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Australia policy shift gets mixed response

Agence France Presse - January 12, 1999

Sydney – The Australian government announced Tuesday it will press Indonesia to grant East Timor an act of self-determination in a policy shift which East Timorese activists immediately said does not go far enough.

In what Foreign Minister Alexander Downer described as an historic policy shift, Canberra will support a measure of autonomy for the former Portuguese colony annexed by Indonesia following its 1975 invasion, but remnains opposed to independence.

East Timorese activists in Australia welcomed the move as a positive step, but said the people of East Timor must be allowed to decide in a referendum if they want limited autonomy or fully-fledged independence. Human rights activist and former Fretilin jungle fighter Jose Gusmao described the policy of supporting self-determination but opposing independence as "a contradiction in terms."

Canberra's new position on East Timor follows an internal review of East Timor policy ordered by Downer to take account of the changing political structure of Indonesia where President Suharto was ousted last year.

Downer said the policy had received a mixed response from the Indonesian government. "We do want to do what we can to encourage the Indonesian government to come to a successful conclusion in negotiations with a whole range of different parties in East Timor," he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

"In the end some sort of act which is going to bring a sense of ownership of the process to the people of East Timor I think is going to be an important conclusion to the process, be that in 10 years time or whatever the period might be."

He said there were a variety of competing views on the issue but Canberra believed that a completely independent East Timor would have the potential to fracture Indonesia itself. "And this is a very delicate time now for Indonesia, so we don't want to encourage the fracturing of the Indonesian state."

Australian Coalition for a Free East Timor spokesman Andy Alcock said the international community could suspect Australia would assist Indonesia to conduct a bogus act of self determination similar to what occurred in West Papua (now Irian Jaya) in 1969.

"Its opposition to independence for East Timor at the same time as it says it is lobbying Indonesia for an act of self determination advertises to the world that the present Australian government is not very committed to democracy, peace and justice in the South-East Asian region either."