Subject: DPA: Australia out of step on Timor
Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 09:07:20 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <fbp@igc.apc.org>

Deutsche Presse-Agentur February 19, 1999, Friday, BC Cycle

Australia out of step on East Timor question By Sid Astbury, dpa

Sydney Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer sets off for Indonesia and Portugal for a series of meetings starting Monday to push Australia's view that East Timor should accept a modicum of autonomy but stick with Indonesia.

If Canberra had not been consistently out of step on East Timor for the past quarter century, Downer would stand a better chance of winning the arguments in Jakarta and Lisbon.

First, Australia, horrified at the prospect of an unstable, Cuba-style mini-state on its doorstep, gave the nod to Jakarta's 1975 invasion and subsequent annexation of the former Portuguese colony.

The view was that the East Timorese, impoverished and riven by civil strife, would soon get used to being Indonesian. But 24 years on, the resistance movement seems stronger than ever.

Australia compounded its initial mistake by setting a precedent and formally accepting Indonesia's sovereignty over both halves of Timor island, expecting other countries to follow suit. But they did not and Australia found itself isolated on the East Timor issue.

Australia changed tack last Christmas, to come into line with other rich countries and advocate an act of free choice for the 800,000 mostly Christian inhabitants of East Timor. This surprise switch helped persuade President B.J. Habibie that there might be more to gain by freeing East Timor rather than hanging on to it.

But now, as other world leaders embrace the prospect of a free East Timor, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has been making headlines by carping against it, claiming independence can happen too fast "and the disintegration and suffering which has followed has been quite considerable".

As head of the nearest country to the troubled province, Howard worries that, on independence, the bill for the upkeep of East Timor would be passed from Jakarta to Canberra.

Jakarta currently supplies 90 per cent of the budget of East Timor, where the average yearly income of 115 U.S. dollars is just a third of the level for Indonesia as a whole, and the gross domestic product is only around 100 million U.S. dollars.

Howard has said Australia is "ready to play a generous part in assistance" for a free East Timor. But Canberra is not promising to underwrite East Timor's freedom on its own.

Australia would expect Japan, the United States and even Portugal to stump up cash to get a new country going if the route is taken to independence. Downer, who will be meeting Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama in Lisbon during his trip, will ask him to seek funds from the European Union for East Timor. "We are engaging in very extensive diplomacy to make sure that not just Australia but other countries provide some assistance," Downer said before his departure.

Cash alone would not ensure a peaceful transition. Independence, which could come as early as mid-2000, could plunge the province back into the horrors of 1975 when Portugal's unceremonious exit sparked a civil war. So on his travels Downer is likely to canvass the idea of a period of United Nations trusteeship like that arranged for Cambodia in its transition from dictatorship to its present semblance of democracy.

Peacekeepers might be needed to ensure the safety or even repatriation of the 150,000 non-Timorese who have made their home in the territory since Indonesia took control.

When Portugal left, a bloody conflict ensued, helping to precipitate the Indonesian invasion. This time, Canberra wants to ensure there is no power vacuum.

It recognises that East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, now under house arrest in Jakarta, will be a key power broker or even the leader of any new independent state. Downer is to meet Gusmao, whom he described as "a crucial figure in the resolution of the problems of East Timor".

Australia wants Indonesia to stay on until a locally-staffed administration is in place and the economy is in better shape. But most observers doubt that Indonesians would stay on in a place they have been told they are not wanted. Even Gusmao admits that immediate independence could spark enormous bloodshed. "The potential for clashes is the biggest problem East Timor has to face," he has said. Gusmao has called on his supporters to help heal the wounds of the past quarter-century rather than seek vengeance.

Gusmao would like to see an interim U.N. administration in place in Dili before any handover, though Downer, in his talks with the jailed resistance leader, is unlikely to be enthusiastic. Australia fears it might be expected to lead it and commit troops to a peacekeeping force - a very expensive proposition.

But Downer's hectic round of diplomacy shows Australia is accepting a lead role in the resolution of the East Timor issue. In talks with President B.J. Habibie, Downer is expected to ask permission to reopen the Australian consulate in Dili which was closed immediately prior to the Indonesian invasion in December 1975.

In fact, in comments prior to his departure Downer seemed to suggest that Australia's preferred option of East Timor staying a part of Indonesia was not going to win the day. He spoke of writing a constitution, setting up a central bank and establishing a judicial system.

"All this infrastructure we take for granted but it has to be built up pretty much from the ground upwards," said Downer. dpa sa bo

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