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Monday, August 23, 1999 Published at 18:59 GMT 19:59 UK

New dawn for Timor?

Separatist guerrillas celebrated 24 years of struggle last week

By regional analyst Catherine Napier

East Timor
After centuries of neglectful colonial rule under the Portuguese and more than two decades of submission to Indonesia, East Timor stands on the threshold of a new beginning.

A vote on autonomy within the Indonesian Republic due on 30 August looks likely to be rejected in favour of independence, representing victory at last for a separatist movement whose legitimate claim to East Timor's territory has for many years been upheld by the United Nations yet simultaneously ignored by most of the international community.

The BBC's Jonathan Head: "The people have been waiting for deliverance from Indonesia"
But while victory may be within their grasp, the process of establishing an independent viable nation is fraught with difficulties.

East Timor will be starting virtually from scratch.

Strictly speaking the ballot is on autonomy within Indonesia. Voters will be asked if they accept or reject it - a decision leading to independence.


The security concerns surrounding the vote remain real and worrying.

[ image: A village elder protests against independence]
A village elder protests against independence
Pro-Indonesian militias armed and organised by sections of the Indonesian military have much to lose and may disrupt the ballot.

So-called cantonment efforts on their side have been superficial.

Cantonment efforts by the independence guerrillas Falantil have been more convincing according to United Nations officials in Dili, East Timor's capital.

But the deep-rooted antagonism between the two sides has the potential to explode in the days following the ballot.

Post-vote period

After the vote there will be a two month period before Indonesia's highest legislative body, the Supreme National Assembly, meets in November to ratify its result.

If it favours autonomy, a rough blueprint exists for the UN mission organising the ballot to stay on and oversee the establishment of an autonomous region with fresh elections for a local parliament, and assist with training a new police force responsible for security.

[ image: Anti-independence militias hand over makeshift weapons]
Anti-independence militias hand over makeshift weapons
If the vote favours independence no-one knows quite what will happen.

Indonesia is obliged to facilitate the transition, and will still be in charge until the Indonesian parliament cuts East Timor loose.

After that, the UN will assume transitional authority until elections for a new government are held.

The UN is prepared to stay on for several years providing support and expertise but in the immediate future officials say there is no precise plan as to how Indonesia will disengage from its 27th province.

Indonesian military

Some 15-20,000 Indonesian troops are currently stationed in East Timor.

[ image:  ]
Responsible for the daily misery endured by the population since the Indonesian invasion in 1975, they may pull out immediately.

The mostly Indonesian controlled administration may not be far behind, plunging the territory into chaos.

A de facto abandonment of East Timor may not be what Indonesian government desires but ministers in Jakarta may be powerless to stop it, much as they have been powerless to prevent the collusion between the army and pro-Indonesian militias which has reinforced the ineptness of Jakarta's handling of the East Timor problem over the years.

The central problem of Indonesian rule over East Timor - that power has been in the hands of the military - may cast a shadow over its future.

The military may be reluctant to disengage altogether because it has so much invested in financial concerns in East Timor, quite apart from its unwillingness to admit defeat.

There may be a hope in some quarters that the failure of independence in East Timor would act as a deterrent to other restive areas of the Indonesian archipelago, such as Aceh in North Sumatra.

Certain officers may seek to retain influence in East Timor through sympathetic local leaders.

Indonesian influence of other sorts cannot cease overnight and one of the challenges of the new government will be to find a relationship that works with its very large and powerful neighbour.

Timorese opposition

The transition East Timor may be facing is very far from that envisaged by independence leaders themselves who in 1992 presented a peace plan suggesting a three step process towards a referendum on the future status of the territory spanning several years.

President Habibie's surprise announcement in January offering a UN-sponsored vote this year has left the East Timorese community little time to prepare for what may come.

The pre-invasion political parties in East Timor have united under the banner of the CNRT - the National Council of Timorese Resistance - which will be the dominant political body.

[ image: Xanana Gusmao: imprisoned since 1992]
Xanana Gusmao: imprisoned since 1992
It is led by Xanana Gusmao, the former guerrilla chief captured by Indonesia in 1992, a year after troops shot dead dozens of independence sympathisers during the infamous 'Dili Massacre'.

Mr Gusmao is a charismatic and talented leader around whom East Timorese have united against a common enemy - Indonesia.

Touted as a future president, he could be a Mandela-like figure promoting reconciliation hand in hand with the influential Catholic Church.

But as Indonesia is fond of reminding outsiders, there are long-standing divisions within East Timorese society itself which could impede democratic progress.

Economic needs

Any new government will need to function effectively - and with financial resources.

Portugal has offered to lend immediate assistance and provide regular funding in line with Jakarta's previous commitment if independence results.

Much more will be needed - a chance for Western nations which have condoned the occupation of East Timor, unwilling to sacrifice lucrative relations with Indonesia under former President Suharto, to right some wrongs.

An independent East Timor will need many new friends to survive.

Coffee, sandalwood and marble may be supplemented by oil resources in the Timor Gap.

Future development of tourism, financial services and even gambling have all been touted as possible ways of earning the territory money.

But for many ordinary people, the right to farm their dusty fields free from habitual fear and intimidation by the army will be progress enough for now.

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In this section

The trials of East Timor: Special report

US warns Indonesian army

The lost world of the Timor rebels

Who makes up the Timor force?

Shadowy militias of East Timor

Analysis: New dawn for Timor?

Analysis: Gusmao's key role

Bishop Belo: Timor's spiritual leader

Indonesia's military - who is in control?

Profile: Timor's exiled leader

Analysis: The fragile archipelago

East Timor on the Web

East Timor: The view from Portugal

Eyewitness: The trials of East Timor

Eyewitness: Timor's day of reckoning

Analysis: Jakarta's long-term concerns