Indonesian President B.J. Habibie surprised the world when he offered East Timor the option of independence this January. But the violence that has since enveloped the province of 800,000 indicates how difficult settling the future will be.
Portugal and Indonesia were to sign an agreement yesterday at the United Nations that will allow East Timorese to choose independence or autonomy on Aug. 8. Most observers expect the province to opt for independence after 23 years of iron-fisted Indonesian rule.
But there are roadblocks in the form of Indonesia's politics and its military, elements of which seem intent on keeping East Timor under the national yoke. Beyond the issue of provincial independence, the clashes highlight uncertainty about the future of Indonesia itself.
East Timor's life as a political entity began under the Portuguese in the 16th century, who colonized half an island that is about 300 miles north of Australia. Civil war erupted as the Portuguese pulled out and a pro-independence group established control.
At the time, Indonesia controlled the other half of Timor. Keeping the far-flung parts of Indonesia's archipelago united was, and continues to be, a priority for Jakarta. Indonesia invaded in late 1975 and declared East Timor its 27th province in 1976. An estimated 100,000 inhabitants died during the annexation, which the UN has never recognized.
East Timorese resistance has continued on a limited scale. But the military continues to see the renegade province in the context of greater Indonesia.
A strong political force here, the military sees itself as the caretaker of national unity and the nation's 1945 constitution, which established the country's independence.
If East Timor should slip away, other provinces may feel emboldened to try for independence themselves, triggering the country's disintegration, analysts say. Though East Timor had little to offer, other provinces with breakaway movements happen to be some of Indonesia's most resource rich.
Since former President Suharto's resignation last year, some political leaders have suggested the possibility of an Indonesian federation. Armed forces commander Wiranto bluntly rejected the idea.
"A federation is out of the question," he said, according to the Indonesian Observer. General Wiranto is a possible presidential candidate for the ruling party in the June national election. "Establishing a federation means we must call off the Aug. 17, 1945, Independence Proclamation" from Dutch colonial rule, he said.
Some observers say that this concern is behind the violence in East Timor. ABRI, as the military is known here, has allegedly organized and backed pro-integration militias in East Timor that have waged a campaign of intimidation.
Hundreds favoring independence have been killed; over 18,000 people have been forced out of their homes, according to a human rights group based in Dili, the East Timorese capital.
Wiranto recently oversaw a truce in East Timor between pro-Indonesia and separatist forces, but the clashes have continued, raising questions about how much control he has over the military.
This is of particular concern, as the agreement inked yesterday will bring the international community, in the form of UN police assigned to East Timor, face to face with the military.
At least one analyst thinks that the success of East Timor's independence bid will depend in part on backing from the international community - and the conflict in Kosovo.
"I am sure that fifty years from now the [Indonesian] map will look different," says Don Emmerson, an Indonesia specialist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "But how soon that happens depends on to what extent the global community is willing to accept small countries. If Kosovo is a success, there will be momentum to back another small group that's been exploited and repressed."
While most of the focus has been on the military in East Timor, politics may also derail the pro-independence forces in the end. Mr. Habibie offered a referendum without consulting his Cabinet or the military. Offering East Timor a chance at independence may have been Habibie's attempt to create goodwill in the run-up to the June 7 election.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society