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Last Indonesian Ship Leaves E.Timor
The Associated Press
Saturday, October 30, 1999; 4:59 p.m. EDT
DILI, East Timor –– With Indonesian troops clustered forlornly at the rail, a gray troop-transport ship slowly pulled away from the harbor early Sunday, quietly ending the 24 year occupation of this former Portuguese colony that left thousands dead.
Their departure from East Timor marks the end of a long and fruitless struggle by the world's most populous Muslim nation to subdue a small, stubbornly separatist Roman Catholic province on its eastern fringe.
It was an ignominious comedown for a military force that once numbered more than 40,000 and whose word was once law.
For the past week, as their garrison dwindled down to the last few hundred, Indonesian troops looked glumly from behind their sandbag fortifications, protected by peacekeepers and jeered by locals, unable to leave their compounds even to say a final farewell to their military dead.
The saga of Indonesia in East Timor reads in some ways like a familiar script: a lightly equipped rebel band – one that lives close to the ground, knows the terrain and commands the unflinching loyalty of a rural populace even as they bear the brunt of horrific reprisals – prevails in the end over a vastly larger and better equipped army.
The tumultuous events in East Timor fit other patterns as well, and ones that are becoming ominously familiar: an outbreak of internecine hatred, a rampage by paramilitaries apparently abetted by a regular army, a massive displacement of civilians. Suddenly another obscure conflict became a crisis requiring urgent international military intervention.
Here, as elsewhere, the stated mission was to rescue civilians caught up in the violence, but the unspoken premise was potentially explosive: the international community was effectively coming to the aid of a separatist movement in a sovereign nation.
In this case, Indonesia voluntarily relinquished its claim to the territory, agreeing to accept the results of its 2-month-old independence referendum. That prompted quiet but heartfelt sighs of relief in the foreign ministries of countries taking part in the peacekeeping mission.
In part because of such sensitivities, all the parties involved – the peacekeepers, the United Nations transition team that is a government in all but name, even the rebel army that is now in the process of transforming itself into a political movement – have been at pains to praise the Indonesians for a relatively painless final pullout.
That was plainly underscored by the sendoff given top Indonesian military men on Saturday, as the last few troops were preparing to leave East Timor by ship and plane.
Not only the acting head of the U.N. team, Ian Martin, and the peacekeepers' commander, Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, came to the airport for the farewell to Indonesian officials – so did the longtime leader of the rebel army that had spent years locked in bloody battle with them.
The guerrilla chief, Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, told reporters that the Indonesian occupation had been "a mistake between two countries."
"Now we have to look to the future," said the 53-year-old. Clad in military fatigues, he chatted in the dingy airport lounge for more than half an hour with the Indonesian military men, lighting a cigarette and puffing it as he spoke.
East Timor has little to gain by any continuing enmity with Indonesia, which is likely in the long term to be a crucial economic partner. Although its years as an Indonesian province coincided with an era of political repression, it can now look to dealings with a moderate new government.
Despite an outpouring of aid that will likely continue apace during the two- to three-year transition to independence, few new nations have started with so little.
An estimated three-quarters of East Timor's people were displaced by the violence that broke out after the independence referendum. Some 70 percent of the territory's buildings are burned-out ruins. Only about one-tenth of the refugees who wound up in neighboring West Timor – a quarter-million – have so far made their way home.
Seven weeks after arrival, the Australian-led peacekeeping force has secured the half-island territory. But these peacekeepers – and later the U.N.-led force that succeeds them – could face months or years of hit-and-run attacks by paramilitary groups that have regrouped across the border in West Timor.
The years of colonialism and occupation have left a welter of conflicting loyalties in East Timor. There is little consensus even on such basic questions as what language should be dominant – Portuguese, English, Bahasa Indonesian, or the tribal tongue Tetum – or what currency should be adopted.
Even so, the territory has strengths to fall back on. Despite the spree of destruction, it still has a working port and airport, passable roads in many areas, and water and telecommunication systems that can probably be repaired fairly quickly.
There is social cohesion provided by the Roman Catholic church, strong family ties and a sense of satisfaction over winning the long struggle for independence.
"We have to learn to stop being a colonial people, to stop looking into other people's eyes and trying to see what it is that they want from us," said Mario Carrascalao, a former East Timor governor and now a leader of the resistance umbrella movement. "We have to decide what it is that we want for ourselves."
© 1999 The Associated Press