Troops Set Sail, Leave Behind Hope for E.Timor First Wave of an Indonesian Pullout Tuesday Is a Showy Gesture; but Behind Scenes, a Flurry of Political Activity

By Sander Thoenes, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Troops Set Sail, Leave Behind Hope for E.Timor First Wave of an Indonesian Pullout Tuesday Is a Showy Gesture; but Behind Scenes, a Flurry of Political Activity


Sander Thoenes, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Customers at Maria Olandina Alves's little bamboo eatery get a spoonful of outspoken views on the latest news in East Timor included with the meal.

Ms. Olandina can be a little more outspoken now that the government of Indonesia has eased its grip on the region, half of a small island just north of Australia that it occupied in 1975. Indonesia's new president, B.J. Habibie, is offering the Timorese limited autonomy, has released political prisoners, and is withdrawing 1,000 troops this week as a gesture of goodwill.

But Olandina and many of her compatriots remain skeptical. "These troops can leave from Dili and land again at Los Palos," she says, recounting how earlier military ships had pulled out with great fanfare from one port and pulled in at the next. Few Timorese say they believe the military claim that only 11,000 troops and police will remain on the island after the 1,000 have left.

"In theory, we are free," she says as her daughter brings in steaming plates of fish, fresh from the ocean nearby. "But when can a Timorese stand in the street and scream whatever his heart tells him? The reality is still difficult."

The sudden change in Indonesia's position on East Timor, after two decades of insisting that it was nothing more than its 27th province and cracking down hard on Timorese who disagreed, is expected to break years of deadlock in talks with Portugal, which still claims the country as its colony. The United Nations has never recognized Indonesia's claims to East Timor. More important perhaps, it has sparked a flurry of political activity here and encouraged its rival factions to unite and press for more concessions.

Last Saturday, the five main parties, including the rebel movement Fretilin and one group that favors integration with Indonesia, called for more extensive autonomy than President Habibie had offered and insisted it be followed within five years by a referendum on independence or integration within Indonesia.

"We'd like to have a referendum at once, but that could lead to bloodshed," says Ano, a Fretilin member who revealed only his nom de guerre as he rode around Dili at night in a dark taxi to avoid Indonesian intelligence agents, who still detain and harass Timorese activists.

"Under autonomy, we can change the local government, prepare ourselves, and see if we are still united enough to become independent. But we won't accept a permanent autonomy."

This counteroffer puts pressure on Indonesia and Portugal to reach some agreement when their foreign ministers meet at the United Nations in New York Aug. 4. Diplomats say that Mr. Habibie, who has ruled out a referendum, is unlikely to give in much more any time soon but has put himself on a slippery slope by talking about "special autonomy" without explaining how much autonomy that entails.

Pressure for change

Another sign of the changing tide: Many of Indonesia's local allies are jumping ship and now call for a referendum as well. Manuel Carrascalao, a former member of the local parliament who switched sides two years ago, says Indonesia had a chance to win the hearts and minds of the Timorese in the early 1980s, but lost much of the goodwill it created by starting a military terror campaign in 1987.

The Indonesian military leadership has changed but is unlikely to give up easily on what has become its training ground for young generals, as well as a lucrative business: The military dominates the export of coffee and the imports of consumer products. …

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