By Jon Land
Foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer announced on January 12 that the federal government now recognises that East Timor has the right to self-determination.
In a media release titled "Australian government historic policy shift on East Timor", Downer stated that the "long-term prospects for reconciliation would be best served by the holding of an act of self-determination at some future time, after a substantial period of autonomy".
However, the policy change "does not alter the government's position, which continues to recognise Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor".
Indonesia's foreign affairs spokesperson, Ghaffar Fadyl, said: "There is a line of contradiction in this case [the policy change]. We consider this a sympathetic attitude because it does underline that Australia recognises the sovereignty of Indonesia over East Timor."
But, he added, the change would have an "adverse affect" on United Nations-sponsored talks on the status of East Timor between Indonesia and Portugal, scheduled to resume in February.
Downer stressed in interviews following the announcement that he does not think a referendum on independence is a viable solution, because it would lead to further "bloodshed" and threaten the national stability of Indonesia.
He cited the 10-year-long Matignon Accord in Kanaky (New Caledonia) as a possible model for East Timor, so that the "people of East Timor have an opportunity to see how sincere autonomy really was". (In fact, the Matignon Accord has undermined the Kanak independence movement.)
The policy change has been cautiously welcomed by leaders of the East Timorese resistance. Jose Ramos Horta told Lusa news service on January 12: "Even if there are some contradictions and ambiguities in it, I know that it is a necessary consideration for Australia to save face — because they have gone so far as the only western government recognising Indonesian sovereignty [over East Timor], they can't change overnight to supporting an independent Timor."
Speaking from Cipinang Prison in Jakarta, Xanana Gusmao said, "The changes are good, and could erase the political sins of past Australian governments, but Australia is following, not leading, international opinion on East Timor".
Gusmao added, "I view autonomy rather sceptically. If we do win autonomy and the conditions are not better for the East Timorese people, then we will keep on fighting until we win independence."
The overwhelming majority of East Timorese favour an immediate referendum on independence.
Large pro-independence protests occurred during the visit in December by Jamsheed Marker, the UN special envoy for East Timor. Indeed, several hundred East Timorese youths chased the departing Marker through Dili airport, angered by the slow pace of UN negotiations and the fact that the East Timorese are not directly involved in the talks.
The human rights situation in East Timor has worsened in recent months, particularly in rural areas, where the Indonesian military and civilian militias have been systematically terrorising anyone suspected of supporting independence or the armed resistance. Hundreds have fled to Dili seeking safety.
Falintil leader Taur Matan Ruak told Portuguese radio RDP Antena 1 on January 8 that an extra 3000 Indonesian troops arrived in East Timor between December 23 and January 4.