Patrick West reports on a thaw in Jakarta's approach to its besieged Catholic annexe
EAST TIMOR'S beleaguered Catholic population has been given fresh hope after the Indonesian government announced last week it would consider granting full independence to the region.
Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, said the prospect of granting East Timor full autonomy — for the first time since its annexation in 1975 — would be debated in July.
Indonesia's military has also vowed to adhere to the democratic process. But the move has been met with scepticism by East Timorese campaigners and their supporters in Britain.
Bishop David Konstant, chairman of the Committee for International Justice and Peace, said: "The people of East Timor have every right to self-determination, and I welcome the report that the Indonesian government is taking steps in this direction. However, the reports of gangs, financed and armed by the Indonesian army, terrorizing villages in East Timor are deeply disturbing.
"This would clearly make any normal political activity virtually impossible."
Steve Alston of Cafod also welcomed the positive signals coming from Jakarta. But he said: "Recent events in East Timor contradict that message." He accused the Indonesian military of fomenting violence by supplying arms to vigilante groups.
Bishop Bello and other leading Church figures in the area have consistently opposed the idea of an immediate withdrawal, calling for an authentic plebiscite in tandem with assistance from the Jakarta government should the East Timorese seek autonomy.
Fr Patrick Smythe, a speaker and campaigner on East Timor who has recently returned from the region, dismissed the move as "cynical".
He said: "East Timor has been an embarrassment on the world stage for having this problem.
"Indonesia has a moral respon
sibility to help East Timor if it leaves because it has destroyed that country."
Around 80 per cent of East Timorese are Catholic, but recently more than 100,000 transmigrants — most of them Muslims — have been settled by Indonesia, which is almost 90 per cent Muslim.
East Timor was invaded by Indonesian forces in 1975, which have ruled it ever since as its 27th province, though this has never been recognised by the United Nations. A reputed 200,000 East Timorese have perished through war, disease or starvation under the Indonesian regime.
There are at present 20,000 troops in the area. Last year human rights activists reported more than 50 extra-judicial executions and 200 cases of arbitrary arrest and detention by the police and military in East Timor.