|Subject: IPS: Opposition vows shift on ETimor
Date: Wed, 30 Sep 1998 13:39:34 +0930
From: "East Timor International Support Center" <email@example.com> Organization: East Timor International Support Center
POLITICS-AUSTRALIA: Opposition Vows Shift on East Timor Policy
By Sonny Inbaraj DARWIN, Australia, Sep 29 (IPS) - If it wins in the Oct 3 general election, Australia's opposition Labor Party says it will call for East Timor's residents to be given the sole voice in determining their future.
This position -- cautiously welcomed by activists here -- marks a major foreign policy shift by the party on East Timor.
If carried out, it would mean a turnaround in the policy of past Australian governments, which have consistently recognised Indonesia's annexation of the former Portuguese colony that Jakarta considers its 27th province.
The new Labor policy, announced by the party's Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Laurie Brereton, conceded that a succession of governments, including Labor ones, were wrong in supporting Indonesia's annexation of East Timor after the military invasion of 1975.
''East Timor will be a key diplomatic priority for an incoming Labor government,'' Brereton told a press conference here last week. ''Political change in Indonesia has opened a window of opportunity to achieve progress toward a resolution of this tragic conflict.''
''Labor is determined to seize this opportunity and do all that we can to encourage negotiation of a just and lasting solution to the problem of East Timor,'' he added.
The new policy also calls for the immediate release of political prisoners like resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, for a special envoy on East Timor and for increased financial assistance for the troubled territory.
Xanana, commander of the Falintil armed resistance, is serving a 20-year jail sentence in Jakarta's Cipinang Jail for plotting to overthrow the Indonesian state.
East Timor's Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta welcomed Labor's position, which he said followed years of Australian complicity in the annexation and occupation of East Timor.
''But we are prepared to put all of that back if Australia were to recommend such policy as recommended now by the Labor Party,'' Ramos-Horta told ABC Radio.
Despite questions about Labor's commitment, Australian activists are advising East Timor support groups in the country to vote Labor in order to change Canberra's recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over the restless territory.
The United Nations does not recognise Indonesia's rule and considers Portugal the administering the territory. Human rights groups, more than 200,000 East Timorese died in the years following the invasion, from either fighting the Indonesians or from disease and hunger.
Disowning some of the Labor's past history on East Timor as well as trying to make a fresh start, Brereton says the troubled territory has caused enormous concern in Australian society and affected the party's moral standing in the wider world.
''It is for these reasons that I have outlined a Labor commitment that says revisit East Timor and do everything we can to see that put behind us and an act of self-determination. Let's settle this matter once and for all,'' he explained.
''Substantive negotiations must of necessity involve participation by the recognised leadership of all East Timorese groups. It is difficult to see how talks can achieve substantive outcomes in the absence of the free participation of a figure such as Xanana Gusmao,'' Brereton added.
But Labor's new policy was rejected by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of the ruling Liberal-National coalition, who said East Timor was better helped by encouraging the Indonesian government and creating a dialogue on its future.
''I don't think anyone should take seriously Labor's position, they had 13 years to address this issue and stood on the shores of Australia and just stared at East Timor,'' Downer argued.
As the main political groups, the Labor and Liberal parties square off, polls late last week indicated a swing to Labor, which has to gain 27 more seats to return to government.
In the current House of Representatives, the Liberal-National coalition holds 91 seats, Labor 49 and Independents, including the anti-Aboriginal and Asian immigration One Nation party, eight. The result is likely to be close: the winner will have a slim majority in the lower House and a hostile Senate.
Canberra's policy recognising Indonesians sovereignty over East Timor goes back two decades.
In April 1975, in a secret meeting with the Indonesians in Townsville, Queensland, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam maintained his earlier position that the best solution would be for East Timor to join Indonesia.
In 1979, under the Liberal government of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, Australia became the first Western country to recognise Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor.
In 1985 when Labor Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was asked about the international practice of not recognising territory acquired by force, he replied: ''The world is a pretty unfair place.''
''For 24 years there has been no macro difference between the alternate governments in Australia on East Timor. Both have been equally bad, even though Labor was more sympathetic in social policy,'' said Rob Wesley-Smith of Australians for a Free East Timor.
''It's up to the Labor Party, now, to prove their sincerity,'' he argued. ''For example the draft policy is too carefully worded when it suggests 'a process of negotiation through which the people of East Timor can exercise their right of self-determination'. Does this include a free and fair vote, or allow for independence?'' asked Wesley-Smith.
Still, he has issued an advisory to all East Timor solidarity groups urging them to vote Labor. ''Should Labor win the election on October 3, then I think we have fulfilled our first responsibility; that, is to get the Australian government to change its recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor,'' he wrote in the advisory.
Dr Vaclava Vlazna, convenor of the East Timor Justice Lobby, says Labor's keeping its word on East Timor is crucial to easing disillusionment with the main political parties.
''Australians aren't going to stomach further betrayals of East Timor, so I strongly suggest Labor honours its moral stand on East Timor because if Labor breaks its word should it be elected, then Labor may end up as the great political tragedy on Canberra's doorstep,'' Vlazna wrote in a letter to Labor's Brereton. (END/IPS/ap-ip-hd/si-aa/js/98) 'EAST TIMOR ON THE NET' For the latest updates, news and views on East Timor and Indonesia Visit http://www.easttimor.com maintained by the East Timor International Support Center Hon Chairman: Jose Ramos-Horta Nobel Peace Laureate 1996