After years of pressure, Indonesia takes a hint
Two decades of condemnation and new internal woes force Indonesia toweigh freedom for East Timor.
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the world community went to war.Skip to next paragraph
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But when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, the world used a different tactic - the shame of condemnation - that may now be paying off.
Beset with internal woes, the giant Southeast Asian nation is talking with the United Nations about possibly letting the tiny, Roman Catholic half-island go free. Officials in Jakarta say keeping the troubled province is not worth the foreign pressure - which sometimes came in the denial of aid, arms, and respect.
The pressure came in many forms: resolutions by the US Congress, a Nobel Peace Prize to two East Timorese, European support for Portugal's attempt to help its former colony.
With its troubled politics and economy, "Indonesia is in a very difficult period. The decision has been made to get rid of whatever problems they can," says Daniel Lev, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington in Seattle. "The most obvious one is East Timor, from which Indonesia gets no great benefit and a great deal of anxiety."
A round of UN-sponsored talks between Indonesia and Portugal that ended Feb. 8 made more incremental progress toward determining the outcome for Indonesia's 27th province, a claim the UN has never recognized. The UN considers Portugal the administering power.
Who wants what
But the East Timorese themselves can be excused for appearing frustrated and disillusioned at the same time. Though Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said his country could rescind its 1976 annexation of the former Portuguese colony if the East Timorese reject an autonomy plan, he stood impervious to calls for a referendum, fearing that such a vote would establish a precedent for separatists around the archipelago with its mostly Muslim population.
Mr. Alatas insists that some other means should be employed to ascertain people's opinion. "A referendum is not the way to proceed because of the inherent risks and dangers," he says. "What we have asked from the UN ... is to find a way short of a referendum to consult the views of the East Timorese in the most effective way. We don't know exactly what the form will be."
UN mediator Jamsheed Marker and Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama have been consulting with a number of East Timorese. Alatas suggests that the contacts can be broadened as a substitute for a referendum, a suggestion unpalatable to Lisbon. "I cannot see the UN having another methodology for ascertaining the view of any people except the way of democracy and the way of voting process," Mr. Gama said.
This issue promises to be a major sticking point in the trio's next meeting on March 10. East Timorese independence leader Jose Ramos-Horta, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, insists that a referendum would favor independence.
Autonomy would be accepted only as a transition to independence, Mr. Ramos-Horta coveyed to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has been actively involved in the talks. And this, Ramos-Horta added, must be preceeded by a drastic reduction of Indonesian troops, a demobilization of paramilitary groups, a gun collection program and UN observers on the ground, and identifying eligible voters.
Alatas, however, said that if the UN determines that East Timor rejects the autonomy plan currently being drafted, he would recommend in August to a newly elected legislature "to part ways with East Timor." An autonomy leading to independence would not be considered by Jakarta.
"Why should we, Indonesia, be asked to apply wide- ranging autonomy as a special treatment to East Timor, while the other provinces will just look on?" said Alatas. We would "continue to bear the burden of its financing, continue to bear the burden of all kinds of accusations if anything goes wrong? And then at the end of the period, have the people tell us, 'thank you very much, we are now ready for independence.' "