Tue, 09 Mar 1999

Howard faces dilemma on E. Timor

By Hilman Adil

This is the second of two articles on Australia's policy on East Timor.

JAKARTA (JP): The ambivalent Australian posture reemerged in its reaction toward Indonesia's announcement that it would allow East Timor to become independent if the people rejected an offer of autonomy. Again, it appeared that considerations based on real politik prevailed by giving priority to commercial and strategic interests.

While East Timor's independence is popular with the Australian public and would possibly remove a disturbing element in Indonesia-Australian relations, it could also pose substantial security challenges in the event of a fragmentation of the Indonesian Republic with Irian Jaya and Aceh or other provinces following suit.

As Alan Dupont of the Australian National University stated: "Australia would clearly prefer to have to deal with one country rather than with two countries or even more countries ... If that (fragmentation) were to happen, and I don't rate that likely, but nevertheless it is a possibility, then Australia's strategic environment to our immediate north is going be complicated."

After the announcement of a major shift in Indonesia's East Timor policy, defense thinking in Canberra is now focused on the need to make changes in its policies to meet the evolving situation in Indonesia. Particularly in the context of the Timor Gap Treaty signed in 1989 and the Agreement on Maintaining Security signed in December 1995, new arrangement are needed to protect Australian corporate interests in Indonesia and East Timor.

In his article, Woolcott's concern was that "apart from an issue of regional significance, such as the possible fracturing of Indonesia, the changes could lead to substantial financial implications for the government if the Timor Gap Treaty ... were to unravel." He feared that if Australian recognition of de jure Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor were abandoned, the treaty could be nullified, resulting in substantial financial claims.

It is for this reason that Australia, it seems, would rather prefer an arrangement where East Timor would have a high degree of autonomy but remain legally part of Indonesia. On the question of self-determination for people in East Timor, Minister of Foreign Affairs Downer, in his statements, remains vague and undefined. He did not specify on what is meant by self- determination, not when it should be realized. The new shift in Australia's policy also appears to be highly inconsistent, given that it supports self-determination without a referendum while retaining Indonesian sovereignty.

Minister Downer's statement on Jan. 12 did not specify what was meant by an "an act of self-determination", and whether this included support for a plebiscite administered by the United Nations. He also declined to specify when self-determination should take place, suggesting only "at some future time". He also sees no need for the Australia government to adjust its support for Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor.

The Howard government's preference for autonomy instead of independence for East Timor seems to be influenced by two hard realities: (a) Even if the Habibie government seems to be prepared to grant independence to East Timor, some elements in the Armed Forces are not prepared to accept it. The fear in Australia is that even if the Indonesian government ordered its Army occupation out of East Timor, there is a reasonable possibility of serious bloodshed. (b) East Timor resources are extremely limited.

So far, the province is dependent on outside subsidies (90 percent), of which the central government supplies around two- third, with the rest coming from Western donors, including Australia.

The Indonesian government's subsidy will be terminated if East Timor becomes independent. Therefore, the Australian government will have to be prepared for another Papua New Guinea on its border, in terms of the proportional level of resources that would be required to sustain East Timor as a viable independent state.

It is in this context that a compromise solution, that is East Timorese autonomy within Indonesian sovereignty, becomes increasingly attractive to Canberra.

The convergence and closeness of political security and commercial interests of both countries apparently have much influenced their perception toward a solution of the problem. From Indonesia's point of view, despite an official's statement describing the province as "an appendix which has to be removed", wider autonomy rather than outright independence might placate nationalist demands and the Armed Forces resentment to keep the territory as an integral part of the Indonesian Republic.

Indonesia's move to cut loose East Timor from the rest of Indonesia is interpreted in Australia as merely an attempt to cling to the province by raising the prospect of a swift and destabilizing withdrawal of Indonesian personnel and funding.

In effect, it is calling the bluff of Western powers and East Timorese leaders who have opposed Indonesian rule.

Another interpretation is that behind the offer of independence, there is some expectation that in the event of disagreement among the East Timorese leaders to establish an independent state, and rather to avoid a civil war, they would ultimately return to be part of Indonesia again.

However, this would have grave consequences for their future status in terms of a much reduced bargaining position vis-a-vis the central government in any future demand for independence or special status within the Indonesian republic.

The writer is a senior researcher in international affairs at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.