Spotlight on E. Timor

Since the mid-1970s, the struggle of the East Timorese people to loosen Indonesia's iron grip on their political and cultural lives has occasionally broken into public view, often because of some particularly vicious act of repression.

But the relative obscurity of East Timor, located on the edge of the Indonesian archipelago and stuck on the fringes of the world's political consciousness, may have ended last week. Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and Jos Ramos-Horta, leading voices for East Timorese human rights and independence, became this year's Nobel Peace Prize winners.

The Nobel committee was frank about its reasons for choosing this pair of crusaders. It noted the 20-year resistance to Indonesian rule, during which thousands of East Timorese have been killed. Catholic East Timorese emphasize their cultural and religious distinctiveness from largely Muslim Indonesia and demand self-determination. This week Bishop Belo made a renewed plea for a referendum on autonomy to end the conflict and decide East Timor's future.

Such proposals find no response in the Indonesian capital. The Suharto government says it was invited in by the East Timorese originally after Portugal's colonial reign ended, and Jakarta has mercilessly stamped out dissension and protest since.

The Nobel panel wanted to do what it could to assure that East Timor's campaigners for human rights don't simply fade from view altogether. Indonesia, after all, is a rapidly expanding economic power with growing political clout in the world. Its desire to bury the East Timor issue has been quietly honored in many capitals - including Washington, where, ironically, a controversy over Indonesian contributions to the Clinton reelection campaign has popped up in tandem with the Nobel Peace Prize story. The United States, in fact, has consistently sided with Indonesia, opposing United Nations moves favoring self-determination for the East Timorese.

The Nobel award won't change things quickly. Peace laureates win increased recognition for their causes, but the prize can't guarantee them what they most want - a real breakthrough. Mr. Ramos-Horta and Bishop Belo are probably not going to see instant shifts in Indonesian policy toward East Timor.

But tolerance and compromise may yet win out. At the least, Indonesia's government, sensitive to world opinion, may come to recognize it has an interest in opening a dialogue with the East Timorese.

For now, however, President Suharto has indicated there's nothing to talk about - that the annexation is irreversible. But Indonesia's political climate may be changing. At the least, the Nobel award could help the East Timorese retain a voice, until such time as Jakarta is ready to listen.

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