Military boosts hopes of a free East Timor

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IN ANOTHER remarkable reversal of policy, Indonesia's most senior general said yesterday that the country's armed forces support the government's willingness to grant independence to the occupied territory of East Timor.

"If the situation develops in such a way that allows East Timor to separate with dignity from the Republic of Indonesia, certainly the Indonesian armed forces (Abri) would respect the decision," said General Wiranto, the defence minister and commander in chief.

The Indonesian troops are figures of intense hatred in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that was annexed by Jakarta after an invasion in 1975. On Wednesday, Indonesia's foreign and justice ministers said that East Timor would be given "special autonomy". If that was rejected by the people of the territory, they could be granted independence by the Indonesian parliament.

"One needs to be aware that integration was then [in 1976] the best solution," General Wiranto said. "But if one day East Timor separates from Indonesia it will be the best solution for that time."

"Abri's intervention in East Timor was to prevent more bloodshed in the region after Portugal left the region arbitrarily," he said. "It was the best solution. We should no longer blame each other."

Throughout the 23 years of Indonesian occupation, it is the military above all that has refused any compromise over the status of the territory. In the past, military commanders have argued that to give independence to East Timor would encourage secessionist movements in other parts of Indonesia, such as Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, and Irian Jaya, in New Guinea.

Human rights groups have argued that the war in East Timor actually suits armed forces, providing them with a justification for their military budget and a useful place to conduct "live" training.

General Wiranto's argument yesterday that Abri's intervention after Portugal left was to prevent more bloodshed will raise suspicions about its true intentions.

In 1975, Indonesia justified its invasion by claiming that it was restoring order in a territory divided by civil war. In fact, most of the opponents of Falintil, the East Timorese armed forces, were stooges of the Indonesian government, armed and trained by Abri. Recently, there has been conflict between supporters of Falintil and gangs of East Timorese thugs who are widely believed to be organised and equipped by Abri, and raising fears that Indonesia may be covertly reviving its strategy of divide and rule.

Jose Ramos Horta, the East Timorese foreign minister in exile, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said: "I will start believing when they pull out the troops from East Timor, when they allow the United Nations multinational police force to land in East Timor. Then there will be peace. Right now, the Indonesians are fomenting, instigating violence there, so before then it cannot happen."

The Indonesian foreign minister, Alia Alatas, a long-time apologist for Jakarta's policies in the territory, touched on the possibility of disorder in East Timor yesterday when he rejected the possibility of a referendum on independence.

"It will not bring a solution," he said. "On the contrary, it will reignite conflicts, it will reopen old wounds and, if we're not careful, it will bring us back to civil war."

But Manuel Viegas Carrascalao, a prominent East Timorese separatist, said the opposite. "The only solution for the East Timorese to get independence is going through a referendum. It will avoid bloodshed," he said.

There was no further news on the fate of Alexandre `Xanana' Gusmao, the imprisoned Timorese guerrilla leader, whom Jakarta has promised will be released into a kind of house arrest. Yesterday, the Indonesian parliament passed three Bills intended to enable democratic elections to be held in the country for the first time in 40 years.

Indonesia's former president Suharto, who ordered the invasion of East Timor, stepped down in May after bloody riots and anti-government protests hit the capital, killing 1,200 people.