Asia File: East Timor's fate stirs Mandela

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The Independent Online
NEWS that Indonesia has held prison-cell talks with Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese leader, would have struck a chord with President Nelson Mandela, who has returned to South Africa after a visit to Jakarta. By the time he emerged from 27 years in prison, Mr Mandela had held extensive negotiations with his captors, setting in motion the process that brought him to power this year.

Things are different in Mr Gusmao's case, starting with the fact that the Indonesian authorities refuse to confirm a meeting took place. Diplomats are convinced, however, that the jailed leader of the Fretilin movement was visited in his cell by a military officer last month. East Timorese sources claim the officer raised the issue of a United Nations-supervised referendum in the former Portuguese colony, to determine the wishes of its inhabitants.

Indonesia seized the territory in 1975, after Portugal pulled out. Its 750,000 people, mainly Catholic, have never felt at home among Indonesia's 180 million Muslims. But they might have faded from international awareness if the military had not massacred up to 200 during a demonstration in November 1991. Jakarta is a long way from agreeing to hold a referendum, let alone to releasing Mr Gusmao, who was captured in 1992 and jailed for life last year. But President Suharto, who later commuted the sentence to 20 years, is said to be willing to offer East Timor limited autonomy.

In November Jakarta hosts the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit. The visit of Mr Mandela was a reminder that, as other disputes are resolved around the world, East Timor attracts more attention. The South African President said his counterpart had 'received positively' an appeal for dialogue on the issue.

President Burhanuddin Rabbani's beleaguered government in Afghanistan is still paying a price for allowing demonstrators to sack the Pakistani embassy in Kabul six months ago. The incident was indirectly caused by Pakistan's decision to tighten border formalities, which affected its landlocked neighbour. But attacking Islamabad's representatives was not the way to encourage an early lifting of the pressure.

For the diplomats, however, the affair has not been without its blessings. When they returned to the Afghan capital this week, after a temporary retreat to Jalallabad, it was not to the old premises, a nondescript concrete building on a dingy avenue, but to the former British embassy compound. This, when I visited it in March, had escaped almost unscathed from more than a decade of war. Dozens of projectiles had fallen within the perimeter. The club, a magnet to expatriates in the old days, had been burned by the secret police after the last British diplomats left in 1989. But the main building, a Raj-style edifice with a magnificent ballroom, was left intact.

One Indian civilian and a retired Gurkha officer, with a handful of men, kept the compound in order. They entertained me to tea in their mock-Tudor house, where one could look out of one window into the teeming mud houses of Khair Khana and out of the other into the corner of the compound known as 'little Surrey', where the roses were just coming into bloom. As one of them said: 'Not even the President of Afghanistan lives like this.'

It was, perhaps, good news for the new occupants. But the handover must have killed lingering hopes in Kabul that Britain would be represented there again in the foreseeable future.

Malaysia's economic boom has had some bizarre side-effects. Not only do British ministers waive their aid rules to seek business there, but it appears to have undermined the reasoning power of some local officials.

Still weather has engulfed the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in a thick haze since mid-August, causing a near-miss at the airport yesterday. According to the city's traffic chief, it is also to blame for jams on the roads, because policemen stationed on top of certain skyscrapers cannot see enough to relay accurate information on traffic flows. Some might think that he is reversing cause and effect. If the number of cars on Kuala Lumpur's roads had not increased geometrically, thanks to the huge numbers of Malaysians suddenly able to afford them, there would, surely, be no air pollution.