Eye witness

April 23, 1999

Tension is high in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor following clashes between pro-independence groups and factions who want the island to be integrated into Indonesia.

Indonesia's occupation of the colony in 1975 has never been accepted by the international community. A United Nations-brokered referendum on autonomy or independence is scheduled for July 15, but the process has been destabilised by factional fighting in which up to 30 people have died.

Australian prime minister John Howard is to meet Indonesian president J. B. Habibie to try to restore stability. But Bill Watson, a social anthropologist at the University of Kent and an Indonesian specialist, said: "I'm not convinced that Australia will be able to achieve anything. The Indonesian government doesn't seem to pay much heed to Australia in general and is rather amused by Australia's alleged fear of a long-term Indonesian military threat.

"The best bet is for the UN to try to persuade the Indonesian government to allow in a peace-keeping force. But there is reluctance since it implies that Indonesia is unable or unwilling to deal with the situation."

Details of Indonesia's proposed autonomy package are being kept secret, possibly because the military fears similar demands from separatists, particularly in Aceh and Irian Jaya.

"In the long term, autonomy is the best solution (and should have been offered years ago) given the unviability of an economically independent Timor, but I cannot see any way in which the independence leaders could accept it."

If the referendum favours independence, Dr Watson said the militant integrationists held responsible for the recent killings might be reassured with an offer of Indonesian passports and right of abode.

"There is a ironic precedent. When the Dutch left Indonesia in 1950, a movement of Moluccans (from Ambon) did not want to integrate with the new Indonesia, and when things went against them then, the Dutch gave them Dutch passports and right of abode. Things have not gone all that well for the Moluccans in the Netherlands but that is another story."

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