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Suharto may not attend APEC leaders meeting

Australian Associated Press - September 10, 1997

Karen Polglaze, Jakarta – Indonesian President Suharto might stay away from the November APEC leaders' meeting if Canadian authorities could not guarantee control of demonstrations over East Timor, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said today.

Suharto's attendance at the major meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to be held in Vancouver had yet to be confirmed, Alatas told the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents' Club here.

Demonstrations over East Timor were expected to dog Suharto's steps during the leaders' meeting which is the highlight of the APEC year.

While Suharto was used to people expressing opposing views publicly, he should not be subjected to the indignities of out-of-control protests, Alatas said.

"If our conclusion is that it will get out of hand, then why should we subject the President to such indignities?" Alatas asked.

The non-attendance of the leader of the region's most populous country would be a heavy blow to the forum which groups 18 economies in the Asia-Pacific comprising Australia, China, the United States, Japan, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, Chile, Brunei, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Canada and Indonesia.

Suharto also expected to be confronted by demonstrators during a trip to South Africa set to take place later this year.

The president will travel to South Africa on a return visit after South African president Nelson Mandela visited Jakarta in July and met with Suharto and jailed Fretilin leader Jose Alexandre 'Xanana' Gusmao.

Diplomatic as ever, Alatas said Mandela was trying to be helpful in response to the South African leader's proposal for East Timorese autonomy reported in newspapers here today.

However, Alatas cautioned that there had been a long history of political events in East Timor and newcomers did not always fully comprehend the difficulties.

"Someone who comes in at a later stage doesn't always understand the problems," he said. He dismissed the possibility of making East Timor a special autonomous region, saying the existing special regions of Indonesia Aceh in northern Sumatra and Yogyakarta in Central Java were on their way out and to create a new one would be going against the trend.

But Alatas admitted that a successful bid for autonomy in East Timor could spark similar requests from other areas of the ethnically diverse archipelago.

In a wide-ranging question and answer session with Jakarta-based foreign media representatives, Alatas also canvassed the prospect of the release of Gusmao as part of a quid pro quo package of measures for the overall solution to the problem of East Timor.

Indonesia says Gusmao was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for criminal offences such as stealing cattle and burning villages in East Timor.

Alatas said there was no question that he would be released unless it was part of an overall solution which would require significant compromise on the part of Portugal.

East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and formally annexed in 1976.

The annexation is not recognised by the United Nations which regards the former colonial power Portugal as the administering authority.