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Activists back softer line by Ramos-Horta

South China Morning Post - July 1, 1998

Jenny Grant, Jakarta – Activists and parliamentarians yesterday welcomed a compromise offer from East Timorese independence leader Jose Ramos-Horta on the future of the disputed territory.

Nobel laureate Mr Ramos-Horta, ambassador-at-large for the East Timorese resistance movement, said on Monday he would accept Indonesian President Bacharuddin Habibie's offer of "special status" autonomy for the territory. However, the territory must be able to hold a referendum on its future within five years, he said at the United Nations, and he could not accept Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, one of Jakarta's key demands. Meanwhile, he suggested that the two sides negotiate more immediate issues, such as the release of more political prisoners and Indonesian troop reductions.

"He [Mr Ramos-Horta] is right, because we realise we need time to prepare for a referendum," said Maria Olandina, member of the East Timor Parliament for the Indonesian Democracy Party. Ms Olandina, who supports resistance against Indonesian rule in East Timor, said East Timorese needed five years to raise funds and organise themselves if the referendum was to run smoothly.

Jose Luis, head of the political section at the Rights Foundation in Dili, said Mr Ramos-Horta's plan would ensure self-determination for the East Timorese. "But we will still launch demonstrations here and we also want to know the concrete details of the special status proposal," said Mr Luis.

Student leaders in the province, who have in recent days led protests by up to 20,000 people in Dili, were not available to comment on Mr Ramos-Horta's proposal. However, their slogan "independence or death" would indicate they are prepared to accept nothing less than an immediate referendum.

Mr Ramos-Horta's softer line could indicate a split in the opposition, which previously opposed compromise deals. President Habibie's offer of a new peace plan for East Timor – involving special status, more prisoner releases and special educational and development funding in return for a surrender by resistance groups and recognition of Indonesian sovereignty – has been rejected by the jailed rebel leader, Xanana Gusmao. [According to a July 1 report by Lusa, speaking at a new conference at the UN, Horta defended a proposal for a temporary halt in negotiations over East Timor until Jakarta took "confidence measures". He also said that "Indonesia should not insist in preconditions", called for the unconditional release of Gusmao and reiterated the need for a transition period referendum could be held - James Balowski.]