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For East Timor, freedom finally an option

For nearly a quarter-century, relations between Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, and the United States -- as well as the rest of the outside world -- have often stumbled over the fate of half of an impoverished island, so small and remote that even many Indonesians would have trouble finding it on a map.

That suddenly changed last year with the utterance of a few words by Indonesia President B.J. Habibie. “We don’t want to be bothered by East Timor’s problems anymore,” he said. “If someone asks me about East Timor, my suggestion is, give them freedom. It is just and fair.”

Indonesia, on the verge of economic and political collapse as a result of the Asian economic crisis, seemed eager to be rid of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that was invaded and annexed by Indonesia in the mid-1970s, over international protest. Since then, the territory’s name has become a rallying cry for human rights campaigners.

Working against the freedom-seekers was the remoteness of the island and the fact that Timorese supporters were dispersed around the world. That changed in recent years with the advance of the Internet, where Timorese rallying cries have been sustained.

East Timor has an estimated population of 750,000, nearly all Catholic. International human rights groups have long accused the Indonesian military of a campaign of killing and torture to enforce the annexation of East Timor. Up to 200,000 East Timorese have died since 1975 as a result of human rights abuses or fighting with government forces, the human rights activists say.

For 24 years, the people of East Timor have awaited the agreement announced May 5, which allows them the right of self-determination. They have reason to celebrate; also much reason to be cautious. A fair election is by no means certain and, if independence is chosen, there remains significant doubt whether East Timor can endure as an independent nation.

The value of the agreement to decide their own future can only be measured through its implementation. Under the agreement signed at the United Nations, Timorese in Timor and abroad will be asked: “Do you accept the proposed special autonomy for East Timor within the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia?” or “Do you reject the proposed special autonomy for East Timor, leading to East Timor’s separation from Indonesia?”

An acceptance or yes vote will mean recognizing continued ties with Indonesia. The central government in Jakarta would retain responsibility for defense and keep troops in East Timor, as well as continuing to be responsible for monetary and fiscal policies. Jakarta would offer East Timor’s capital, Dili, possible “cooperative or joint undertakings” in the key sector of oil exploration.

A rejection or no vote would mean that East Timor would be allowed to secede from Indonesia.

Most analysts predict the majority will vote for independence Aug. 8.

There is also concern that not holding the referendum until then will give pro-Indonesian militias time to mount campaigns of intimidation. Thus, it is critically important that U.N. observers take their places on the island as soon as possible.

A clause in the agreement says that Jakarta is responsible for ensuring that voting is held “in an atmosphere free of intimidation, violence or interference from any side.” If it does not uphold that clause, a fair election becomes difficult if not impossible. Currently there are 20,000 Indonesian military and police in East Timor. They cannot be allowed to intimidate voters. Both pro- and anti-independence groups have called for an end to the violence as the referendum approaches.

At a time when violence seems so prevalent on the world scene, it would be uplifting to see East Timor experience a peaceful transition to self-rule.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999