Accessibility links

Asia: Hopes For Independence Kindled In East Timor

  • Lisa McAdams

Prague, 27 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After two decades of separatist warfare and military brutality, peace seems suddenly not so distant a dream for the people of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, annexed by Indonesia in 1976.

The hope comes from Indonesia's capital city, Jakarta, 1,400 miles to the west, where a bishop, a president, a United Nations envoy and a jailed separatist leader have been discussing formulas for peace. This reportedly could include a period of dialogue, followed by some form of autonomy and a referendum that could lead to independence. The talk is of gradual change that could take years to complete.

Portugal and Indonesia already have been meeting for years under the auspices of the United Nations to try to resolve East Timor's status. Lisbon has asked for a referendum. But Jakarta, which regards East Timor as its 27th province, says the territory must remain an integral part of Indonesia. The United Nations, Portugal and many other governments do not recognize Indonesia's territorial claim.

The process gained significant momentum in May, with the resignation of Indonesian President Suharto amid a major economic crisis. Further shifts came in June when the man who succeeded Suharto, B.J. Habibie, offered East Timor what he called a wide measure of autonomy.

Habibie offered to withdraw some troops from the territory and to release its imprisoned independence leader, Jose Xanana Gusmao. In exchange, Habibie wants the international community to recognize Indonesian sovereignty in East Timor.

U.N. special envoy Jamsheed Marker, wrapping up a week-long fact-finding mission to Indonesia yesterday, said he left convinced that all sides in the conflict over East Timor want to negotiate a peaceful solution.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Portugal are to meet for talks in New York on August 4 and 5. Marker said it is at that venue that Jakarta will offer it's latest proposals on the territory, providing the world, NOT to mention the people of East Timor, with a much clearer view of the half-island territory's fate.

Marker also reiterated a call for closer contact between Portugal and Indonesia by the establishment of minimal diplomatic posts, otherwise known as "interest sections," in each other's capitals. The two countries severed diplomatic relations after the 1975 invasion.

Portugal has responded "very positively" and "hopefully" that by the end of August the parties involved will arrive at a framework for taking constructive measures towards a peaceful solution.

East Timor attracted international attention in 1991 when nearly 200 people were killed by security forces following the funeral of a pro-independence protester. Leading human rights group Amnesty International has estimated that 200,000 people have died as a direct result of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

In recent weeks, Indonesian soldiers have shot and killed two pro-independence demonstrators during public protests. Meanwhile, thousands of immigrant workers have fled East Timor on buses, boats and planes, complaining of harassment by indigenous residents.

(This is the third story in a five-part series on autonomy conflicts.)