An Offer East Timor Can't Refuse?

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NISID HAJARITo the stew of conspiracy theories bubbling in today's Indonesia, the Habibie administration adds its own--that no one wants to believe them. Everything we do comes out as disinformation, complains an official privy to negotiations over the territory of East Timor. Nothing we do is right.According to the official, such frustration lay behind last week's dramatic announcements from Jakarta: that after more than two decades of often brutal rule over the former Portuguese colony, Indonesia would consider granting East Timor independence; and that jailed rebel leader Xanana Gusmao would be transferred from prison to a facility in the capital. The administration, says the official, had simply run out of patience. In December Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, spiritual leader of the predominantly Catholic East Timorese, turned down an offer to meet Habibie to discuss autonomy talks. Two weeks later, the only Western country to recognize Indonesia's 1976 annexation of the territory--Australia--announced that it now favored self-determination. The twin rebuffs only reinforced a growing sense that the loss of East Timor would not fracture the Indonesian republic, and might even remove one obstacle to the foreign aid Jakarta so desperately needs. Foreign Minister Ali Alatas sounded almost exasperated when he announced he would ask the legislature to grant the territory independence if East Timorese were not satisfied with autonomy. If they want to have their freedom, they are welcome, he declared.Like many of the initiatives launched by the scattershot Habibie administration, however, the offer seemed too sudden and too simple. This is too premature, says Bishop Belo. This process has to be carried out respectfully. Belo's partner in the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, ex-journalist Jose Ramos-Horta, points out that Indonesia still stations an estimated 15,000 troops in the area and holds Gusmao in detention. Skeptics note, too, that for months, the military has allegedly been arming pro-Jakarta militias in East Timor; in the southern town of Suai, thousands of villagers were reportedly seeking shelter in local churches after vigilantes killed up to six civilians.PAGE 1  |  
Those still-raw tensions incline most of the players involved toward caution. Belo and others warn that an immediate Indonesian withdrawal would burden East Timor with two unevenly armed camps who have fought since the Portuguese left in 1975. The threadbare local commerce is dominated by migrants primarily from Sulawesi and Java. And the government lacks experienced local bureaucrats. The people want freedom, democracy and peace, not separation, says Timor parliamentarian Florentino Sarmento. Those goals, say many Timorese, require a period of autonomy and rebuilding, followed by a referendum on independence. Jakarta has steadfastly refused to hold such a vote, arguing that it would inflame passions. That makes last week's olive branch look to some like a club--offering only poverty and chaos as the alternative to Indonesian sovereignty. After years of subjugation and an estimated 200,000 deaths, however, East Timorese may be willing to put aside such suspicions. If we don't accept the offer, we may never know our fate, says longtime independence campaigner Manuel Carrascalao, who believes the territory can survive by developing a tourist industry and reviving exports of coffee, cocoa, cashew and sandalwood. It is better to start from nothing than to suffer more.Reported by William Dowell/New York and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta  |  2