Paul Kelly – Indonesia's President B. J. Habibie yesterday gave his personal word of honour that he was prepared to give East Timor independence.
He revealed to a delegation of Australian editors that he wanted five nations – Australia, the US, Germany (representing Europe), Japan and The Philippines – to be involved in East Timor under a UN umbrella to ensure self-determination.
Dr Habibie said he had raised this initiative with John Howard. It would not involve troops, but personnel and support to make self-determination a success. He insisted Indonesia would be responsible for security.
"If the people of East Timor decide for separation, we will do everything to make it happen in peace," Dr Habibie said in a 75- minute meeting with the editors.
"We will separate in peace, in honour, as friends, and we will leave as neighbours and we will assist within our capabilities. It is moral, it's no problem, okay."
Australian editors, in Jakarta for a meeting with Indonesian editors, were told on Monday that the mood in the Habibie Cabinet was overwhelming resentment at "unfair" international pressures on Indonesia over East Timor and an impulse to cut the province loose if the situation deteriorated.
Dr Habibie's comments reveal that he is prepared to pressure the armed forces over East Timor.
It is widely believed in Jakarta that the tactic of the army under its commander, General Wiranto, is to delay the East Timor process until a "a new political climate" is established in Jakarta.
"I have no problem with the military; they are professional people and they understand," Dr Habibie said. But he claimed that the "retired ones and some politicians" were a problem.
He said a top-level meeting with Australian Government leaders in Bali next Tuesday was aimed at strengthening Indonesia-Australia relations and developing the relationship with the Australian public. While East Timor was the cause of the meeting, it would not dominate the agenda.
Mr Howard said yesterday he looked forward to "useful and constructive discussion on ways to bring an end to the terrible violence" in East Timor.
In Dili last night, security forces moved to restore calm ahead of a visit by armed forces commander General Wiranto. They arrested 15 people yesterday after a weekend of violence that claimed at least 20 lives.
Dr Habibie assured the delegation in Jakarta yesterday that he would not let the security situation in East Timor stand in the way of the "sovereignty of the people".
Asked about the sentiment in East Timor on self-determination, he said: "I believe only in one thing. They should get the chance to make their self-determination for their future. I have one belief, I don't care, I don't care, I only have one care, they should not be tortured or suffer any more."
Dr Habibie said he wanted the East Timorese to accept a ceasefire, to lay down arms, and that this "must be done immediately". But he distinguished between laying down arms and forcing disarmament of pro-integration militias.
"It's almost impossible for him [General Wiranto] to disarm them. That is why I have instructed them to lay down their weapons. If I want to disarm them, oh, they get mad. So I say, 'Cease fire, lay down your weapons and work together for a self-determination'."
Dr Habibie strongly supported the close military relationship between Australia and Indonesia and said that it was not under threat. Asked about Mr Howard's response to his "five nations" initiative, Dr Habibie said: "It was positive, he understands."