Sat, 13 Mar 1999

Whither East Timor?

Significant as it may be, the agreement reached on Thursday in New York between Indonesia and Portugal for the holding of a "direct vote" in East Timor, hopefully before August, actually was not unexpected. In fact, it was rather slow in coming.

After all, since the government's surprise announcement in January that it was prepared to offer East Timor independence should the former Portuguese colony reject an offer of full autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia, it was obvious that some procedure had to be found to gauge the wishes of the people of the territory. And it was a procedure which needed to be internationally credible to produce a lasting and effective solution to the long-festering problem.

To many political observers, especially those cynical from the beginning about Indonesia's true intentions with the offer, the rejection of a referendum by the Indonesian side may indeed look like an effort to delay a solution -- not an unfair sentiment, considering this country's decades of stubborn retention of the territory.

But as Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Alatas explained on Thursday, Indonesia's rejection of a a full-fledged referendum was based on the fear that such a procedure would risk increasing the violence in the troubled province. A referendum, according to the foreign minister, would also be too cumbersome to hold under present circumstances; it would take weeks or months to prepare, require all voters to be in East Timor for the ballot and necessitate a replacement of all Indonesian troops by UN security personnel.

Although details of the procedures to be followed are still being worked out, it appears the UN-sponsored "direct vote" will be some kind of simplified referendum in which all East Timorese, whether at home or abroad, will be allowed to vote. In the words of Alatas, it will be "the most democratic and direct means possible to consult the East Timorese".

Whether the proposed ballot will be democratic enough to satisfy Indonesia's critics, including proindependence East Timorese, remains to be seen. In the meantime, having gone this far, there seems to be no other direction for Indonesia than forward.

For one thing, considering that Indonesia now claims to have become a true democracy, or at least is striving to become one, it would be untenable for the country to deny East Timor the freedom and independence it is claiming for itself. For another, the government is right in saying that the wishes of the people of East Timor must be heard if the problem is to be settled once and for all.

Something which could make it somewhat easier for the country to let East Timor go is the fact that the 1945 Constitution defines Indonesian national territory as comprising the entire territory formerly belonging to the Netherlands East Indies, of which East Timor was never a part. On the other hand, there are plenty of Indonesians, especially among the Armed Forces, who deeply resent the government's offer of independence to the former Portuguese colony after its integration 23 years ago.

Whatever the case, the die is cast. For this country, obviously, the best thing that could happen is that the East Timorese vote for autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia. That would save the country not only face, but also a good deal of internal discontent. In this event, Indonesia must in all honesty guarantee the territory its rights as promised in the agreement.

The other possibility, of course, is the East Timorese opt for independence. If so, the only thing Indonesians can honorably do is to fully abide by the decision. This would mean not only a graceful withdrawal from the area, but also offering it all the assistance possible to help it to develop and prosper so it can contribute to the growth and stability of the region.