A Freer Indonesia Ignites Hopes in East Timor

President Habibie promised a new 'status' last week for a territory taken 23 years ago.

In the governor's palace of this tense corner of Southeast Asia, an incredible meeting took place last week.

People who once feared to speak out against the rule of East Timor by Indonesia were airing their views on the territory's future.

"This is the first time I've been able to speak the truth for 23 years!" said Julio Alfarro, one of the speakers.

The governor, Abilio Soares, had invited about 200 leading residents to meet "in the context of the reform movement in Indonesia," said one invitee, lawyer Antonino Goncalves.

The effects of the Indonesian reform movement that helped topple the Suharto dictatorship on May 21 have just begun to trickle down to this former Portuguese colony, which Indonesia took by force in 1975.

Although Jakarta formally annexed the territory in 1976, the United Nations has never recognized it as Indonesian, considering it a non-autonomous territory under Portuguese administration. Around 200,000 people were killed in the first two years of the 1975 invasion, according to Amnesty International, and guerrilla fighting persisted for years. Various attempts over the years to force an Indonesian troop withdrawal in compliance with UN resolutions have failed.

But Indonesia's new president B.J. Habibie said last week he was willing to consider a special status for East Timor, while insisting it will remain an integral part of the country.

Cheers of new freedom

Without any Indonesian military personnel or police in sight - just a cluster of police officers on a nearby street corner - the meeting was packed with onlookers. Speaker after speaker rose to demand the immediate withdrawal of Indonesian troops, the freeing of resistance leader Xanana Gusmo, and the eventual holding of a referendum.

There were loud cries of "Viva!" and among the speakers most wildly acclaimed were former guerrilla commanders Mau Huno and Ma' Hodu, who have been living under house arrest in Dili since their capture in 1993.

A few weeks ago, before Suharto's downfall, it would have been impossible to utter such demands. Under the iron military regime to which the East Timorese have been subjected, they would have earned instant imprisonment and perhaps torture. Street demonstrations were unthinkable: The memory of a massacre in November 1991, in which approximately 180 unarmed student demonstrators were mown down, remained alive.

Now the future looks different.

Indeed, some speakers sounded words of caution, underlining that such meetings could not have decisionmaking powers until Timorese leaders in exile were included, such as activist Jos Ramos Horta, who shares a Nobel Peace Prize with Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo for their efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the East Timor problem. (The palace meeting was chaired by the Rev. Jose Antonio da Costa, deputy to Bishop Belo.)

Closer to the capital

Two weeks ago, East Timor's own version of reformasi began at a courtroom at Semarang, central Java, several islands away.

Four Timorese youths accused of terrorism were to appear for sentencing. Not only did Judge Soewito Atmosoewirjo throw out the charges for lack of evidence, but he described his verdict as a victory for the independence of the judiciary in the post-Suharto era.

The judge is famous in Indonesia for his conviction of police officers involved in the 1994 murder of a woman trade-union official. He said that at that time he had been under pressure to alter his verdict.

The importance of the youths' case as a turning point was underlined by the presence of Justice Minister Muladi at court. Here also, Timorese pro-independence students demonstrated noisily without the least military intervention.

Mr. Muladi, a former dean of Semarang's Diponegoro University, knew many of the demonstrators personally. Among a throng of them he announced the imminent release of 10 to 15 Timorese political prisoners He also said that he did not exclude the freeing of Xanana Gusmo.

If the East Timorese can count Muladi as an ally within the Habibie cabinet, he is not the only one.

Defense Minister and armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto and a group of officers around him are known and remembered in East Timor.

General Wiranto served in East Timor in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as did the transmigration minister, Gen. Abdullah Makhmud Hendropriyono, and Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhyono, military spokesman for Political and Social Affairs.

After so much suffering and killing here, it is rare for an East Timorese to speak warmly of any Indonesian soldier.

But Jose Piedade, a former guerrilla commander, remembers Wiranto as the deputy commander of the regiment that met hordes of guerrilla fighters and civilians streaming down from the mountains to surrender to Indonesian authorities.

"Wiranto gave us guarantees that there would be no ill treatment of those who surrendered, and he kept his word," he recalled. "It was only after he left that troubles began, and those who surrendered were arrested, tortured, and in some cases executed."

Another former fighter had similar praise for Bambang Yudhyono. And General Hendroprioyono, as Jakarta regional commander in 1993, assisted seven survivors of the 1991 massacre to leave Jakarta for Portugal. Seeking political asylum, they were denied exit from Indonesia by Suharto.

In the territory's capital, Dili, mourning for the June 4 deaths of 12 senior military officers in a helicopter crash coincided with a wave of jubilation sweeping local residents, who now have reason to hope that their struggle for liberty might finally bear fruit.

Passing of a regime

With barely an Indonesian soldier in sight on the streets, flags at half-mast greeted the first foreign journalists in East Timor since Suharto's resignation. The quiet seemed to signify the nadir of Indonesian military power in this former Portuguese territory.

Honored by the display were senior military officers including Maj. Gen. Yudomo Sastrosuhardjo, Bali-based commander of the entire eastern Indonesian region, and Timor commander Gen. Salamat Sidabutar. Their helicopter crashed at Liuruca on the half-island territory's south coast.

Officially, the crash was attributed to bad weather, a version no one seriously believes; another talks of sabotage from a military faction to hasten the war's end; and although the guerrillas have only light arms, there is also talk they were responsible.

Symbolism of helicopter crash

Whatever the case, the death of 12 very senior Indonesian officers in the East Timorese theater of war as the forces of reformasi gain pace is seen by its long-suffering population as an epitaph to Indonesia's effective military occupation.

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