Louise Williams, Jakarta – Tensions are rising in East Timor ahead of a visit this week of the United Nations special envoy Mr Jamsheed Marker, and tens of thousands of non-Timorese residents are reported to have fled the contested province.
Mr Marker is due in Jakarta tomorrow to assess the recent proposal by the Government of Dr B.J. Habibie to grant "special autonomy" to East Timor in exchange for international recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over the former Portuguese colony.
Although the proposal offers the first chance of a negotiated settlement in decades, divisions are deepening in East Timor, where anti-Indonesian independence groups have been organising large protests, some ending in violent clashes with supporters of Jakarta's rule.
A diplomatic source said non-East Timorese settlers began fleeing the province last week, and Indonesian newspaper reports said 20,000 had fled the provincial capital, Dili, since massive demonstrations during the recent visit of three Jakarta-based European Union ambassadors. Two people were killed by security forces during those demonstrations.
A diplomatic source said: "Our contacts say the fleeing is definitely taking place, and involves everyone who is non-East Timorese."
Under the former Soeharto government, tens of thousands of non-East Timorese government workers and transmigrants were sent into the former Portuguese colony, which was invaded by Indonesian troops in 1975 and annexed the following year.
New settlers have taken control of much of the business sector and the Public Service and their Islamic religion sits uneasily with the strong Catholic faith of the indigenous people of East Timor. There have been sporadic clashes in the past between non-East Timorese settlers, but the exodus goes beyond local conflicts. Sources say gangs are organising the departures, pressuring people to leave businesses and homes.
Military authorities in Dili confirmed the exodus, saying many local business people had begun to move to Kupang, in adjoining East Nusa Tenggara.
Indonesia's Observer newspaper quoted a provincial official as saying an estimated 20,000 people had left Dili since the violent protests during the visit of the European diplomats. Jakarta: East Timorese here say the Australian Embassy is denying them access to make visa applications, forcing them to fill out forms on the pavement outside, while other Indonesian passport holders are allowed access to an air-conditioned room inside.
A Herald representative, an Indonesian, recently accompanied East Timorese-born Virgilio Da Silva Guterres to collect his visa. He was denied access, but she was allowed in. Mr Virgilio said: "This is blatant discrimination. I never imagined that a country which always says it is democratic and is proud of its human values still has this kind of treatment."
A security officer said it was embassy policy to deny East Timorese access, because of cases where East Timorese forced their way in to seek political asylum.