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East Timor Monday, 20 September, 1999, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Analysis: New dawn for Timor?
falantil separatist guerrillas
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's vote on autonomy promised a new beginning.

The vote held on 30 August went 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.

But the violence and chaos in the aftermath of the poll has demonstrated that the process of establishing an independent viable nation will be fraught with difficulties.

Pro-Indonesian militias armed and organised by sections of the Indonesian military have much to lose and first sought to disrupt the voting process, then wreaked havoc in the territory in the days following the vote.

Violence by anti-independence militias had prompted fears of anarchy
Violence by anti-independence militias had prompted fears of anarchy
There is supposed to be a two-month period after the vote before Indonesia's highest legislative body, the Supreme National Assembly, meets in November to ratify the result.

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.

Anti-independence militias hand over makeshift weapons
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.

Some 15,000-20,000 Indonesian troops were stationed in East Timor on the eve of the vote.

Responsible for the daily misery endured by the population since the Indonesian invasion in 1975, some have begun to pull out.

A de facto abandonment of East Timor may not be what the 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.

xanana gusmao
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

As it heads towards independence, East Timor will be starting virtually from scratch.

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 would be progress enough to begin with.

The BBC's Jonathan Head: "The people have been waiting for deliverance from Indonesia"
See also:

26 Jun 99 | East Timor
16 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
07 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
19 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
23 Aug 99 | Asia-Pacific
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