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Indonesia to propose Timor join ASEAN

Agence France Presse - February 16, 1999

Jakarta – Indonesia will sponsor East Timor as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) if the troubled territory opts for independence, a senior official said here Tuesday.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, foreign affairs advisor to President B.J.Habibie said it would be "in Indonesia's interests" if the former Portuguese colony joined the regional grouping.

"It is not in our interests if a country in the area is not in tune with the others," Anwar told a journalists' seminar here, adding the "spectre" that a foreign power would estabish as base there was a thing of the past.

"There is no real fear any more that a foreign power will have a base in East Timor. This consideration was a concern in 1975, [but] this specter is no longer relevant," she added.

Moreover, she said "The influence of a small and poor country will be limited. It is more a country which needs help and assistance, than a country which might dictate."

In 1975, Indonesia, with the tacit blessing of the United States at the time of its debacle in South Vietnam, invaded the former Portuguese colony where Marxists and communists had considerable influence at the time.

ASEAN now groups nine countries of the region: Burma, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Anwar also rejected the idea that eventual independence of East Timor could set a "bad example" for other restless Indonesian provinces, notably Aceh in North Sumatra and Irian Jaya.

"The problem of East Timor has a different history. Aceh, Irian Jaya ... we proclaimed independence together. East Timor was a different case, a colonial backwater, totally useless, they joined us 30 years later."

"There is no risk of a spillover," she added, making no reference to the fact that Irian Jaya, which shares a land border with independent Papua New Guinea, did not join Indonesia until the 1960s. Separatist groups are both active in Aceh and Irian Jaya.

Considered close to Habibie, Anwar is believed to have been party to Jakarta's abrupt January 27 about-face on the question of East Timor, which Indonesia annexed a year after the 1975 invasion.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas meanwhile said Habibie's announcement last week he wanted to see a free East Timor by January 1 was not a deadline.

"This is not a deadline, but a hope that starting in the year 2000, we would be freed of the burden of a settlement of the problem of East Timor," Alatas said according to the Antara news agency.

He called the date a "peg" for a time where Indonesia will no longer be hampered by the question of a settlement on East Timor. "We do not want to be burdened by the problem of East Timor as of January 1, 2000," Habibie said last week.

Alatas also said Lisbon, which is still regarded by the United Nations and most states as the official administrator of East Timor, would abide by the decision of the people of East Timor – whether they chose independence or autonomy under the Indonesian flag.

The broad autonomy package is currently being finalized between Indonesia and Portugal in talks held under UN auspices.

"There are still one or two matters that need further negotiations and the plan is [the next talks] will be held on next March 9 and 10," Alatas said, adding the package was expected to be completed by April.

The government said last month it would suggest to the new legislature to be formed following elections in June that it let go of East Timor if the autonomy package was rejected by the people of East Timor.

Alatas said a mechanism to determine whether the scheme was accepted or rejected by the people of East Timor will still have to be discussed with the UN and Portugal, but again ruled out a referendum.

"We will still have to come forward again to discuss this matter, because, a referendum to decide whether it [the autonomy] is accepted or rejected, is not the best way," he said.