Keep Pressing Jakarta

THE United Nations secretary-general attempted this week to break through the East Timor stalemate.

Yet as Boutros Boutros-Ghali met in Geneva Jan. 9 with foreign ministers of the former colonial power, Portugal, and the current colonizer, Indonesia, the people of the Southeast Asian enclave were reeling from further clashes with the Indonesian Army and others who have migrated there - at Jakarta's urging, many say.

The talks yielded a glimmer of hope - support for a UN convening of all East Timorese groups, but only as long as the discussion does not touch on political status.

Portugal favors self-determination for East Timor, while Indonesia - which invaded in 1975 after Portugal pulled out - calls East Timor its 27th province. The UN views Portugal as in charge until residents can decide their future, a vote Jakarta refuses.

This area of lush mountains and white-sand beaches has seen a ferocious 20-year struggle between a pro-independence rebel group, Fretilin, and the Indonesian Army. Diplomats say as many as 200,000 have perished. The world paid little heed until British journalists reported a November 1991 massacre by the Army.

The East Timorese have proposed gradual steps toward self-determination. Jakarta, however, along with a rule of intimidation and cultural insensitivity, has poured millions into the area's development to win local acquiescence, and made a deal with Australia to develop its oil potential.

East Timor burst onto the world's screen again in November, when students embarrassed Jakarta with a sit-in at the US Embassy during the APEC summit. Now local fears are high that, when the world looks away, a retaliatory crackdown will occur.

The US needs to keep the pressure on Jakarta. Consistent communication rather than retaliatory acts are likely to get more results. Remarks by President Clinton and other top officials during the APEC visit were heartening, given concerns that he would let commercial prospects win out over human rights. He let President Suharto know that his ambitions for his country would most benefit from clear progress on human rights. A joint statement by US Reps. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia and Tony Hall (D) of Ohio provided a key signal that bipartisan pressure on rights would continue.

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