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Subject: Can East Timor survive as an independent state?
Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998 16:38:06 +1300
From: sonny inbaraj <> Organization: The AustralAsian

Dear friends This opinion piece is from Dr Andrew McNaughton -- a contribution to the debate on "special status" for East Timor. Any comments can be made personally to him at

With warm regards,
Sonny Inbaraj


A comment by Dr Andrew McNaughton

Australia is currently being deluged with articles on East Timor as journalists who previously never went there are allowed access and are reporting from the ground.

The effect of much of this has been positive -- but some reports raise questions which need to be addressed. For instance, Dili's Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo has been quoted by one journalist saying that East Timor is not ready for independence and a referendum should be delayed for 10 to 15 years. This was published then recycled in an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald. Other commentators have questioned how an independent East Timor will be financially viable.

These comments occur as President Habibie offers Special Status with less repressive conditions and promises of continuing economic assistance bringing greater prosperity . The issue is raised (as it was in 1975) -- how will East Timor's economy generate income ? Do the people have the skills to run their country well ? One implication is that 'cool heads' should prevail and the key process of self determination (which would almost certainly lead to independence) should be delayed for a long time, if not ultimately abandoned completely.

Meanwhile on the streets of Dili ,Baucau , Manatuto and Jakarta the East Timorese people make it clear again and again that they know their rights and will be satisfied with nothing less than self determination. Most reports are that support for independence is 95% or more. We understand, after more than two decades of horrific oppression that has taken the lives of about a third of the original population, why they feel this way. But is it logical ? Would the people be better served by staying attached to Indonesia for a long or indefinite period ?

Whilst it is true that there are risks ahead for an independent East Timor, there are certainly great risks involved in staying with Indonesia as well. It could be that these risks are greater.

This piece is an attempt to raise some of the broader issues that need to be discussed. It only really addresses some of the practical issues confronting East Timor - avoiding the legal and moral issues, which have been discussed at length.

Legally and morally the East Timorese have the right to self determination and that is clear. But as events move forward there are more comments and concerns being voiced about whether an independent East Timor is viable and whether a long wait for self determination is the wisest option.

This is a personal answer to some of the questions and suggestions raised. It is my opinion only and , of course, I could be wrong.


The Indonesian economy is in tatters. No one knows where it will end up. A series of events has taken things from bad to worse and there is no end in sight. Estimates of Indonesia's debt vary from about 100 to 200 billion dollars. The currency has been devalued to a sixth of its previous value with respect to the US dollar. This has triggered massive inflation, bank and business closures and mass unemployment leading to grinding poverty and hunger. The resulting riots are estimated to have done another 10 billion dollars damage to the economy and more importantly seriously damaged the confidence of foreign and local investors.

Indonesian Chinese who control much of the local capital were targeted for violent attacks on their businesses and persons. Much of this capital will flee the country to safe havens, further exacerbating Indonesia's problems.

Events are far from over there -- probably only beginning as the real impact of the economic hardship hits . Basics such as food and water are considered a problem. More rioting and instability is likely, bringing a further round of economic problems. The economic, social and political problems could lock into a vicious circle driving Indonesia into chaos and breakdown.

To say that East Timor will benefit from Indonesia's assistance in the middle of such a scenario stretches credulity to breaking point.

For the previous 20 years or so Indonesia's economy was booming according to the experts. Indonesia bragged about how it was developing and assisting East Timor in a way that Portugal had not done in 500 years. It was said that all were happy (except an ungrateful few) and that Indonesian largesse had brought the territory forward in leaps and bounds.

This raises some questions -- if such development has occurred, how come the health of the population (as exemplified by statistics such as perinatal mortality) is about the worst in Indonesia and very poor by world standards. How come there are now serious doubts (after all this development) about whether the Timorese have the education to govern their country ? How come the country is continually referred to as poor and lacking infrastructure ? Why are the people so dissatisfied with this 'progress'? Why do people feel that they are materially no better of than they were when the Portuguese left ?

Either the Indonesian 'development' has been of little benefit or the Timorese, possibly resenting their occupier's presence, have failed to take advantage of what's on offer. Either way it raises the question -- if money allegedly poured in to East Timor in times of economic boom has had virtually no impact on the lives of most people ' on the ground' - how can Indonesia suddenly offer East Timor more when it is itself financially on its knees ?

What is far more likely is that little or nothing of what is being offered will arrive - Indonesia has a long history of lying to the East Timorese and lying to the outside world about what is going on there. Even if the Government of Indonesia (GOI) means its words it is unlikely to be able to deliver help that is useful - firstly the culture of corruption means that much is skimmed off before arrival, then what is invested is invested according to priorities defined by the GOI not by the East Timorese. But the reality is that there will be almost certainly be no spare money - even if the will is there from Indonesia to spend it.

It is more likely that when the Timor Gap oil comes on-line later this year that Jakarta will find the income irresistible and will take the revenues that are rightly the Timorese people's. With the economic downturn, it will take time for these revenues to be realised, but they are likely to deliver potentially a number of hundred million dollars per annum in the not too distant future. An independent East Timor will be able to draw on this -- but not if it remains tethered to Indonesia.

But one may ask - what about 'Special Status ' for East Timor as promised by President Habibie - surely that would make the situation more tenable ?

Until now the special status of Aceh and Jogjakarta have meant nothing. The Indonesian system has not allowed autonomy to have any meaning. After all the lies they have heard, should the East Timorese be asked to put their faith in a concept that has had no effective meaning elsewhere?

Furthermore the man offering this 'Special Status' is himself not secure in his position. The economic, social and political forces at work mean that Habibie may not be president for long - and will promises he made then be honored by a successor ? ( one must remember Adam Malik's promise to Jose Ramos Horta in 1974 that Indonesia had no intention of annexing East Timor -- this promise became worthless as events unfolded). Can Habibie reliably deliver on deals he might make with East Timor ? Probably not .

One might argue that change will favour democratisation in Indonesia and that this will assist East Timor and make recognition of its 'Special Status' more secure. Whilst its true that significant portions of the population are clamoring for democracy and an end to corruption and nepotism in Indonesia , it is clear that the engine that has been driving change till now is the economic collapse and the threat of poverty and hunger.

This driving force remains active -- if improvements do not come it could drive Habibie from office and possibly bring democratic change. However democratic change of itself may not help East Timor . Its vote will be insignificant in a country of 200 million people whose potential leaders have not shown great interest in or understanding of East Timor.

Anyway the masses may not have patience with democratic change if they are hungry and jobless. Democracy 'per se' is not going to right the economy instantly - there could continue to be major unrest and dissatisfaction. The democratic forces will be confronted with running a country that will be extremely difficult to govern and they are likely to have their own factions and differences of approach to deal with as well . It is possible to imagine a scenario of great concern - worsening unrest and instability that a democratic government may not be able to control.

This sort of scenario could lead to extreme solutions - a military coup would be a distinct possibility. Or Indonesian society might move towards a more fundamentalist Islam. Or areas of Indonesia might see a solution in greater regional autonomy and demand more local control of their affairs - possibly causing greater instability still.

It is hard to see any of these possible scenarios being of benefit to East Timor. In the case of a military coup and imposition of Martial Law, it is likely that the military command will have served in East Timor, tend towards a hard line attitude and be very reluctant to grant any concessions . So East Timor would be back in exactly the same boat with no progress at all - as a result of taking the 'reasonable' option of hanging on to Indonesia for a longer period.

Of course these scenarios are conjecture and could be wrong. But no matter what, the future in Indonesia is extremely unpredictable and volatile at present and if East Timor chose to remain tethered to Indonesia it could be riding a roller coaster.


Whilst it is true that East Timor is not a rich country it does have some resources.

The most notable are oil and gas of course. But there is also the coffee crop, sandalwood ( which would need to be redeveloped after the recent destruction), marble and in addition some reserves of silver and manganese.

Tourism and fishing are two industries that could be developed more.

Of these, of course, the oil and gas deposits already proven in the Timor Gap are the Most significant financially. Although delayed somewhat by the Asian economic downturn, it is likely that revenue will begin to flow later this year and build up to a number of hundred million dollars per annum within the next decade. More finds could make this amount higher.

This income to the Treasury of an independent East Timor would be a vital and significant input.

But another matter of concern is the 'human resources' of East Timor - how well equipped will the people be to manage their own affairs ? The Indonesian education system seems to have been of poor quality and encouraged a 'rote learning' approach. The occupation has made free speech and discussion difficult, repressing individual thinking and initiative. Technical education is poor.

Against this is the capacity and tenacity that the Timorese have undoubtedly shown to survive in conditions of hardship and adversity and find solutions that work. The survival and effectiveness of the Timorese Resistance against all odds in the mountains and the towns is an example of this.

In 1975 when East Timorese began the process of running their own country, it was by all accounts quite well run. The administration of essential services as well as basic education and health care and the defense needs of the territory were attended to within limitations of available resources.

Again in the mountains between 1976 and 1979 the population functioned in societies that were able to provide for their essential needs with minimal resources - till Indonesian bombing was able dislocate them and destroy the food supplies. The people certainly have the inherent capacity - but some outside help will be vital.

There is no doubt that the people have the strong will to create their own country - and that must surely be the main prerequisite to succeed. They also have an advantage that they have been moulded by events of the past 23 years - the people identify very strongly with their country - Timor Leste/ Timor Loro Sae/ East Timor. Timorese have developed a worldliness as a result of their experiences - they have had to learn how the world works and what forces drive events. Their is little naiveté in East Timor.

They have a strong common adherence to the Catholic Church and a strong belief in their leaders from the Church and the Timorese Resistance .

Church leaders Bishop Belo and Bishop Nacimento are well respected as are Resistance leaders such as Jose Ramos Horta and others inside East Timor. Xanana Gusmao is the overall leader and regarded with reverence by his people. These are all intelligent , civilised and moderate men who have the capacity to guide East Timor well.

Of course there are old conflicts and enmities as there are in all situations like this - these problems cannot be denied . Many have been actively fostered by the Indonesian occupiers to divide the people - the 'divide and conquer ' strategy. However the signs so far are that the Timorese people have the maturity to deal with these issues with some moderation over time. They have already recognised the need to work with those who had positions in the Indonesian system - realising that their skills and knowledge will continue to be needed . The restraint shown so far augurs well - the East Timorese may be able to find reconciliation between different parties in a way that other countries have not achieved in similar circumstances.

There is little doubt that over time and with some help, the Timorese population will develop the skills to be effectively self reliant. East Timor currently draws quite a high level of international interest and support and relatively small inputs from some governments and NGOs around the world could raise the level of skills and capacity in a relatively short time and with a relatively small investment.

Here again, it is likely to be to East Timor's benefit if it obtains independence. An independent East Timor is likely to receive substantially more foreign aid than one that has chosen 'autonomy' within Indonesia.


Before one talks about future developments it is relevant to consider the more immediate - how could the people survive in the short term, before any financial flows start, before training brings any benefit ?

The answer must be - much as people do at present , only better. The people have already endured massive hardship under the Indonesian occupation. In the past about 100,000 died of famine. Even now the most basic of resources are not available, or are not affordable to most Timorese. Food supplies are not secure, people are malnourished in areas, diseases such as TB and malaria are endemic . Health and education are poor. The people are pushed from their land and 'relocated' by the Indonesian forces for strategic or economic reasons.

If the occupiers would simply leave and the constraints and pressures of the low intensity war would stop, people would immediately be able to take steps to improve agricultural productivity and food supply somewhat. This alone would be an improvement.

The people in Timor have already said of the economic crisis gripping Indonesia - "It doesn't affect us much - we already had very little . We know how to live on almost nothing". Simply freeing the population from constraints imposed by the Indonesian military about land use and location will improve the people's capacity to utilise their main asset , which is their self sufficiency.

In time, development of industries and more training will bring benefits for the economy. But the people almost certainly have the capacity to improve their own lives in the short term if they are given the opportunity to manage their own destiny. The main thing the people aspire to is more than material - it is to be free in their own country.

So the argument presented here is that there are practical reasons why East Timor should move to disengage itself from Indonesia as soon as possible. This course of action has some risks, but every course of action will have risks, especially in the current climate.

Maybe East Timor is like a lifeboat being towed behind the 'Titanic'. It is small and has some leaks , but it will probably float OK because it's fundamentally seaworthy. Should this little boat remain tethered to the "unsinkable" mother ship - that has just hit an iceberg - or should it cut itself loose and take its chances floating alone ?

Dr Andrew McNaughton is convenor of the Australia East Timor Association and information officer for the East Timor International Support Center. He visited East Timor four times and earlier this year was in Indonesia. He has also contributed to various film documentaries and photo exhibitions on East Timor. He can be contacted at

A response to the above article