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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


The Peace Prize boosts Timor's 21-year struggle,
to Jakarta's chagrin

By Susan Berfield
and Keith Loveard / Dili

PRESIDENT SUHARTO CHOOSES HIS words carefully. He chose to say nothing when he shook hands with this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Timorese Bishop Carlos Filepe Ximenes Belo. The two men came face to face at an official ceremony to dedicate a 27-meter statue of Christ in the East Timor capital of Dili on Oct. 15 -- just five days after Belo and Jose Ramos Horta, an exiled spokesman for the Timorese independence movement, won the award. In front of the Portuguese-era governor's office and 300 or so of the provincial elite, Suharto spoke about religious harmony in Indonesia. But he uttered not a word about peace.

Later that day, the president and the bishop flew in a helicopter around the western tip of Dili's harbor to view the statue. Their conversation was limited: the president talked about the church's work in the largely Roman Catholic province -- and nothing else. "I am surprised. I am congratulated by foreign people, but not by Indonesia," Belo told journalists allowed a rare visit to the capital for the dedication ceremony. Indeed, it was only Suharto's third trip to Timor since Indonesia invaded and annexed the former Portuguese colony in the mid-1970s.

Not everyone in the presidential delegation was silent about the award. Armed forces commander Feisal Tanjung shook Belo's hand warmly and offered congratulations. The general even made sure he sat next to the bishop during the ceremony. Belo was cool. He has criticized the military for its harsh rule and human-rights abuses in the province. The troops and police stationed in Timor kept most people off the streets for the three hours that Suharto was in town; only a few hundred carefully screened residents were allowed to watch the proceedings from a distance.

To many Timorese, the statue itself represents Indonesia's repression. Belo has said that the Roman Catholic community, which makes up most of East Timor's 800,000 population, never really wanted a 25-ton statue of Christ the King on a hill overlooking Dili Bay. The local administration collected a compulsory tithe of sorts from Timorese civil servants to help pay for the work. Corporate donors footed the rest of the bill. Belo as yet has refused to bless the statue.

The 48-year-old bishop, who has served directly under the Vatican since 1988, can be as forthright as the Pope --and as circumspect as Suharto. When asked if he considered himself an Indonesian citizen, Belo replied: "You had better ask the Indonesian government." The U.N. and the Vatican continue to consider East Timor a part of Portugal, which abandoned its far-flung colony in 1975. Belo's is the lone voice of public dissent in the province; most of his parishioners are too frightened to speak up. Before Suharto arrived in Dili, Belo said: "If you go to the houses of the people you will feel that there is still oppression -- soldiers everywhere, watching you, hearing what you're talking about."

The bishop advocates nonviolent self-determination for East Timor. By the sheer force of his personality and position, Belo has limited the influence of more militant resisters to Indonesian rule. The Indonesian government has reluctantly turned to Belo over the years to help negotiate an end to street riots in Dili and other East Timorese cities. Belo does not believe the Nobel prize will make his task any easier. "Now that I am a public figure I can be criticized by everybody."

Until now, Horta has been the missionary, traveling the world to publicize East Timor's troubles. Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas called the high-profile, fast-talking Nobel laureate a "political adventurist." Horta is as familiar in Geneva and New York as he would be in Dili -- he has not lived in East Timor since 1975. "Bishop Belo has to be very careful. He may not be able to do so much in terms of international exposure," Horta told Asiaweek from his home in Sydney. "I am a vehicle to spread the word."

Horta, 46, had worked for East Timorese independence even before the Portuguese pulled out. He went into exile in Mozambique in 1970 and returned home in 1972, later serving as foreign minister for an independent and short-lived East Timorese government. Horta fled just days before the 1975 Indonesian invasion, in which two of his brothers and a sister died. He eventually settled in Sydney, where he is on the law faculty of the University of New South Wales.

Horta's comments about the Nobel prize were as provocative as Belo's were moderate. The bishop said he considered the Nobel an honor to the people of Timor and all Indonesians who want peace: "Peace has to be created by everyone." Horta said that guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao, jailed in Jakarta since 1993, and the international solidarity movement for East Timor should have been recognized by the Nobel committee too.

The history of East Timor is not a simple tale of heroes and villains. Portugal's 450-year rule of East Timor can be characterized in a word: neglect. In 1973, an estimated 93% of the population was illiterate. After Lisbon's right-wing dictator was overthrown in 1974, a new government hoped to gradually withdraw from the colony. But the Timorese were impatient. Three main political groups began to battle for control of the region. Eventually the Portuguese governor and the armed forces retreated to an island off the north coast.

In December 1975, the Indonesian army descended on East Timor to halt the warfare. Indonesia incorporated the territory in 1976, but sporadic fighting continued throughout the 1980s. Government critics allege that as many as 200,000, or nearly a third of the population, died in the early 1980s as a result of the military's battles against guerrillas, as well as from an accompanying famine. Jakarta dismisses the accusations as fanciful propaganda.

Indonesia has done more to develop East Timor in the past 10 years than the Portuguese did in 400. Still, even Jakarta officials will admit that military officers dominated the region's lucrative trade in coffee, sandalwood and marble. "East Timor has been a great economic boom for many generals," says Horta. "But there is not one long-term investment."

Jakarta has stalled on holding a referendum for years. It argues that talks with Portugal over a political solution -- held under the auspices of the U.N. secretary-general -- are more useful. Horta promises that if the military lets up in East Timor and allows a free poll for a local parliament that would have significant autonomy, his side would freeze its demands for a vote on independence. "In five or six years, people might not want [independence], life would be OK," he says. By then, he hopes that Jakarta will have changed too.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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