East Timor's Future

Word that Indonesia might be ready to grant independence to East Timor stirs a mix of welcome and caution.

Welcome, because the East Timorese have chafed under Jakarta's yoke for almost a quarter century, since Portuguese colonial rule ended in 1975. An independence movement has been harshly repressed.

Caution, too. Though the people of East Timor have a history and religion (predominantly Christian) distinct from the rest of Indonesia, they are not united politically. Some East Timorese prefer continued union with Indonesia. Current news reports indicate pro-Jakarta activists are being armed by the Indonesian military. Thousands of people have been forced from their homes by fighting.

The prospect of immediate independence for the half-island of some 800,000 is thus daunting in the short-term. In addition, East Timor has sparse economic means. Its major asset, offshore oil resources, are tied up in a treaty between Indonesia and Australia.

In fact, East Timor must have close cooperation from both those larger neighbors to attain economic viability. East Timorese Leaders like 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winners Jos Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo have advocated, reasonably, a more gradual loosening of ties to Indonesia, with autonomy and an eventual referendum on independence. In this way the stage could be set for political consensus and economic self-sufficiency.

That scenario, with phased departure of Indonesia's military and administrative presence, makes better sense than sudden change. Jakarta has to prove it's serious by joining in a credible plan for East Timor.

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