The Guardian June 16, 1999

East Timor Independence Referendum:
Hopes for UN control sinking

On May 5 Indonesia, Portugal and the United Nations agreed on a UN-
supervised "ballot consultation" process to determine whether the people of 
East Timor wanted independence. Indonesia agreed that if continued rule by 
Indonesia was rejected, they would quit the former Portugese colony.

However, despite initial optimism after the arrival of UN personnel, events 
unfolding in East Timor have dimmed hopes of a free and fair referendum on 
independence for East Timor. The Indonesian military and militia groups 
have deliberately intensified moves to foster an atmosphere of terror and 
intimidation in the run-up to the referendum.

Over the last two months paramilitary militias backed by the Indonesian 
armed forces have killed more than 150 people, and many more are missing.

The Catholic Church last week reported that militia groups in the Suai 
region had openly boasted that they had killed between 400 and 500 
independence supporters and dumped their bodies in lakes, to be eaten by 

In the East Timorese capital of Dili, militia groups with overt support 
from Indonesian soldiers have attacked many pro-independence supporters and 
driven thousands of people from their homes into makeshift reservations, 
described by human rights groups as similar to concentration camps.

The recent provincial elections on East Timor, in which the UN did not play 
a role, were all but ignored by the East Timorese.

The elections were a repeat performance of former elections stage-managed 
by the Indonesian Government.

The Golkar Party candidates included paramilitary leaders who figured 
prominently in recent massacres of civilians.

One of the most notorious, Eurico Guterres, stated just before the massacre 
of 17 civilians on April 17 that: "As of today I order all the militia to 
conduct a cleansing of the traitors, capture and kill them."

"Traitors", as defined by Guterres, includes all who oppose Indonesian 
military rule.

In a move of supreme cynicism Guterres was recently appointed by the 
lndonesian military as leader of the Aitarak militia group, and head of the 
new civilian defence force, with specific responsibility for the security 
of the referendum process.

The agreement for the referendum process clearly calls for "a secure 
environment devoid of violence or other forms of intimidation".

Guterres, on the other hand, has been a leading figure in the violent 
suppression of the East Timorese independence movement, including the 
bloodbath which followed the April 17 Aitarak independence rally in Dili.

Hopes that a change of leadership would lead to a fair referendum process 
in East Timor have also dimmed following the statement by Indonesian 
opposition figure Megawati Sukarnoputri that independence for East Timor 
might not be feasible.

There have even been suggestions that if elected President, Sukarnoputri 
would renege on the referendum itself.

In Adelaide, a rally organised by the trade union movement and supported by 
churches and other community groups called for an adequate UN peace-making 
force to control the Indonesian military and militia before and during the 
election, and throughout the withdrawal of Indonesian forces.

This followed earlier calls for the UN to refuse to conduct the 
independence referendum unless the militia and military could be physically 
separated from the voters.

The application of former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans for the 
position of UNESCO Director-General has been supported by the Australian 
Liberal Party and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, but criticised by the 
Information Officer for the organisation Campaign for an Independent East 
Timor (SA), Andrew Alcock.

Mr Evans, a long-time defender of the Indonesian regime, once described the 
execution of some 270 people during the 1991 Dili massacre as an 

Evans also negotiated the Timor Gap Treaty between Australia and Indonesia, 
a treaty which neatly excluded the East Timorese from any share in the 
exploitation of the oil resources which lie beneath the sea bed around East 

He was noted for his attacks on supporters of human rights for the East 
Timorese as being unrealistic and ignorant of Indonesian "realpolitik".

In the United States the State Department and Pentagon have reported 
projected arms sales for 1999 to Indonesian military of $106 million, as 
well as plans to train the Indonesian police.

The Pentagon is also trying to reinstate training programs for the 
Indonesian military which were prohibited under recent legislation from 

Human rights groups have called on US legislators to implement resolutions 
from the Congress and Senate, which call for an end to US support for the 
Indonesian military until it in turn withdraws support for the militia in 
East Timor.

Much is riding on the East Timorese referendum. East Timor is not the only 
Indonesian territory struggling for independence. The quest for 
independence by the people of West Papua (Irian Jaya) and Aceh would be 
boosted by a vote for East Timorese independence and would be likely to 
lead to similar struggles by other national groups.

Some have suggested that the independence struggles of these territories, 
an inevitable outcome of imperial Indonesian colonisation over the last 34 
years, could foreshadow the alienation of much of the current Indonesian 

Back to index page