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Tuesday, May 11, 1999 Published at 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK

Anxious times for Timor

Anti-independence militia say they will fight to stay in Indonesia

By BBC News Online's Joe Havely

East Timor
Since it was raised by the Indonesian government earlier this year, the prospect of possible independence for East Timor seems to have done little to end years of bloodshed in the territory.

East Timor has had a violent history. As Portugal, the former colonial master, made its hasty departure from the territory in the early 1970s, rival political factions formed their own militias to fight each other for control.

[ image:  ]
Saying that it feared the fighting would spill over into its own territory, and to avert a supposed communist take-over Indonesia invaded in 1975.

It annexed the former colony a year later.

Indonesia Flashpoints
Once in power the Indonesian military fostered some of these factions, playing them off against each other on the principle of divide and rule.

Hundreds of thousands of Timorese died in the years of violence that followed - perhaps as many as a third of the population.

A divided population

Now with a date agreed for a vote on autonomy, and government suggestions that if that is rejected Indonesia would be willing to finally let go of its 27th province, doubts have been raised about whether East Timor could survive going it alone.

[ image: Years of protest and bloodshed are not likely to end soon]
Years of protest and bloodshed are not likely to end soon
And with continuing violence between rival pro- and anti-independence militia questions have also been asked about ways of reconciling a deeply divided population.

In East Timor itself community leaders have warned that the August date for the autonomy vote is itself too late, giving the pro-Indonesian militia more time to carry out their campaign of intimidation.

Some East Timorese have also expressed fears that festering internal differences could burst into full-scale civil war if the territory was granted full independence.

"The situation will develop in a very negative way," warns former Timorese Governor Mario Carrascalao. Sudden independence, he says, will lead to reprisals by pro-integration groups who want to remain with Indonesia: "This is something very, very bad for East Timor."

Arming the militia

[ image: Many support independence ... but there are those who do not]
Many support independence ... but there are those who do not
In recent months the army is also reported to have given arms and even military training to those who have supported integration with Indonesia.

The army leadership now says these militia will be disarmed, but it remains to be seen how many will be prepared to give up their weapons.

There are also questions over the economic viability of independence. East Timor has few natural resources, and those that are potentially available - such as oil - would require vast amounts of investment to explore and exploit.

Economic worries

[ image: Questions have been raised about reconciling a divided community]
Questions have been raised about reconciling a divided community
Beyond a largely underdeveloped agriculture the territory has few other means of supporting itself. Years of protest and political repression have left the territory with a poorly educated work-force and high unemployment.

Many of East Timor's businesses are run by outsiders who have settled in the province - Indonesians from Sulawesi or Java - offering another potential breeding ground for resentment.

Given these handicaps Maria Olandina, an MP at the provincial legislature in the capital Dilli, says East Timor needs time to prepare itself before severing ties with Jakarta.

"The people are now discussing the offer, because they have not really thought it out," she says, adding that Indonesia has a duty to support East Timor "until it gets on its own two feet."

But with Indonesia suffering its worst financial crisis in decades, it seems unlikely Jakarta would be willing or able to do so.

Transition period

[ image: Peace campaigner Bishop Carlos Belo: Time for reconciliation]
Peace campaigner Bishop Carlos Belo: Time for reconciliation
Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Bishop of Dili Carlos Belo also acknowledges the dangers and says the territory needs a transition period during which peace talks could be held between pro- and anti-independence groups.

"As Timorese, we have to involve these brothers and to talk to them seeking reconciliation," he says.

A hopeful sign came with the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the leaders of rival groups signed at the Bishop's residence in the east Timrore capital.

But the violence and bloodshed has continued - a sign of the depth of feeling that remains in the territory. The atmosphere of fear and intimidation shows no signs of waning.

After 23 years of violence and bloodshed it seems East Timor's long and bloody road to freedom is still far from at an end.

"Independence is not a bed of roses," says Bishop Belo. "People have to prepare themselves and be aware of the risks."

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