Special Report: East Timor Update


Dr George Quinn

In the early months of 1999 the situation in East Timor remained confused and volatile. The umbrella resistance organisation, the Conselho Nacionale da Resistencia Timorense (CNRT) headed by Xanana Gusmao, is now able to operate openly in East Timor and has opened an office in Dili. The press, both in Dili and in Indonesia proper, is able to report events more openly than at any time in the past. Many new and aggressive activist groups have appeared representing a variety of interests. Throughout the first two months of 1999 sporadic clashes occurred, especially in Dili and in the western part of the territory, between supporters of independence and supporters of integration with Indonesia. There have been persistent and reliable reports that elements of the Indonesian military have been arming pro-integration militia. East Timor is now a very heavily armed society, most people having access either to firearms or to machetes. All the ingredients exist for escalating violent turbulence, even civil war.

On 27 January 27 the Indonesian government announced its willingness to consider independence for the territory. The announcement was followed by a series of clarifications that, more than anything, reflected confusion and ad hoc policy making in the ranks of the Indonesian government. Indonesian officials rejected the holding of a referendum in East Timor, but did not state how the opinion of the East Timorese people was to be gauged. President Habibie stated that the problem of East Timor would have to be settled before the year 2000, then later said that the East Timorese would have to decide before the June elections whether to stay in Indonesia or become independent. Foreign Minister Ali Al-Atas made it clear that if the East Timorese chose independence, Indonesia would leave the territory immediately. Given the volatility of the situation in the territory, this position raised the spectre of civil war if Indonesia were to abruptly leave. Towards the end of February Indonesia appeared to have softened its position on a possible pull-out, even speaking about the possibility of returning East Timor to Portugal so that the territory could gain independence under the supervision of the United Nations.

Influential East Timorese leaders Xanana Gusmao and Bishop Carlos Belo both favour extended periods of transition during which East Timor would enjoy wide-ranging autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia. More radical elements in the East Timorese resistance, both in the territory itself and among expatriate East Timorese, favour immediate, unconditional independence and threaten armed resistance to anything less.

Meanwhile several streams of talks continue in an effort to find a solution to the problem. The United Nations special task force on East Timor, headed by Jamsheed Marker, continues to preside over negotiations on autonomy between Indonesia and Portugal. In East Timor itself Bishop Belo has initiated the so-called Dare process, in September last year bringing together some 50 representatives of indigenous East Timorese interests to discuss reconciliation. This process is expected to continue later this year. 24 February saw the birth in Dili of the Association of Timorese for Peace (Klibur Oan Timor Ba Dame, or KOTBD). The Association counts among its patrons, advisers and members, representatives of all the main parties and activist groups in the territory. Witnessed by UN representative Tamrad Samuel, the Association issued a Peace Declaration pledging commitment to peace and reconciliation.

On the same day as this significant declaration was issued, a pro-independence youth was shot dead and another seriously wounded in a clash between pro- and anti independence youths in Dili. This incident, together with many similar ones recently, reflects the ominous reality that despite cautious steps towards reconciliation among the territory's leaders, grass-roots East Timorese society remains traumatised, deeply divided, and poised on the brink of mass violence.

WATCHPOINT: Will mass violence endanger moves towards independence?


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