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Students meet MPs, push for referendum

Sydney Morning Herald - June 16, 1998

Louise Williams, Dili – East Timor's provincial Parliament met protesting pro-independence students yesterday for the first time and formally accepted their demands, including a call for United Nations peacekeepers to supervise a ceasefire in the contested province.

At least 1,500 students staged an emotional rally in the capital, Dili, before a group of representatives was permitted to meet Members of Parliament – both actions which would have been immediately crushed by the military during the rule of former president Soeharto. The Parliament pledged to pass on the demands to President B.J. Habibie in Jakarta.

The students gathered on the grounds of the University of East Timor, where they sang mournful songs in their native language, Tetum, about torture at the hands of the Indonesian military and prayed together as onlookers cheered from the streets. Thirty student representatives told the Parliament that they rejected President Habibie's recent statement that he was considering special status for the province, and demanded instead a referendum on independence as well as the presence of UN peacekeepers and human-rights officials to supervise a ceasefire in the 23-year-old conflict. "We want the United Nations to be brought in and to supervise a ceasefire," said student leader Mr Antero Benadicto de Silva, who presented the demands.

"The situation in East Timor is not good. We are under pressure from the military, so we want the UN to come in." He said the presence of both neutral peacekeepers and human rights monitors would convince the guerilla fighters of the pro-independence Fretilin movement to lay down their arms. The students also called for the immediate release of the jailed former Fretilin leader, Xanana Gusmao.

The students later met Bishop Carlos Belo, the Nobel peace laureate, who received their demands but stopped short of publicly supporting the growing student movement. Bishop Belo has warned of "dark forces" attempting to divide the East Timorese as they attempt to seize a new opportunity to win back control over their province, which was formally annexed by Indonesia in 1976 in a move not recognised by the UN.

Some senior East Timorese leaders favour accepting a compromise such as autonomy, which would fall short of the demands by students and Fretilin for a referendum allowing the people to vote on independence or continued integration into Indonesia.

As the bus of student leaders left the university campus, many students agreed they were still afraid of the Indonesian military, which has run the province with an iron fist since the Indonesian military invasion of 1975. "Yes, we are still scared, but now it is time for us to voice the aspirations of the East Timorese people," one student said. Soldiers remained in their barracks, although several police vehicles patrolled the streets.

The regional Parliamentary Speaker, Armindo Mariano Soares, said: "The result of this meeting will be brought to Jakarta for the consideration of President Habibie."

With former president Soeharto no longer in control of Indonesia there are rising expectations in East Timor, as well as growing international and domestic pressure on the Habibie Government, to produce a new solution to the East Timor problem.

Many local East Timorese say they feel more willing to speak out since the removal of President Soeharto's son-in-law, General Prabowo Subianto, from active field command, and the recent military helicopter crash in which the region's 10 most senior military officers died.

[A June 15 report by Reuters said that students would suspend demonstrations demanding a referendum on independence and would wait for the outcome from talks with regional legislators - James Balowski.]