E. Timor saga a step closer to the end

INDONESIA IN TRANSITION

BACKGROUNDER

Letting the territory go to the ballot, to express its views on autonomy, but not independence, is a compromise between Indonesia and Portugal.

AGREEMENT between Indonesia and Portugal to hold a “direct ballot” in East Timor, reached after two days of diplomatic slugging at the United Nations, marks a significant breakthrough for both countries as they edge closer to ending a 23-year-old saga over the troubled territory.

Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama, speaking after talks with his Indonesian counterpart Ali Alatas, called it “a turning point”.

The view from a senior Indonesian Foreign Ministry official involved in the deliberations was that “a very major stumbling block has been removed in the East Timor problem and we are more optimistic of a resolution now”.

Discussions between Indonesia and Portugal under the auspices of the UN seemed to be going nowhere earlier this week, when Jakarta was seen to be back-peddling on its deal to offer full-fledged autonomy for East Timor.

Jakarta had refused to allow a referendum which, in a conventional sense, meant that the East Timorese would be presented with a choice of either autonomy or independence.

Mr Alatas, in arguing against a referendum, said this could set a precedent for other provinces with separatist aspirations. Insiders said the government was also concerned that a lengthy registration of voters and perhaps violent campaigning by pro-independence and pro-integration groups could lead to UN monitors “staying on indefinitely” in East Timor.

It also rejected a referendum because a loss on its preferred option of autonomy would have been a major embarrassment. Indonesian and Portuguese diplomats thus sought to work out various types of arrangements.

This included the “rolling ballot” idea, with UN teams going from village to village to ask the 600,000 voters what they wanted.

This plan also fell through because it would take too long.

A compromise was made with the “direct ballot” proposal.

The Foreign Ministry source said this involved only assessing East Timorese acceptance of Jakarta’s wide-ranging autonomy proposal, instead of presenting them with the stark choices of permanent autonomy or independence.

“The process is much shorter. It reduces the chance for groups to campaign for independence or autonomy as we have somewhat narrowed the focus to just the autonomy package,” he said.

“It is an indirect manner of asking East Timorese whether they wanted to be part of Indonesia.”

Despite having been forced to now go to the ballot on what some regard as an “unconventional referendum”, Jakarta nevertheless managed to put its stamp on a face-saving proposal.

In doing so, Mr Alatas has put the ball in the court of East Timor’s pro-independence advocates.

On the group led by exiled resistance leader and 1996 Nobel Peace Prize joint-winner Jose Ramos Horta, he said: “We are calling their bluff now… There has been a sea change in the Indonesian position. We have no more fears.”

This change is significant given the iron-clad position adopted during the Suharto era, that East Timor was an integral part of Indonesia.

But any newfound optimism that the diplomatic roller-coaster ride between Indonesia and Portugal will end is misplaced, as three main areas still need to be resolved:

* Indonesia has rejected as “not practical” a proposal by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the East Timorese elect a consultative assembly of “25 to 30 people” who would then decide whether to accept autonomy or full independence.
* Mr Alatas has argued that Jakarta may be criticised at home for agreeing to an election of a group of people who may not represent the wide spectrum of views of residents in the territory.
* A deal has yet to be struck on how to split the potentially-rich oil revenues between Indonesia and East Timor from the Timor Gap project.
* Indonesia wants the Final Court of Appeal for East Timorese to be its national court.

Underlying all these is the deteriorating security situation as fighting escalates in the territory.

The clock is ticking for negotiations to conclude by next month.

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