Sat, 13 Mar 1999

RI, Portugal agree on 'direct' ballot

JAKARTA (JP): Indonesia and Portugal have agreed on a "direct" ballot for East Timorese to decide on their future, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced in New York on Thursday.

The agreement was reached after two days of negotiations between Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Alatas and his Portuguese counterpart Jaime Gama under the auspices of the secretary- general.

"The meeting has reached an agreement that a method of direct ballot will be used to ask the people of East Timor whether they accept or reject the autonomy proposal," Annan said.

"Specific modalities of how the popular consultation will be carried out", were not yet resolved, he said.

Alatas said on Wednesday that Indonesia would reject a referendum as a means to settle East Timor problems, saying a referendum would trigger a civil war and be costly.

"The direct vote is as democratic as a referendum," Alatas said on Thursday.

Annan said it was intended the vote would take place during a single day in East Timor, a key Portuguese demand for its former colony, though more time would probably be required to consult East Timorese living abroad.

According to Alatas there are about 600,000 eligible voters in East Timor, which has a population of 800,000. Up to 30,000 East Timorese reside in Australia, Canada, Macau, Portugal and the United States,Antara reported from New York.

United Nations (UN) special representative Jamsheed Marker, who chaired the proceedings, said the agreement was a "very, very large step forward".

Marker emphasized that difficulties remained, with many details still to be finalized including the size of the UN presence.

Annan said senior officials from the two countries would meet on April 13 and 14 to prepare for further ministerial level talks scheduled for April 22.

An information campaign beginning in May would inform East Timorese of the proposals, AFP reported.

Alatas said on Wednesday Indonesia was ready to accept any method -- except by referendum -- to fulfill East Timorese demands for independence or wide-ranging autonomy from Indonesia.

"If they want autonomy, fine. If they want independence, fine," Alatas told AFP on Thursday.

Alatas reiterated Jakarta's opposition to a "full-fledged referendum", which he said was "fraught with risks", because it could set a precedent for other restive provinces.

Gama described the agreement as a "turning point" in discussions the two countries have been holding for years over the disputed territory.

He emphasized the agreement to consult East Timorese both in the territory and abroad was in line with Portugal's democratic concerns.

"For us, the methodology for consulting the East Timorese will be the same as the methodology used in free and fair elections in democratic countries."

President B.J. Habibie dropped a bombshell in January with his offer to grant independence to East Timor after 23 years of integration, if it rejected wide-ranging autonomy proposals expected to be finalized next month.

Jailed East Timorese rebel leader Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao hailed Indonesia's agreement to hold a direct vote in East Timor. "The Republic of Indonesia, by accepting to carry out a method of consultation ... took an important step.

"The people of East Timor know that they are not alone, and they have received numerous guarantees of moral, political and economic support for the period of transition towards independence."

Exiled East Timor resistance leader Jose Ramos Horta was dubious over the agreement, saying that Indonesia should prove that it was trustworthy.

"I judge them (Indonesians) on their actions on the ground and not their promises. Their actions speak much louder."

Australian Defense Minister John Moore said on Friday Indonesia's decision to allow East Timorese a "direct vote" on autonomy should reduce the prospect of violence in the troubled territory. "The move to a ballot in East Timor is a very good step," Moore told Reuters.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the New York accord was a positive sign. Australia has already ordered a new force of 3,000 combat troops be sent to Darwin, the staging post for East Timor, 600 kilometers to the north of the city.

"I look forward in the weeks ahead to further progress," Downer said. (prb)