, secret and universal ballot whether the majority of East Timorese would accept "special autonomy" within Indonesia or reject it in favor of separation from Indonesia. Either way, the outcome would permanently determine the political status of East Timor, thus bringing to an end a conflict which has festered since 1975.

Some have found it easy to blame Indonesia for all the troubles in East Timor. But peel the onion, and one arrives at the inescapable conclusion that the core conflict is the very division within society between those who wish to be part of Indonesia (the pro-integration group) and those who wish to form a separate East Timorese state (the pro-independence one). Whatever political order emerged from the ashes of the civil war between the two in 1975 - whether integration with Indonesia, independence under the Fretilin movement, or continued Portuguese rule - it would surely have faced the same divided, volatile and violence-prone society that the Indonesian government has seen over the last 23 years. Thus, what is ultimately needed is not just a diplomatic solution but also a conflict-settlement formula to reconcile the two East Timorese communities.

This is where the autonomy proposal comes in. The idea of "wide-ranging autonomy" was first proposed by several Cabinet Ministers in 1994 but was rejected by then-President Suharto. The idea was revived in mid-1998, becoming the hallmark of President B.J. Habibie's policy on East Timor.

The autonomy package would give East Timor a system of genuine self-government, making it distinct from any other Indonesian province. East Timor would have its own parliament, its own elections, its own political parties, its own judiciary, its own police force, control over its own internal security, cultural, social and educational policy. Pro-independence leaders, such as Xanana Gusmao, would be free to run for the highest elected office in East Timor. With these features, it is hoped that the pro-integration faction would see autonomy as "improved integration," while the pro-independence group could see it as, in the words of former Fretilin President Dr. Abilio Araujo, "independence with special links with Indonesia." To reinforce unity and reconciliation, a transitional authority representing all political factions would be formed.

The bloody conflicts in the Southern Philippines, Northern Ireland, Bougainville and Kosovo - have been or are being solved by variant models of autonomy or power-sharing. The million dollar question is will the majority of the East Timorese accept autonomy? The Indonesian Government is convinced that autonomy is the best compromise solution for East Timor. But Jakarta will leave it to the people to digest, consider and decide in a free vote.

A free vote, however, necessitates informed decision. Three months after the New York Agreement and several weeks before polling day, many East Timorese still do not have the slightest clue what autonomy is and how it is meant to heal their conflict and affect their lives. In its stead is an artificial debate as if the choice remains between "integration" and "independence," which misses the point about the autonomy proposal, which is intended to bridge the two poles. It would be a great pity if East Timor's future political status would be permanently decided on the basis of ignorance about what is being offered, why it is offered and what is at stake.

The question of security must also be addressed seriously. The New York Agreement on Security states that "all sides must lay down their arms and subsequently disarm." But this has not proved to be easy. The pro-independence commanders in the hills have been outspoken in their refusal to disarm, arguing that Indonesian security forces must first leave East Timor - a precondition totally inconsistent with the New York Agreement which entrusts the Indonesian Police with the task of maintaining security and law enforcement. The pro-integration armed groups, in turn, use this to argue that they cannot disarm unilaterally, thus creating an intricate situation. Whatever the case, it is imperative that at the time of the campaign period - perhaps the most volatile part of the whole peace process - all guns will be silent.

For those East Timorese on both sides who still consider their security to be at risk, the secret vote is their last weapon to speak-up and rectify their predicament. Isn't this the whole idea of the peace process: to let the vote kill the violence, rather than let the violence kill the vote?

The New York Agreement is not, as Jose Ramos-Horta put it in this column recently, about providing "a unique opportunity for Jakarta to disengage from East Timor with honor and dignity." The end-game now is about giving an honest deal to the East Timorese to express their free will and help them solve their long-burning internal conflict. Both sides talk about "freedom." But in the final analysis, it is the freedom from conflict and division which will truly liberate East Timor.

DINO PATTI DJALAL is spokesman for the Indonesian government's Task Force for the Implementation of the Popular Consultation in East Timor.

Back to August Menu
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu