For East Timor, a Tough Transition to Independence

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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Alan Dupont, "For East Timor, a Tough Transition to Independence", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 07, 1999,

September 7, 1999

The is the second in a series of analyses on the current crisis in East Timor.  
This article is by Alan Dupont, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at Australian 
National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Center in Canberra.  
It originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune on Monday, 
September 6.   


For East Timor, a Tough Transition to Independence 

By Alan Dupont International Herald Tribune

CANBERRA - Escalating violence in East Timor should not obscure the fact 
that the self-determination ballot sponsored by the United Nations has 
been an overwhelming success, paving the way for a final resolution of 
one of Asia's most intractable and long-running conflicts.

The impressive voter turnout and the clear-cut vote against autonomy have 
provided the independence leader Xanana Gusmao and his National Council 
of Timorese Resistance with the moral authority and political legitimacy 
they had previously lacked.  There can no longer be any doubt that the 
council represents the hopes and aspirations of the vast majority of East 

The United Nations should be permitted a moment of self-congratulation.  
The much-maligned organization has endured a difficult few years.  
Embarrassingly marginalized in Kosovo, the world body has demonstrated in 
East Timor that it still has an important role to play in mediating and 
resolving international conflicts.

But it would be a mistake to believe that East Timor's transition to 
independence is a fait accompli.  The ballot was merely the first stop 
along a track still littered with obstacles that could yet derail the 
peace train. 

Pro-Jakarta militias retain the capacity to seriously threaten East 
Timor's political stability.  Their fears and insecurities must be 
addressed if there is to be genuine reconciliation and an enduring peace.

The Timorese council knows that power must be shared with pro-Jakarta 
East Timorese leaders.  That is why it agreed to establish a 25-member 
transitional commission headed by the United Nations and comprising 
representatives from both sides of the political divide. 

The United Nations' highest current priority must be to ensure that the 
momentum toward democracy is not lost during the coming months, when the 
risk of violence will be greatest.  This will not be easy.  Powerful 
voices in Jakarta will argue that Indonesia should wash its hands of East 
Timor and recall its troops and police.  A small but influential group of 
hard-liners may even seek to destabilize or partition East Timor.  
Neither must be allowed to happen.

The sooner Jakarta hands over responsibility for security to a UN 
peacekeeping force, the better.  Given Jakarta's inability to control 
militia violence, it would be inadvisable to wait until after the 
Indonesian Parliament ratifies the result of the ballot in October or 
November.  The militias may take advantage of the interregnum to wreak 
further havoc in East Timor.  It is also important for the Indonesian 
withdrawal to be synchronized with the deployment of a UN force.

A UN peacekeeping force will probably have to remain in East Timor for 
several years so that the transitional authority can concentrate on 
economic reconstruction and nation building.  Australia and Malaysia are 
likely to provide the core of an expected 7,000-strong force.

Peacekeepers can keep the peace but they cannot build a nation.  To do 
this the East Timorese will need substantial commitments of foreign aid 
and investment.  East Timor's current budgetary requirements suggest that 
about $100 million to $150 million a year for at least the next five 
years will be needed. 

Australia and Portugal will contribute the lion's share of foreign aid 
but they must not be left to carry the burden alone.  Europe, the United 
States and the Association of South East Asian Nations also need to 
assist and to remain engaged, financially and politically, long after 
East Timor is no longer "news."  Without substantial and ongoing 
international support the fruit of freedom may soon wither on the vine.

Indonesia remains the key to East Timor's future.  A hostile, resentful 
Indonesia would jeopardize an already difficult transition process and 
encourage the more obdurate militia leaders.

The problem here is not Indonesia's political leadership, which by and 
large is resigned to East Timor's separation.  Neither President B.J. 
Habibie nor his likely successor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, will renege on 
their public commitments to honor the result of the ballot.  The attitude 
of the Indonesian military, however, is less certain.  General Wiranto, 
the armed forces commander, has made it abundantly clear that he fears 
the example that East Timor may set for the troublesome provinces of Aceh 
and Irian Jaya.

Indonesia's friends can best help by encouraging Jakarta to address the 
underlying political and economic concerns of the Acehnese and indigenous 
communities of Irian Jaya.  Granting them greater autonomy and a more 
equitable share of their abundant natural resources would be a useful 

But to support independence for these provinces would run the risk of 
further destabilizing Indonesia.  This, in turn, could jolt other parts 
of Southeast Asia.  It would be an outcome that would serve neither the 
interests of the West nor those of Asia.


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