Michael Richardson, Manila – As Indonesia withdrew nearly 400 troops from East Timor as a goodwill gesture Tuesday, the country's foreign minister laid out details for the first time of a plan to give "wide-ranging autonomy" to the disputed territory.
In an interview, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said he would start negotiations on the proposal in New York next week with his Portuguese counterpart, Jaime Gama, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan of the United Nations.
Speaking on the sidelines of talks in Manila between a group of Asian, South Pacific, North American and European foreign ministers, Mr. Alatas said that the aim of the negotiations was to find "a mutually acceptable end, a final solution," to the problem of East Timor.
Although Mr. Alatas held out the prospect Tuesday of "complete internal self-government" for East Timor within Indonesia, he appeared to rule out the possibility of a referendum in the territory under UN supervision to determine whether its people want independence, continued integration in Indonesia or association with Portugal.
"There is no way that there can be an independent East Timor, or no way in which East Timor can live independently by itself, surrounded by 17,000 islands of Indonesia, right smack in the middle of our archipelago," Mr. Alatas said, adding: "It's impossible, impossible. They would be highly dependent and always have great difficulty in scraping a living. There would always be tensions and difficulties."
He said that even if, "against all the odds," a referendum was held in East Timor, there would have to be a losing group of voters as well as a winning group. "If there was independence, do you think the loser would accept it?" he said. "We don't believe so. They would go back to the mountains. We run the risk of going back to square one – civil war, like in August, 1975 – if we follow the referendum route."
Still – despite Jakarta's concerns about self-determination in East Timor and the precedent it could set for other parts of the sprawling, and now economically stricken, archipelagic nation to seek separate statehood – there is evidently enough that is new in the Indonesian offer to warrant substantive negotiations with Lisbon under UN auspices.
Mr. Alatas said Tuesday that he had presented a detailed proposal recently to Mr. Annan. "His initial reaction was quite positive," Mr. Alatas said. "He thought it was a very important step forward." As a result, Mr. Annan sent a UN envoy, Jamsheed Marker, to Portugal and then to Indonesia and East Timor for consultations.
Mr. Alatas said that the autonomy offer for East Timor would give the territory power to control everything except foreign affairs, external defense, and monetary and fiscal policy. Under the proposal, the East Timorese could elect their own government and regional legislature that would have power over such areas as immigration, internal security, and educational, religious and economic policies, he said. Mr. Alatas said that with autonomy, the government of East Timor would determine the composition of the internal security force.
One potential sticking point of the plan outlined by Mr. Alatas was the minor role it appeared to give in the negotiations to the Timorese resistance council headed by Xanana Gusmao and another prominent East Timorese leader, Jose Ramos-Horta, who lives abroad for fear of arrest by Indonesian authorities if he tried to return to East Timor.
[On August 1, Dow Jones Newswires said in the lead-up to talks at the UN the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister, Ali Alatas, has again ruled out a vote on independence for East Timor. Alatas told reporters that autonomy was the best hope for peace saying "It is the best solution, rather than a referendum that could create old conflicts and trigger a civil war there". - James Balowski.]