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Horta: Triumphant day etched in history

First Published Sydney Morning Herald

Both sides in the East Timor struggle should take heart from the success of the referendum, writes JOSE RAMOS HORTA.

August 30, 1999, will forever be remembered as a day of courage - a day when democracy triumphed over violence. In my rich, rewarding and accidental life, Monday - the day East Timor voted on its future - will be the most cherished day of all.

The day is vivid with the images of my people, from the young to the elderly, walking down the mountains for hours in bare feet, risking being ambushed by thugs and attacked with machetes, then lining up patiently for hours to cast their vote.

The night before, I was working the phone from Sydney to East Timor Independence leader Xanana Gusmao, still under house arrest in Jakarta, and to resistance leaders and activists in the field in East Timor, to get a feeling of how things would unfold the next day.

"God will hold the East Timorese by the hand and guide each one to the registration centres to cast the ballot," I assured those in East Timor.

Besides God, United States President Bill Clinton, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defence William Cohen, prime ministers Keizo Obuchi of Japan, Tony Blair of Britain, and John Howard of Australia, along with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other world leaders, had something to do with Monday's atmosphere of relative peace.

However, not enough credit has been given to Indonesia's President B.J. Habibie for his bold policy initiative last January which set in motion the East Timor referendum, giving the people a choice of autonomy within Indonesia or independence.

Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, had long favoured a limited autonomy for East Timor as a way to resolve the conflict there. But the idea was killed by former President Soeharto, making the autonomy option of today too little too late.

In discussions with Alatas in Jakarta in late June, he sounded sincere, persuasive and supportive of Habibie's policies.

Indonesia's armed forces commander, General Wiranto, must also be given credit for taking some courageous steps that helped create Monday's relative peace. He removed from East Timor several of the senior military commanders chiefly responsible for most of the violence there, including the notorious army intelligence chief Major-General Zacky Anwar.

From the bottom of my heart I hope that violence can be avoided in the days ahead because it generates only more violence and hatred.

Indonesians and East Timorese have suffered enough.

Only a handful benefited from this conflict.

The Indonesian side does not have to lose face. After all, it was Jakarta that set in motion this dramatic process. The Indonesian Army was not defeated by the resistance fighters of the Falintil. It has a golden chance to make the best of the few months left before it finally marches out.

Wiranto can disarm the militias. The weapons in the hands of the armed bands could be bought back with cash or kind. At the same time, we will continue our sincere and energetic efforts towards promoting national reconciliation.

And the resistance cannot claim a monopoly on virtue; we must be humble and courageous enough to admit our own share of wrong- doing and guilt. Let's remember that the first East Timorese to die, in 1975, did not die at the hands of the Indonesian Army. The guns were ours and we pulled the triggers.

In the months after the demise of President Soeharto, members of the resistance - or those claiming to be members of the resistance - extorted money, commandeered vehicles for demonstrations, and abused Indonesian migrants and Jakarta supporters. And there was physical violence.

Some would argue that there is an ocean of difference between the record of the two sides. But such arguments are rather hypocritical. We simply are not supposed to rob, abuse or kill even one human being.

I wish I could be in East Timor today ... I would visit the humble homes of the Indonesian migrants and offer them my personal assurance and solidarity. We fought for a just and compassionate society.

And as energetically as I fought for the rights of the East Timorese people, I will do the same with renewed conviction to protect the new vulnerable groups of East Timor, the pro-Jakarta elements and the poor migrants.

- Jose Ramos Horta is vice-president of the National Council of Timorese Resistance and co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.

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