Subject: ETO : The two sides to the negotiations: in New York, dialogue and promises
Date: Sat, 24 Apr 1999 10:24:13 -0400
From: Comissão para os Direitos do Povo Maubere <>

East Timor Observatory / Observatório Timor Leste / Observatoire Timor-Oriental

All peoples have the right to self-determination... all armed action or repressive measures of all kinds directed against dependent peoples shall cease in order to enable them to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence. (Declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples - UN Gen.Ass. Resolution 1514, 14/12/1960)

Ref.: NEG02-1999/04/19

Subject: The two sides to the negotiations: in New York, dialogue and promises. (see NEG03: The two sides to the negotiations: in East Timor, ABRI and militias)

Since the economic crisis and fall of President Suharto, the Jakarta authorities have multiplied their promises of a negotiated settlement for East Timor, the former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesia in 1975. The proposal for autonomy within Indonesia, put forward in June 1998, was followed in January 1999 by the promise that East Timor could become independent if the Timorese rejected autonomy.

On 22 April, a further round of negotiations - thought to be crucial - take place in New York. The Foreign Ministers of Portugal and Indonesia are expected to ratify the text of the Autonomy Statute, drafted by the UN and amended by Indonesia, and to determine the model for the "consultation", through which the East Timorese will have the chance to express their acceptance or rejection of autonomy. The UN will then dispatch teams to East Timor to conduct a census of the Timorese population and make other preparations for the ballot, set to be held in July.

Twenty-three years after the invasion; after two Security Council resolutions and eight UN General Assembly resolutions, followed by sixteen years of talks brokered by the UN Secretary General, the settlement of the East Timor issue finally seems to be in sight. As long as no fresh setback is staged, the meeting on 22 April and the UN presence in East Timor, which should be agreed at that meeting, will constitute the most determinant progress made in the past 23 years towards resolving the problem.


  • In May 1998, President Suharto is toppled by the economic crisis. In June, the new President, Yusuf Habibie, distances himself from his predecessor’s position by pledging a gradual withdrawal Indonesian Armed Forces from East Timor.
  • In August, President Habibie reiterates this promise before the UN Secretary General in the context of the negotiations with Portugal on the territory’s future.
  • The negotiations were initiated following the adoption by the General Assembly of resolution 37/30 from 1982, which reaffirmed the "right of all peoples to self-determination and independence". The Secretary General was requested to initiate consultations with the parties concerned with a view to achieving a "comprehensive settlement" of the problem. Indonesia’s intransigence and the international community’s lack of determination were to blame for the absence of any significant results until the fall of President Suharto.

The Facts:

