East Timor: Poll heat may kill seeds of freedom

via the Sydney Morning Herald
11 May 1999
by Lindsay Murdoch

Five years of autonomy in East Timor would let the sides solve differences.


THUGS armed with crude weapons have taken control of the streets of Dili, terrorising residents. Outside the East Timorese capital violence and intimidation are being used to force villagers not to vote for independence at a ballot scheduled for August.

Only three months after a pledge by Indonesia's President, B.J. Habibie, that East Timor could have its freedom, creating a wave of euphoria, the former Portuguese territory is closer now to civil war than at any time since Indonesia invaded it in 1975. Events in the territory are spinning out of control and are almost certain to end in disaster.

A large part of the blame rests with Indonesia's armed forces, which are allowing local militias, which favour the territory remaining part of Indonesia, to engage in thuggery, sending hundreds of independence activists into hiding and creating a climate of terror among 800,000 people who have suffered 24 years of repression. The main independence group, the National Council for Timorese Resistance, has been crushed; its two-storey offices in Dili are shuttered. No vote can be seen to be fair unless they return and can put their case openly to the people.

Indonesia's generals in Jakarta are saying publicly they back their Government's promise to hold a free and fair ballot with the help of the UN. But in East Timor their officers appear committed to stopping the territory getting its independence. They are not rebels acting alone.

The best guess is that Indonesia's armed forces commander, General Wiranto, has decided to play the diplomatic game, calling for disarming and an end to the violence, while privately telling his men on the ground to do whatever they can, without too much adverse publicity, to ensure the vote is not a landslide for independence.

Most observers agree that in a climate free of intimidation East Timorese would vote overwhelmingly for independence and reject an offer by Habibie of autonomy within Indonesia.

But there is a strong feeling within the ranks of Indonesia's serving and former generals that no matter what Habibie has promised, the armed forces must not let East Timor go. Over two decades the military has lost as many as 5,000 soldiers in East Timor, where its commanders have had extensive business interests. Having to withdraw would be a bitter loss of face.

Most of the militias responsible for widespread atrocities are old paramilitary groups with new names that have had close ties with the security forces for decades. They could be quickly disarmed and disbanded but not only is this not happening, they are being provided transport and other support. Yesterday thugs roamed the streets of Dili looking for victims, including foreign journalists.

Habibie and key members of his Cabinet appear to have lost their patience with East Timor. They have enough trouble on their hands just trying to get through to national and presidential elections by the end of the year without the vast archipelago breaking up or going up in flames.

There is a risk that if violence continues in East Timor, Habibie will order the armed forces to walk away from the territory, creating even more chaos and probably plunging it into a prolonged nasty little war on Australia's doorstep.

The arrival of up to 1,000 UN personnel offers only slight hope of avoiding further bloodshed. The UN is notoriously incompetent and slow to act. It will have only about 800 personnel in the territory and they will have no authority to do anything but advise the Indonesian security forces, which will be responsible for maintaining law and order. The UN faces enormous difficulties. For example, it is supposed to educate a largely illiterate population about the ballot. But most villagers only speak the local language, Tetum. How can it find enough translators who speak the language?

The agreement signed in New York between Indonesia and Portugal last week was hailed as an historic diplomatic breakthrough. But even if escalating violence does not sabotage the ballot, one side will lose and not accept the result. The pro-Jakarta militias are not the only villains. Early this year violence and intimidation by anti-Indonesian groups forced an estimated 50,000 of 200,000 people who migrated to East Timor under Indonesian rule to flee the territory.

The only way to end the fighting is for the establishment of a government of reconciliation that allows rival groups to share power after the ballot. With the territory now in the grip of terror the only way to avoid further bloodshed is for a cooling-off period, giving long-time enemies time to talk about ways to come together to end the violence. Rushing into ballot campaigning now will further inflame passions and provoke more violence.

Giving the Timorese an interim period of autonomy, perhaps five or 10 years, before being allowed to decide their own future, would allow all sides to reconcile. This idea is supported by resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, who is under house arrest in Jakarta.

Bishop Carlos Belo, the head of the Catholic Church in East Timor, is promoting talks among the warring factions. These must be encouraged. There are grave fears that people who do not want the vote to go ahead will arrange enough killings for the UN to abandon its operation.

The armed forces must disband the rogue militias, arrest the perpetrators of recent atrocities and, with the UN, arrange a fair ballot. The August deadline for the poll is not enough time to create a climate in which such a poll can be held. It should be delayed. With general elections to be held on June 7, Habibie may not even be in a position to deliver East Timor's independence if Timorese reject the autonomy offer. Instead of merely advising the armed forces on the ballot, the UN could help run the territory during an interim period while passions cool.

Lindsay Murdoch is the Herald's correspondent in Dili.

ETAN/Seattle Webmaster <davidb@scn.org>