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Threats follow East Timor vote

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Dili, East Timor

In the first days after the United Nations declared East Timor’s popular referendum an unmitigated success, signs were quickly emerging that the peacefulness that characterized the polls would not hold.

As NCR went to press, hundreds of anti-independence militiamen blocked the streets outside the U.N. headquarters here, set two buildings on fire and shot at cars driving into the U.N. compound.

Militia leader Eurico Guterres made no secret about his intentions. He said that if the people vote for breaking from Indonesia, he would turn East Timor into a “sea of fire.”

At least 75 Indonesian riot police were reportedly dispatched to the scene to clear the area directly in front of the compound. One person believed to be a pro-independence supporter was killed, authorities said. Unarmed U.N. civilian police were moving in.

The atmosphere here was tense. East Timorese expressed a mix of elation and fear. Many observers feared that militia forces, fearing a defeat at the polls, would resort to force to disrupt the post-election process.

It is widely believed that pro-independence supporters will prevail when election results are announced Sept. 7.

On Aug. 30, East Timorese were given two choices in the U.N.-sponsored referendum. They could choose to become an autonomous region under Indonesian sovereignty or they could choose independence. Of 450,000 registered voters, well over 95 percent voted territory-wide. Dili, the capital, had a voter turnout of 98.8 percent, according to the United Nations.

Ballot boxes were transported from some 800 polling stations to Dili where ballot counting began Sept. 1.

The Indonesian government said last week it would almost certainly allow a U.N. force to go to East Timor if the balloting supports independence. “Of course in the transitional period there needs to be the presence of a United Nations force because logically the Indonesian military and the Indonesian police have to leave East Timor,” a military spokesman told a news conference. There has been massive international pressure on Jakarta, including the threatened withdrawal of much-needed loans, to abide by the results of the election.

Whatever the outcome, the future will not be easy for this territory wracked by 24 years of war. Reconciliation will be an uphill battle. Nearly every East Timorese lost a father, a mother, daughter or son in the conflict over the years. The Indonesian security forces and the pro-Indonesian militias are certain to ask: Did we fight and die for nothing?

East Timor does not have a tradition of tolerance and democracy. It has no courts, no administration and no industry. Over the last six months as many as one-third of the territory’s schoolteachers have fled. The U.N. High Commission on Refugees reports that 50,000 people were displaced in the run-up to the polls. For the foreseeable future, an independent East Timor would be entirely dependent on foreign aid. Many in Indonesia want to be rid of the territory as quickly as possible.

Indonesian President B.J. Habibie has indicated that the date for the final break would be early in 2000.

Many believe that the East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, now under house arrest in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, may be released by Sept. 15 and could become East Timor’s first president. He insists the new nation will need a transition period of several years.

Many questions about East Timor’s future remain unanswered, but the most astonishing surprise would be if the pro-Indonesian militias accept their defeat in the U.N. ballot without new violence.

There is some good news, however. Some observers suggest that the Indonesian security forces, which more or less openly orchestrated the bloody intimidation campaign of the militias, have come to terms with their defeat in East Timor, and recognize that further attempts to cling to the territory will only deepen their loss of face.

It was reported that Army Chief Gen. Wiranto has withdrawn some army commanders responsible for undercover operations in East Timor.

Despite widespread predictions that East Timor would erupt in violence before the referendum, the U.N. team in East Timor ushered in a largely violence-free election. (Three local East Timorese hired by the United Nations to work in polling places were killed by mobs on polling day.)

The Falintil, the East Timor resistance group, has promised it will not surrender one gun until the last Indonesian soldier has left the territory. Meanwhile, the pro-Indonesian militias have already started a mini-guerrilla war along the Western part of the province with a scorched earth policy.

Guterres still wants to “change the border” and create an East-East Timor and a West-East Timor. The deployment of U.N. troops seems to be just a question of time. Without a more powerful presence in East Timor, the people will likely remain the victims of these “hooligans without a political agenda,” as Syméon Antoulas, the head of the Red Cross mission in Dili, calls the militias.

The spiritual leader of the mainly Catholic territory, Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Ximenes Filipe Belo, has appealed for calm. He has asked that pro-independence and anti-independence camps work together for peace.

“My appeal to the leaders is that they are able to convince their bases to accept the verdict of the people and to lay down their arms and help to make political compromise to ... work for peace and reconciliation,” Belo said.

“If they are Timorese they have to work together. If they are not, they leave the territory,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999