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25 February 1999 Edition

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East Timor

Indonesian recognition of East Timor's right to self-determination, ending nearly two decades of quasi-military rule and changes in the prison conditions of rebel leader Xanana Gusmao are the latest developments of East Timor's fight for independence.

The announcements were made the day before high-level talks between Portuguese and Indonesian authorities were due to begin in New York under UN auspices. However, thousands of terrified East-Timorese fled their villages after at least six people died during attacks by pro-Indonesian collaborators.

The announcement of a change in Indonesian policy came at the end of January, when Alatas, following a meeting of the cabinet, stated that the government will allow the independence of East Timor after the election of the Indonesian Supreme Legislative Assembly, the MPR, if the East Timorese reject Indonesia's proposal for autonomy.

The same day, the Indonesian administration offered Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao to move from his prison cell to house detention. ``I accept the offer''; Xanana (53) told reporters at Jakarta's Cipinang jail, where he is serving a 20-year prison term.

Officials said the move was a compromise related to a request from the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan.

Foreign governments have expressed the hope Xanana, who has a wide following in East Timor, could play a ``Nelson Mandela-like'' role in seeking a solution to the East Timor problem. Xanana was captured in 1992 and sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting against the state and illegal possession of weapons but his sentence was commuted to 20 years in jail.

The developments were welcomed by East Timorese Nobel Laureate Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, who pointed out that he still wanted a referendum for East Timor: ``Yes, I would be happy if the offer is put into practice. But as I have said for the past 10-15 years, the offer for a wide-ranging autonomy should be accompanied with a referendum to decide whether this is what the people want. Let me stress that wide-ranging autonomy is not something final but only transitional. It is only final when the people says so.''

From Belo's point of view, East Timor could have 10 or 15 years of autonomy under Indonesia and after that decide themselves whether they want to be independent.

On the other hand, Jose Ramos Horta, who won the Peace prize in 1996 with Belo, denounced the proposal as a ``stunt''. ``They never deliver what they promised. I believe it is no more than a smokescreen, a diplomatic stunt. Their aim is to win the good favour of the international community, while at the same time they create terror in East Timor''.

It seems that Australia will support autonomy of the territory, as it expressed its belief that East Timor is too weak to become an independent state.

Tom Hyland, spokesperson of the East Timor Solidarity Campaign, feels that ``The position of the successive Australian governments have been, perhaps, the most hypocritical of all governments. Not only did they refuse to investigate the death of the Australian journalist killed by the Indonesian army, but have illegally shared the oil resources of East Timor with Indonesia.

``As regards the future of East Timor, obviously there is a lot to be done. East Timor had the 23 largest oilfields in the world, a substantial coffee crop, marble and many other natural resources. In fact, East Timor has the capacity to become one of the richest states in the world but it will take time. Australia may be dependent on an independent East Timor for its energy resources in the next millennium.''

The possibility of East Timorese self-determination becoming a reality is dependent very much on the result of the elections to the Indonesian Legislative Assembly, as two of the main opposition leaders have declared themselves against the government's idea of considering independence for the island. Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), pointed out that the government of president B.J. Habibie has no authority to make a decision on the territory. The daughter of Indonesian's first president Sukarno, who transformed the Indonesian federation into its actual shape, reminded Habibie that his government was transitional and his ascent to power was due to an emergency situation caused by the Indonesian students protests last year.

Abdurrahman ``Gus Dur'' Walid, the chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama Moslen organisation and backer of the newly founded National Awakening Party said that the decision of Indonesia to include the territory of East Timor as part of the country should be respected. ``In my opinion, East Timor should remain part of Indonesia''.

For Tom Hyland, the party of Suharto and Habibie does not stand a chance of winning the elections, as ``a coalition between Sukarnoputri and the moderate Islamic Mummahadin party of Wahid looks like the most likely outcome'', though it is possible that the Islamic parties of Indonesia will refuse to endorse a woman as president. There is also Amien Reiss who is President of the most moderate of Indonesian Islamic parties. So any of them could be president.''

While officials of the Indonesian government deliberate over East Timor's status, the situation on the island is still difficult. The Indonesian military have been arming groups of East Timorese collaborators. Tensions are high in the former Portuguese colony where the National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM) estimates that more than 50 people have died in clashes in the past six months, while more than 2,700 refugees are camped outside the village of Suai, 90 kilometres Southeast of the capital, Dili, after fleeing violence between groups of pro and anti-Indonesian Timorese. At least six people have been killed in the Kovalima district in just three days.

``As in the case of all colonial occupations, the Indonesians have pursued a policy of divide and rule among the Timorese people. Some Timorese have been conscripted into the Indonesian army. Some have also benefited financially from the occupation. But the resistance to Indonesian control has held firm and the last 23 years have seen an astonishing David and Goliath situation between East Timor and Indonesia with a heroic resistance to a very brutal regime. What will be needed is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the type experience in South Africa, so that all the people of East Timor, those who have resisted and those who have collaborated can iron out their differences'', explains Tom Hyland.

US troops in Nicaragua

In an interview published by the newspaper, A Nosa Terra, former Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega, pointed out that 1,800 US troops that moved into Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch hit the country, are still there a month after the disaster.

During the interview, which appeared last month, Ortega said that the presence of these troops in Nicaragua exceeds the idea of humanitarian aid as 1,800 soldiers are a substantial force: ``I consider as a humiliation for this country that the US response to the tragedy was to send troops, because here we had a conflict provoke by the US, a war that caused thousands of deaths.''

Ortega pointed out that from the Sandinista Front for National Liberation they are aware that the US administration has used the excuse of humanitarian aid to hide the execution of its strategic interest in the area. ``This is a clear interference by the United States in our country that we have to denounce. We want US troops to leave the country and the compensation ordered by the International Court of Justice to be paid to Nicaragua''.

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