Ending the Strife In East Timor

IN late April, the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Portugal met in Rome with United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to discuss the troubled former Portuguese colony of East Timor. Further such trilateral talks on the issue are slated for September in New York.

The agenda has not been made public, but presumably Portugal seeks assurances with respect to the rights of the people of its former colony, and Jakarta wants Portugal's formal acceptance of Indonesia's incorporation of the province. (Portugal and Indonesia do not currently have diplomatic relations.)

Since 1974 and the collapse of the Portuguese empire, Indonesia has tried to subdue and incorporate East Timor. The Indonesian Army has been opposed by forces of Fretilin (Frente Revolucionara do Timor Leste Independente), a movement seeking independence. The military efforts continue; in the last four months, two of the movement's leaders have been captured.

Until recently, access to Timor by outside observers has been severely limited. The gunning down of demonstrators in Dili, the capital, in front of foreign visitors in November 1992 was a vivid window on the tactics being employed to bring the province under Jakarta's control. Perhaps in part because of that incident, Indonesia now appears to be making an effort to gain greater international understanding of its presence. In addition to the talks with the Portuguese, the Indonesian government has arrange d for visits by a UN delegation, headed by Amos Wako, the attorney general of Kenya. In his most recent visit in April, Mr. Wako was permitted to meet with captured Fretilin leaders.

East Timor occupies one-half of one of the smaller Indonesian islands. The Portuguese presence dates from the days of exploration in the 16th century. In 1859, the island of Timor was divided between Portugal and the Dutch who colonized what is now Indonesia. When the Indonesian independence movement gained strength under Sukarno during World War II, one of its primary tenets was to incorporate all of the "land and water" of the archipelago into the new nation, regardless of the cultural and religious he ritage of the territories.

The history of the Indonesian Army, the primary source of power in the country, is dominated by suspicion of Chinese communists, alleged to have been responsible for an abortive coup against the army in 1965 and by battles to subdue separatist movements in Sumatra and Sulawesi. Whether correct or not, the army leadership became convinced that the People's Republic of China was supporting the Fretilin movement. The likelihood that the army would stand still for what they saw as a Chinese-dominated mini-st ate was remote.

During 1974 and 1975, President Suharto did attempt negotiations with Portugal to effect a peaceful turnover to Indonesia. Indonesians at the time claimed that the talks were fruitless. The Indonesian Army occupied Dili and other towns in January 1976. A "provisional government" was formed that demanded integration into Indonesia. Despite calls by the UN Security Council for Indonesia to withdraw, Mr. Suharto signed the incorporation measure on July 17. Fretilin has continued its struggle against Indones ian rule until this day.

Portugal under its pre-1975 dictatorship did little to prepare its empire for independence. Except for Angola and Mozambique, the remnants of the trading posts established in the 16th century were imbedded on the fringes of other major nations. In the cases of Goa and Macao, incorporation into the larger entity is already a certainty. India seized Goa by force in December 1961. Portugal has agreed with China that sovereignty of Macao will be transferred in 1999. The incorporation of East Timor into Indon esia seems also inevitable. Hopefully, the current talks between Lisbon and Jakarta offer an opportunity to ensure that such incorporation will respect the former colony's separate cultural and religious identity and contribute to the dignity and welfare of the inhabitants. The death and destruction have gone on long enough.

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