Battle for Timor

Warren Caragata August 30 1999

Battle for Timor

Warren Caragata August 30 1999

Battle for Timor


Warren Caragata

The beached dugout canoe was far from the best seat in the house for the big pro-independence rally held on Dili’s dusty waterfront last week, but Domingo Do Santo seemed perfecdy happy with his perch. He drew on his clove-flavoured cigarette and swayed gently to the music wafting from across the street. There, about 5,000 of his compatriots were listening intently as activist leaders predicted that independence for the disputed territory of East Timor is now only a few weeks away. Since the Indonesian military invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975, said Do Santo, speaking in a mixture of Portuguese, Indonesian and the local patois, Tetun, “I have suffered for many years.” Along with other East Timor-

Tensions rise on the eve of a crucial vote on the future of Indonesia’s disputed territory

ese, Do Santo, a plumber by trade, will vote in a UN-run referendum on Aug. 30, choosing between the continuation of Indonesian rule and independence. There is no doubt what Do Santo will do. “I am for independence,” he declared. “I am content because I will have freedom.”

As the vote nears, it seems increasingly clear that Do Santo will not be alone in his choice. Most observers ex-

pect the vast majority of the 433,000 registered voters to reject an Indonesian offer of special autonomy within the country and instead decide to begin an internationally supervised transition to full statehood. It has been a struggle that has taken 25 years and left as many as 200,000 dead in a territory with a population now estimated at 800,000.

But while Do Santo may hope that independence is within his sights, the process leading to the vote has been marred by violence and threats. Much of the blame has fallen on pro-autonomy militias that most people say have been organized by the Indonesian military and usually operate with the connivance of the police. The militias, says Manuel Abrantes, who heads the Justice

and Peace Commission of the powerful Catholic Church, operate within “the shadow of the army.”

In the latest incidents last week, shots were fired into several pro-independence offices across East Timor. Militias went on a rampage in the small town of Maliana, seriously wounding seven people. Ian Martin, head of the UN mission in East Timor, told Macleans his office has again advised the Indonesian authorities that they must act to stop the violence. Ken Sunquist, Canada’s ambassador to Indonesia who arrived in Dili last week, said Canada has given the same message to the Indonesian government. “It would appear that most instances are provoked by the militias,” Sunquist said.

In the aftermath of the Aug. 30 vote, there are expectations that the violence

will continue and even intensify as the Indonesian military, either with the approval of the government or in defiance of it, fights to the end to retain what is now the country’s 27th province. The armed forces swept into East Timor in 1975 amid a postcolonial civil war that Marxists appeared to be winning. After years of government declarations that Indonesia would never yield its hold on the territory, Indonesian President B. J. Habibie suddenly relented earlier this year and agreed to let the United Nations conduct a referendum on East Timor’s future. The turnaround evidendy surprised the powerful military, which had virtually mn the enclave under Habibie’s predecessor, long-ruling Gen. Suharto, now deposed. Adding to the complexity, the agreement with the United Nations leaves the armed forces in charge of policing the territory.

How the militias and the military will react if, as expected, they lose the vote is a key question. Xanana Gusmao, the ex-guerrilla leader of the pro-independence coalition, told Macleans in an email interview from Jakarta where he is under house arrest, that he fears a violent response. “Their message has always been that, should the vote favour independence, there will be war,” he said. A leading pro-Indonesia figure

does not dispute that scenario. “We are now just in the early stages of a civil war,” says British-educated Basilio Dias Araujo, a top official of the Forum for Unity, Democracy and Justice. “The big show will start after the ballot.”

In the face of the violence, the United Nations plans to more than double its unarmed force of police and military observers. But the international community has so far refused to publicly consider a peacekeeping force—despite the pleas of pro-independence groups. Nor is it likely that Jakarta would accept foreign troops as long as it retains sovereignty.

It is an open question how long the militias and pro-Indonesian groups could fight without help from the Indonesian military. “They have no constituency,” one diplomat says. “They are just hoodlums.” The conflict, says David Ximenes, an independence leader, is largely the result of manoeuvring by the Indonesian military. “When Indonesia leaves, we will have peace.” The militias are strongest in the western region of East Timor, along the border with the Indonesian province of West Timor, which has been part of Indonesia since the country won its own independence from the Dutch. Pro-Indonesian groups say if the vote goes against them,

they will fight to keep their western strongholds as part of Indonesia. The United Nations says it would oppose such a partition, and Martin says the Jakarta government does not appear to support such a move.

To arrange the vote, the United Nations has established a large presence in the territory, straining the very limited resources of what is now Indonesia’s poorest province. UNAMET, as the mission is called, has a staff of almost 1,000 foreigners, including 271 unarmed police officers and 50 military observers spread out across the province. The foreign presence, augmented by more than 1,000 election observers, is considered critical to preserving what passes for peace in East Timor. A group of Canadian MPs, led by Raymond Chan, secretary of state for Asia-Pacific affairs, will be among the observers. Several Canadian volunteers have paid their own way to come. Randall Garrison, a professor of Pacific Rim studies at Camosun College in Victoria, says he and his colleagues at the International East Timor Federation Observer Project have frequendy been asked by East Timorese to stay behind after the vote to help ensure peace. “We are the eyes of the world, helping to constrain the violence,” he says.

The strongest arguments in favour of

continued Indonesian rule may well be economic. Even sympathetic Western diplomats concede that half of a small island—perched 450 km from the shores of Australia in the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago—may not be able to sustain itself without massive infusions of foreign aid. Advocates for independence maintain that in addition to the existing coffee trade, there are potential reserves of offshore oil and gas, as well as minerals and high-grade marble. But the reserves have not been proven and there is little oil and

Many experts fear new violence if the East Timorese vote for full independence

gas production. “We are trying to tell our brothers, ‘You have to be realistic,’ ” says pro-Indonesian leader Araujo. “You have to make sure that, if you have independence, you can feed your people.”

As a Portuguese colony, East Timor was a forgotten backwater of a decaying empire, with only 12 km of paved roads and one high school. Now, paved roads cross the province and Indonesia has created more than 100 high schools and two universities. More than 90 per cent of the provincial budget comes from Jakarta. The message that Indonesia has brought development to the territory has won some converts. At a sparsely attended pro-autonomy rally held in a dusty field fringed by banana trees near the Dili airport, labourer Antonio Soares was decked

out with a headband and cape made from red-and-white Indonesian flags. “Integration has been good,” he said. “Before, there was nothing.”

But it may be too late for that message to win much favour with most East Timorese. Their suffering under Indonesian occupation has been too intense. Nearly everyone in the province has a story of family members killed by Indonesian soldiers. When he was 18, Catholic commissioner Abrantes saw his house torched in the days after the 1975 invasion, his mother still inside. And

the latest threats and bloodshed, says Domingo De Oliveira, who arrived back in Dili last week after 19 years in exile, are simply creating a backlash. “Despite the violence, the people of East Timor are determined to win independence,” he says.

Yet before East Timorese get their own country, there are several hurdles to cross. They must win the vote, which must then be ratified by the new Indonesian parliament, and they must find a way to win the peace, to forget their old animosities. In all this, they will need the goodwill of their Indonesian adversaries. As plumber Do Santo watched last week’s independence rally, its leaders broke out Australian champagne to celebrate their expected success. They may find the toast was somewhat premature. EH!