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Referendum: Route to Timor independence without shame

The Nation, Bangkok - April 11, 1997

Jakarta – When thousands of people gathered in Dili on Christmas eve last year to welcome home East Timor Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo from Oslo, where he had been awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, posters of Xanana Gusmao fluttered from all sections of the crowd.

Xanana, the 49-year-old leader of the pro-independence Fretilin has become a national symbol for the East Timorese struggle. A former seminary student, a teacher and a poet, Xanana spent 17 years leading the armed resistance in the East Timor jungles before he was arrested and imprisoned in 1992.

In the mid-1980s, he became leader of the East Timor national front, representing an alliance of opposition organisations in East Timor which is called the Council of National Resistance of the Maubere (CNRM).

The Indonesian military caught him a few months after the bloody Dili massacre in November 1991 during which more than 200 East Timor pro-independence protesters were gunned down by Indonesian troops.

According to Xanana, the CNRM 1992 Peace Plan sets out a way in which East Timor can gain independence without causing Indonesia "shame."

The London-based Index on Censorhip magazine together with the Jakarta-based Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information recently conducted an interview with Xanana. The following are excerpts:

Q: What comments do you have regarding the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos Horta?

A: It is perfectly fitting for these two leaders of East Timor to be given the prize. They represent the aspirations of the people who, throughout this prolonged conflict, have craved a true and lasting peace.

Q: What influence will the Nobel Prize have on East Timor?

A: In our struggle, in which the Maubere people are few and lack the strength to oppose the power of a modern military, the moral aspect plays a very important role. Even minor victories encourage the "fighting spirit" which breathes life into the national consciousness of our people. The Nobel Prize is clearly an international acknowledgement of our struggle. Because of that our people see this Nobel Peace Prize as a sign that their sacrifices have not been in vain.

Q: What do you see as the most fundamental problem facing East Timor?

A: The basic problem is that there is no single international solution that is acceptable to all sides. Jakarta always rejects our peace proposals for illogical, and at times, apparently stupid reasons. Human rights violations also continue to be a serious issue, because the most fundamental human rights violation is the violation of the right of our people to decide their own fate. The East Timorese people have never been given the freedom to say freely what they want for their political future. Other problems are consequences of the illegal and criminal military occupation. The problem is not the lack of freedom, but the cause of the lack of freedom.

Q: What role does the Indonesian media have in the struggle in East Timor?

A: What happened to TEMPO, Editor and DeTik weeklies made me understand the situation of the media in Indonesia. The days of professional and independent journalists are gone and all we see now is political subservience. I believe that the journalistic world in Indonesia feels that it has failed to accomplish its mission in society and has besmirched its reputation in the eyes of the world. I have followed the case of TEMPO and, more closely still, the PDI [Indonesian Democratic Party] case. I saw the disappointment of the Media Indonesia [daily] readers when the newspaper was forbidden to write about Megawati Sukarnoputri. The Indonesian press' room for manoeuvre these days is about as wide as my prison cell.

Q: What does the Indonesian government need to do for East Timor?

A: If the Indonesian regime imprisons and tries its Indonesian critics, imprisons and tries people who are attacked, and allows to go free those who cause disturbances and attack and provoke riots, do you really think we can hope for something different or special for East Timor?

Q: What are your suggestions for a solution to the East Timor issue?

A: If you read the CNRM Peace Plan you will see the kind of freedom we want for East Timor. The issue of a referendum is the principal one, and there cannot be at truly just solution if UN norms are not applied. But, supposing the East Timorese people chose integration, there won't be any freedom there if the Indonesian people continue to be oppressed and denied freedom. The referendum must be carried out under the aegis of the UN and international supervision in order to prevent it from becoming a farce, like elections in Indonesia. With the forthcoming elections, for example, the comedy started last year with the ouster of Megawati by that clown Soerjadi, the arrest of the PRD [People's Democratic Party] activists and with the judicial review of unionist Muchtar Pakpahan's case by the prosecutor, and so on.

Q: What are the limits to your freedom at the moment?

A: My freedom is only as limited as my will to struggle.

Q: Is it true that you are forbidden from speaking to the outside world?

A: Yes. The Indonesian government is really afraid of me speaking the truth and explaining to the Indonesian people why the annexation of East Timor is illegal and criminal. What is surprising is that the government knows that what I say will never be published [in Indonesia]. Yet even so they are afraid of me, in the same way that they fear opposition figures like Ali Sadikin, Abdurrahman Wahid, Sri-Bintang Pamungkas, Megawati, George Aditjondro, and all their critics who honestly wish to see political change in this country.