Summer 1998
A New Era in East Timor

Senate For Referendum

Selective Purchasing Law

New Report

Activist Training

Upcoming Speaking Tours

ETAN Chapters Active

Constâncio Pinto, Simon Doolittle

Attacks on Ethnic Chinese Indonesians

Timorese National Convention in the Diaspora

Relief Fund

Canadian Movement Reorganizes

ETAN/US Web Site


Upcoming Strategy Conference

Boston Concert

Estafeta -
Spring 1998
Spring 1997

Autonomy: Promise or Trick?
By Charles Scheiner and Lynn Fredriksson

Last June, Indonesian acting president B.J. Habibie said he would consider granting a "special status" of autonomy for East Timor, on the condition that the international community (and the East Timorese people) relinquish their political rights of self-determination. As the weeks passed and little interest was shown is his offer, Habibie yielded further, offering limited domestic governance, but no control over foreign affairs, the military or currency.

In August, the Indonesian and Portuguese Foreign Ministers met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York, and agreed on broad outlines for what Habibie is calling "limited autonomy" and the Portuguese are calling "confidence-building measures." They will work out more details in September and October, with East Timorese excluded from the negotiations but "consulted" by the UN and Indonesian participants. The question of East Timor’s legal and moral right to self-determination – in an internationally supervised referendum now preferred by almost all East Timorese people, would be deferred until some indefinite future time.

East Timorese Nobel Peace Laureate José Ramos Horta declared that the East Timorese "will not be content with lip service autonomy. After a 23-year history of rapes and killings and oppression, the people of East Timor will not be fooled by cosmetic arrangements." He likened Indonesian economic rule to "getting Imelda Marcos to run your shoe shop." Co-Laureate Bishop Carlos Belo said: "The people want a referendum ... and I’ll go along with what the people choose."

Xanana Gusmão, the jailed leader of the Timorese resistance, called autonomy a "handout." "These national and international factors have compelled the Indonesian government to give the appearance of flexibility. Thus, after so many years of refusing any change of East Timor's status, Jakarta took the unprecedented step of offering autonomy. While progress, it is not a serious proposal as long as it does not ultimately allow the East Timorese to decide their own political fate by means of a referendum."

East Timor’s political status is for the East Timorese alone to decide. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as reaffirmed by the International Court of Justice, two U.N Security Council resolutions, and eight U.N. General Assembly resolutions, the people of East Timor have an inalienable right to self-determination, to decide their own political status. This right cannot be taken away by the Indonesian military invasion, it cannot be usurped ("granted") by the unelected protégé of Indonesia’s ousted dictator, and it cannot be postponed indefinitely by Portuguese and Indonesian diplomats.

Before the August talks, ETAN and 23 other member groups of the International Federation of East Timor wrote the negotiators, arguing that only direct Timorese participation can legitimate the negotiating process and lead to a workable result. Short term changes must include withdrawal of occupying troops and the release of political prisoners, including Xanana Gusmão so that he can participate in the peace process. Calls for Xanana’s release have echoed throughout the world, including voices as diverse as Nelson Mandela, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and dozens of U.S. officials.

The East Timor Action Network welcomes Habibie’s autonomy proposals and his release of a few East Timorese and other political prisoners as signals that the Habibie government could be more flexible than its 32-year predecessor, but they are no more significant than that. It is imperative for the U.S. government to actively support self-determination and East Timorese participation in discussions of East Timor's political status, as well as continuing to press for democratic change in Indonesia. U.S.-Indonesia relations (including with the Indonesian military) cannot be normalized until a referendum on self-determination takes place in East Timor.