  • 1. At the negotiations on 5 August 1998, the first round after the fall of Suharto, Indonesia reiterates its promise to withdraw its troops from East Timor and proposes "autonomy" within Indonesia for the former Portuguese colony. Although the content is as yet undefined, autonomy is presented by Jakarta as an "offer" conditional upon Portugal’s and the UN’s acceptance of integration.
  • 2. Portugal agrees to the proposal as a starting point for negotiations, making it clear that its willingness to negotiate does not imply its recognition of integration. The Timorese would have to be given the opportunity to say whether they accept or reject autonomy: this is reaffirmation of the right to self-determination enshrined in UN principles.
  • 3. Timorese leaders suggest that the proposed autonomy could serve as a transition period. This would allow Indonesia an "honourable" departure, as well as provide time to prepare the Timorese for a final choice between autonomy within Indonesia and independence.
  • 4. The UN has to draft an autonomy statute, which will have to be approved by both Indonesia and Portugal before being submitted to the Timorese.
  • 5. Portugal, which had cut off diplomatic relations with Indonesia following the invasion in 1975, goes some way towards restoring diplomatic ties by agreeing to interest sections.
  • 6. On 27 January 1999, just before a further round of negotiations, the Indonesian government announces that, if the East Timorese reject autonomy, it could be released from Indonesia and return to its former status prior to annexation. The Indonesian parliament, that had decreed integration in 1976, would be called upon to decide on de-annexation. President Habibie promises that the government would recommend to the new parliament elected in June, to vote in favour of de-annexation. He refers to January 2000 as the date for independence. The Timorese would be consulted before the new Parliament’s session in August 1999. The form which the consultation would take is not specified; Indonesia is opposed to a referendum on self-determination, the form favoured by Portugal and the Timorese.
  • 7. In March, just hours before a new round of negotiations, from which a final agreement on the UN-drafted autonomy statute was expected to emerge, the Indonesian Government announces that the autonomy plan is still under review. The negotiators then focus their attention on the various methods of consulting the Timorese. In spite of all Indonesia’s reticence about a direct and generalised consultation, consensus is reached on this very option. The UN could hardly agree to anything less than a one-person one-vote solution. One concession is made to Indonesia: the vote would not be referred to as a "referendum" but rather a "consultation". The choice put to the Timorese would not be between autonomy and independence but rather acceptance or rejection of autonomy (the fact that rejection of autonomy implies support for independence is underlying).
  • 8. A UN commission, in touch with Portugal, Indonesia and the Timorese, looks into the practical implications of the ballot and drafts proposals which should be approved on 22 April, to allow enough time, before July, in which to prepare for the vote.


  • 1. Since the fall of Suharto, concern and effort on the part of the UN, Portugal and the Timorese resistance were put into making the concessions that were necessary to bring about the changes in Indonesia’s position. A "step-by-step" strategy was adopted. Indonesia was allowed to take the initiative: it was Indonesia that promised the gradual withdrawal of its troops and the release of political prisoners; it was Indonesia that announced the autonomy proposal and, eventually, the possibility of independence. By settling this issue, the new government would be able not only to demonstrate that it was different to the Suharto regime but also to disentangle itself from East Timor without losing face.
  • 2. This strategy was based on good faith, but it emerged that there were contradictions in what Indonesia was saying: in New York, Indonesia was being open to dialogue and willing to promise everything; in East Timor it was breaking all its promises and promoting violence (see NEG03).
  • 3. The violence can abort the UN’s efforts and the hopes raised by the Indonesian Government itself. The "consultation" cannot go ahead in a climate of violence, said Ambassador J. Marker, the UN Secretary General’s representative on East Timor (APF, UN, 9-4-99).
  • 4. The UN and the international community must shoulder their share of blame. By closing their eyes to the fact that Indonesia was not honouring its promises, probably thinking that this would overcome obstacles and avoid unnecessary confrontation, they were giving the sectors opposed to change the time and strength they needed to organise militias and violence.
  • 5. Without the Jakarta Government’s will to honour its commitments, international hesitation, particularly with regard to sending observers, holding enquiries, placing peace-keeping forces on the ground, can only be considered as acquiescence in excess because, according to international law and UN resolutions, East Timor was never legitimately part of Indonesia.
  • 6. This hesitation is not only causing more suffering to the people of East Timor, but will also make democratic transition in Indonesia itself that much more difficult.

Recommended Action:

We suggest ·

  • you send a message to the UN Secretary General, urging him to send an international force to East Timor, whatever the outcome of the negotiations on 22 April may be. Please send your message to: Mr. Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, 1,United Nations Plaza, N.Y. 10017, USA FAX 1 212 963 48 79.
  • you write to your government, urging it to support the efforts of the UN Secretary General.

Observatory for the monitoring of East Timor’s transition process a programme by the ‘Comissão para os Direitos do Povo Maubere’ and the ecumenical group ‘A Paz é Possível em Timor Leste’ Coordinator: Cristina Cruz ----------------------- Rua Pinheiro Chagas, 77 2ºE - 1069-069 Lisboa - Portugal ph.: 351 1 317 28 60 - fax: 351 1 317 28 70 - e-mail:

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