Indonesia's embattled president, B.J. Habibie, made an unprecedented appearance before parliament today to defend his policy on East Timor and to urge lawmakers to ratify the territory's overwhelming vote for independence.
"Because the people of East Timor, according to their conscience, have expressed a wish to live . . . as a nation, we must honor and accept that choice," Habibie said.
An expanded version of parliament, called the People's Consultative Assembly, will convene in November to decide whether to ratify East Timor's Aug. 30 vote for independence. In the U.N.-supervised ballot, nearly four-fifths of the East Timorese electorate voted to break with Jakarta, rejecting the alternative of autonomous status within Indonesia.
While the Indonesian assembly could reject sovereignty for East Timor, the overwhelming independence vote, the pressure of international opinion and this week's arrival of Australian-led U.N. peacekeeping troops in East Timor appear to make that highly unlikely.
Habibie, touching a sensitive nerve in many Indonesians, appealed to the country to face the possibility that the East Timorese may never have wanted to be a part of Indonesia. East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded and occupied by Indonesia in 1975 and annexed a year later.
"For a long time, consciously or not, we have offered to our nation a version of reality [about East Timor] that was not truly being experienced." Habibie said. "That the [referendum on independence] supported the position of those that did not want continued integration [with Indonesia], if nothing else, is an opportunity to finally resolve the East Timor problem in an honorable manner."
Habibie also defended his decision, which is controversial here, to allow a U.N.-supervised peacekeeping force to enter East Timor to restore order. Anti-independence militias backed by the Indonesian military went on a rampage of killing, burning and looting in East Timor in the wake of the territory's vote to break with Jakarta.
The People's Consultative Assembly, in addition to voting on East Timorese independence, will elect a new president. Habibie, who succeeded the ousted president Suharto last year, is running for a full term, but his chances are considered weak because of the East Timor debacle and a growing banking and financial scandal--known here as "Baligate"--that is slowly closing in on the presidency.
For the first time in its history, the Indonesian parliament called on the president to explain in person his East Timor policy. Habibie opened his remarks with a quick prayer for Indonesian soldiers who lost their lives in the 1975 invasion. In the often rambling, 75-minute address that followed, he stressed the need to rebuild Indonesia's international image, which has been tarnished by the violence in East Timor.
After the speech, many legislators expressed anger at Habibie for promoting what they considered an unconstitutional referendum, but most agreed the result would be ratified. "We must accept the results of the referendum if we want democracy to bloom in Indonesia, like it or not, even though it eats at our hearts," said legislator A. Komaruddin Mochammad.
Anti-Western sentiment that has been building here for days found fresh outlets today. Habibie criticized Australia for what he called its "exaggerated and unhelpful attitude" toward the East Timor crisis. And, in the latest of a number of attacks on Australian institutions here, Australian Embassy officials reported that the building was sprayed with gunfire Monday night. No one was injured, they said, but several windows were shattered on the third and fourth floors.
Meanwhile, East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao used a news conference in Darwin, Australia, today to express his appreciation to Australian forces leading the peacekeeping force in East Timor. The former guerrilla commander, only recently released from six years in an Indonesian prison, stressed his willingness to work with the Indonesian government despite concerns that the military may be assisting anti-independence militia groups responsible for the recent carnage.
"We know the importance of Indonesia to our future, and we will work with the Indonesian government to create a new relationship between East Timor and Indonesia, even with suffering so much," Gusmao said.