Indonesia: The Popular Consultation In East Timor

1999

Professor James Fox

The popular consultation to determine the political future of East Timor was held, under United Nations supervision, on 30 August, after being twice postponed, and preceded by systematic threats, intimidation, and killings. Most observers had expected further serious disruptions. Instead, on the day, voting was carried out peacefully and enthusiastically. Armed militia, who had campaigned aggressively for autonomy under Indonesian rule, ceased their activities; the Indonesian police, who had been criticised for failing to provide adequate security in the lead-up to the election, demonstrated a new-found professionalism; and the Indonesian army suspected of masterminding excesses in the campaign seemed to withdraw from the whole process, claiming the right to preside from above. Under these conditions, the United Nations was able to perform its functions effectively. East Timorese streamed to the polling centres, many camping out the night before to be in line by the time the stations opened at 6.30 in the morning. In most areas, voting was completed hours before the centres were closed. Preliminary estimates put the turnout at over 97 per cent of registered voters. This turnout suggests the likelihood of an overwhelming vote in favour of an UN-supervised transition to independence.

Almost as soon as the vote was concluded, the militia were out in force again, setting up road blocks, threatening (and in one case, killing and kidnapping) UN Timorese staff, endeavouring to prevent the delivery of ballot boxes to Dili and, in Dili itself, provoking street fights in front of the UN headquarters. Indonesian police were once more being criticised for their limited response to the escalating violence and for failing to disarm local militia. Pro-autonomy spokesmen claimed stridently that the UN and its staff were responsible for systematic bias in the organisation of the vote. Confronted with this situation, the Indonesian military chose to close their gates and remained aloof. The armed Falantil forces on the Independence side continued their policy of avoiding engagement with their opponents.

This course of events in Timor has been given extensive international media coverage. To most outsiders, Timor would seem to present a picture of utter confusion. Yet behind the scenes, solutions are being worked out. Not all is as it seems from television coverage. Moderates on the pro-autonomy side have been meeting informally with Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the Independence movement. A consultative commission has been formed of leaders on both sides and General Wiranto has expressed his willingness to invite an UN peacekeeping force to East Timor and cooperate with that force in maintaining peace in a transition to Independence. The next weeks will be critical but most crucial will be the immediate period after the vote is announced.

WATCHPOINT: Timor is descending into military-directed mayhem.

 

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