Jakarta – The people of East Timor should consider accepting an Indonesian offer of autonomy before a referendum on self-determination is held in the former Portuguese colony, jailed rebel leader Xanana Gusmao said in an interview published Wednesday.
In the interview, given jointly to the Indonesian state Antara news agency and Portugal's Lusa agency on Tuesday, Xanana said autonomy for East Timor should only last for 10 years before a referendum is held. "What the East Timor population needs now is a formal decision which does not corner them," he added.
Speaking from Jakarta's Cipinang jail where he is serving a 20-year jail term for plotting against the state and illegal possession of weapons, Xanana said East Timor was not Jakarta's only problem. "Indonesia is currently facing complex problems, and East Timor is only one of the matters that need immediate settlement," he said.
He also said that the new Indonesian government of President B.J. Habibie was more accommodating than that of former president Suharto on the issue of the troubled territory, invaded by Indonesia in 1975 when Suharto was in power. "The current government is more moderate, because more problems are accommodated, including the problem of East Timor," Xanana reportedly said.
Antara also quoted the jailed leader as saying that the problems of East Timor could not easily be settled, especially if narrow-minded approaches were used.
The government of Habibie, who took over from Suharto in May, has offered wide-ranging autonomy for an East Timor under Indonesia. The extent of autonomy is currently being negotiated between senior officials of Indonesia and Portugal under the auspices of the UN secretary general. Jakarta has so far rejected a referendum, saying it would only lead to open conflict in East Timor.
Xanana and the East Timorese pro-independence movement he leads have said that autonomy would be acceptable as long as it led to a referendum.
The rebel leader also hailed the arrival here late Tuesday of a special envoy of the UN secretary general on East Timor issues, Jamsheed Marker, for a week-long visit which will also include a trip to East Timor.
Marker's visit to East Timor should be "appreciated as part of efforts to settle the East Timor problem at the international scale," Xanana said. He also welcomed the intention of Portugal and Indonesia, which have had no diplomatic ties since Lisbon broke off in 1975 over the invasion, to open "interest sections" in each other's countries.
Antara and Lusa entered into a cooperation agreement on Saturday that covered exchange of information and the placing of correspondents in their respective countries.