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East Timor: is a breakthrough looming?

Green Left Weekly - January 27, 1999

Max Lane – Speculation on the future of East Timor is rife in Jakarta. There have even been unconfirmed reports that the Habibie-Wiranto military regime may allow East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao to move to house arrest. The reason for all the speculation is the expectation that negotiations between the Indonesian government, the Portuguese government and the United Nations secretary-general will produce a UN autonomy proposal sometime in February.

Soon after the Indonesian student movement forced the resignation of President Suharto on May 21, the new president, B.J. Habibie, offered East Timor "extensive autonomy". This was presented as a final solution to the "East Timor problem" and became the starting point for a new round of negotiations between Portugal, Indonesia and the UN.

Two factors made the reopening of negotiations possible. First, the Habibie regime indicated that "extensive autonomy" would go beyond the normal "special autonomy" that already applied to some other provinces.

The new regime wanted to keep control of "only" foreign affairs, defence and fiscal arrangements (apparently taxation). This was seen by Portugal and the UN as a significant concession.

Secondly, early in the negotiations Portugal and Indonesia agreed to"forget" temporarily the issue on which they have been diametrically opposed, namely self-determination. Portugal insists on East Timor's right to self-determination while Indonesia proposes only "extensive autonomy".

UN plan

The UN special representative on East Timor, Jamsheed Marker, has told journalists that an agreement on autonomy would be separate from resolving the dispute over self-determination.

However, he said, the Indonesian armed forces would remain in East Timor, supposedly for external defence only, and a UN presence would be established there. Marker added that general elections would be held in East Timor to elect an autonomous government.

These elections, he said, should be separate from the Indonesian general elections, and all existing East Timorese political organisations, including the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT) and Fretilin, would be able to participate. They would be monitored by the UN, and East Timorese outside Indonesia would be allowed to vote.

In an interview with Diario de Noticias on December 4, Marker indicated that these election proposals would be part of "a quite substantial document of additional proposals" going beyond the original concept proposed by Jakarta.

Xanana Gusmao has not commented publicly on Marker's proposals. However, in an extended New Year message to the East Timorese people, he made several crucial points.

Xanana defended the notion of a transitional autonomous government on the grounds of the need for a period of preparation for final independence. He pointed out that such a transition period has always been part of the peace plan put forward by the National Council for Maubere Resistance, now restructured as the CNRT.

Xanana also stated that such an autonomous government must be part of a transition towards an act of self-determination. "An erroneous analysis of the situation has led the people of East Timor to take sides: either with those who defend autonomy or with those who defend a referendum. Those who defend a referendum forget that CNRT 'accepts' autonomy as a period of transition in the lead-up to a referendum.

"What I can guarantee to all is that if Indonesia is to continue with its arrogance and inflexibility, insisting on autonomy as a final solution, there will be no autonomy in East Timor."

In an Associated Press report from Lisbon on December 16, the deputy president of the CNRT, Jose Ramos Horta, commented: "This [UN] plan can only be valid if Indonesia accepts at the end of this period – from three to five years – the organisation of an internationally monitored democratic consultation".

Jakarta's view

There has not yet been a clear public statement by Jakarta on Marker's proposals. The Indonesian regime's only clear statement has been that it will not agree to any reference to a referendum in the autonomy proposals. This seems to put Jakarta's position at odds with that of the East Timorese resistance.

Xanana's assessment of Jakarta's position is stated in his New Year message: "My personal opinion is that Jakarta is not ready to move forth in a constructive way in a negotiation process in 1999.

"The Habibie colonialist government does not wish to find a solution for East Timor which will respect international law; until today, it has shown the arrogance which is typical of colonialists by stating that what it did was legal and therefore it is up to Portugal to recognise Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor. I am certain of one thing: 1999 will be another year of deadlock. We, the East Timorese, will have to wait for a new truly democratic government to be installed."

Xanana is likely to be correct, especially in relation to Marker's proposals for elections: UN-supervised elections in which the CNRT can freely participate would be a self-determination referendum under another name. Even if the Habibie regime or Suharto family splashed millions of dollars around, and even with the Indonesian military still in East Timor, it is likely that such an election would result in a 99% pro-independence parliament and government.

Jakarta's agreement to such a policy could only be the result of a conscious decision to let East Timor have its independence. Yet as Xanana points out, there is no concrete evidence that Habibie is moving in that direction.

In his New Year message Xanana stated: "We are aware that our people are beginning to show a lack of patience, that radical groups are emerging and will choose confrontation to break the current deadlock provoked by the arrogance of the Suharto/Habibie colonialist regime".

That hundreds of students virtually chased Marker out of Dili in December is a sign of this.

There are many indications that the student movement in East Timor will continue to campaign actively for self-determination.

Xanana has urged people in East Timor not to seek confrontation or take advantage of turmoil in Indonesia to further the movement in East Timor. In this respect, he favours negotiations and preparing the ground for future negotiations with a post-Habibie government.

Xanana's assessment of the Habibie regime's intransigence indicates that he has high expectations of a genuine democratic government taking office in Indonesia, maybe in the year 2000.

Indonesian students

When Xanana met with one of the elite opposition figures, Amien Rais, in jail, Rais gave his support to an autonomy process which included a long period before a review or referendum. Rais' position seems consistent with the CNRT's, although his statements are not totally trusted by the student democracy movement in Indonesia.

Significantly, while Xanana says he "will not call for an increase in tensions in our motherland, nor for a greater level of confrontation with the occupying forces", he qualifies this by saying, "One day we might have to make a decision on this if after the elections nothing changes in Indonesia and if the New Order regime prolongs the current status quo".

It appears likely that Indonesia's student and other mass movements will continue to grow and radicalise in the lead-up to the elections in June. The dynamic of the Indonesian movement is against military repression. As this dynamic spreads, the military's invasion and occupation of East Timor are likely to be questioned more widely in Indonesia.

Thus, the movement in Indonesia may force the question of a more rapid transition to freedom in East Timor higher up the political agenda. This, in turn, would have an impact on the student movement in East Timor.