A crucial time for East Timor
By Jon Land
Since the fall of the Suharto regime in May, a new phase of the independence struggle has developed within East Timor. Not since the invasion in 1975 have so many large pro-independence demonstrations, political meetings and public forums taken place. The mass protests look set to continue, as the political crisis in Indonesia deepens and the Habibie regime refuses to allow the East Timorese people an act of self-determination.
The organisation and activity of East Timorese students have become increasingly prominent over the latter half of 1998. Following large student-led protests in June, students from the University of East Timor formed the Student Solidarity Council of East Timor.
This body of radicalising student leaders is at the forefront of the independence struggle and is systematically utilising the openings created by the mass democracy movement in Indonesia.
University and high school students have been inspired by the success of the protests of students in Indonesia demanding an end to military involvement in politics. By adopting the tactic of mass mobilisations, student activists have recognised the need to better organise and coordinate East Timorese workers, peasants and women.
Tens of thousands have been involved in protests, most notably in the capital, Dili, where students have carried out militant actions such as the occupation of the provincial parliament.
With limited resources, working in conjunction with the clandestine National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), the student-organised free-speech meetings are helping to forge a stronger opposition to the Indonesian occupation.
One example of the success of the students' efforts was the inaugural East Timorese Women's Conference, which occurred from November 9 to 10, bringing together 200 women from across East Timor. The women discussed the impact of the Indonesian occupation upon their lives and the role and participation of women in the independence struggle.
The Habibie regime has been unable to block the progress of the student activists or stem their militancy and increasing confidence. The Indonesian military is resorting to renewed terror in rural areas by elite troops and pro-Indonesia militias to halt the influence of students and Falintil, the armed resistance.
The extrajudicial killings, disappearances and arbitrary arrests are likely to be higher in the second half of 1998 (between January 1 and June 30, one East Timorese civilian was killed, on average, every five days).
There is growing impatience over the pace and content of negotiations over the status of East Timor, particularly the high-level meetings between Indonesia and Portugal which have been taking place at the United Nations since August. The next round is scheduled for February, following the suspension of talks in mid-November because of a massacre in the Alas subdistrict.
The UN is attempting to piece together an autonomy plan which will be acceptable to both Indonesia and Portugal. UN negotiator Jamsheed Marker told reporters on November 27: "I think we have gone a long way towards the autonomy process. These are very difficult and complicated matters. We have presented a very elaborate autonomy proposal to both the governments."
Representatives of the CNRT are not privy to the content of the UN "autonomy proposal".
Speaking at a public meeting in Sydney on November 28, CNRT vice-president Jose Ramos Horta stated that for an autonomy model to be accepted by the people of East Timor, it must be part of a broader process of self-determination that includes the release of imprisoned resistance leader Xanana Gusmao.
He stressed that this is a major problem for Indonesia, because Xanana's release and arrival in East Timor would result in the mobilisation of at least half a million East Timorese.
The independence struggle is also hampered by the continuing reluctance of imperialist states to impose greater political pressure on the Habibie regime. Statements of concern by western powers at human rights abuses in East Timor have yet to be matched by diplomatic and economic sanctions, such as those that were enacted against the racist apartheid South Africa.
The Australian government continues to reassure the tottering Habibie regime and the heads of the Indonesian military that Australia will maintain close links and assistance.
Defence minister John Moore during his visit to Indonesia in November praised General Wiranto (the general reportedly serenaded Moore at a karaoke bar with the tear-jerker "Feelings"). Moore assured the general that ties with the Indonesian military are vital for Australia's "national interest".
Speaking on the Channel Nine Sunday program on November 29, Moore said the only institution capable of maintaining order in Indonesia was the military and that the Australian government "should be there giving what help we can ... making sure we can prop up the institution as best we can".
The December 1 announcement of a Senate inquiry on East Timor reflects the need to catch up with the rapidly changing political circumstances in Indonesia and East Timor. Initiated by Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson, Laurie Brereton, the inquiry will help create the impression that Labor and the Coalition are seriously concerned with the situation in East Timor and are willing to make amends for past wrongs and betrayals.
"The Senate inquiry is a positive development, but it remains to be seen how thorough it will be and what proposals for action come out of it. It could end up being just another whitewash like the Sherman inquiry into the deaths of journalists at Balibo", Max Lane, national coordinator of Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor, told Green Left Weekly.
"It could also end up as a finger-pointing exercise by the big parties, as they attempt to put greater blame upon each other."
Lane noted that other solidarity groups and human rights organisations have called for an independent inquiry, with the powers of a royal commission.
"If the Howard government and the Labor opposition are genuinely concerned about the situation in East Timor and Indonesia, they should cease all contact with the Indonesian military and revoke their formal recognition of East Timor as part of Indonesia", Lane declared.