East Timor: National Independence or Autonomy?
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior EditorIt would be very nice if any people who wanted to could become an independent country. A foundation of ethics is the moral equality of humanity, that we all have equal natural rights. Therefore there is no moral justification for one group of human beings to be political masters over unwilling subjects.
Many ethnic groups have been striving for political independence. These include Kurds, Tibetans, Kosovars, aboriginal Hawaiians, Palestinian Arabs, and people in East Timor. East Timor was a Portuguese colony in the island of Timor amidst the Indonesian islands that were colonized by the Netherlands. When Indonesia became independent, East Timor continued to be Portuguese. In 1975, Portugal gave up most of its colonies, and the government of Indonesia promptly invaded and has occupied East Timor.
Many of the people of East Timor have sought independence from the harsh and violent rule of the Indonesian government. The recent change in government in Indonesia provided an opportunity to resolve the East Timor question. But militiamen opposed to independence have waged war against the independence movement, and the Indonesian government has been faulted for not preventing this violence. Nevertheless, about 85 percent of those eligible have voted. But can independence prevail against such opposition? What good is independence if it results in a civil war?
Human beings often have a tremendous emotional attachment to territory. They don't want to lose any of it, and will fight to the death to defend it. This sets up a conflict between nationalists who want to preserve a country's territory and ethnic minorities who wish to be independent.
Given the power realities of the world, the conflict can be resolved by giving each side most of what they really want. The minorities wish to be self-governed and to be free to live in accord with their culture. True autonomy can provide this, short of full independence. In today's world, true autonomy is a realistic goal that can provide self-determination without giving up the territory that governments and nationalists hold so dear.
A truly autonomous region would have full domestic governance, including religion, education, language, and security, while being under the nominal jurisdiction of the larger country. Autonomy would reconcile the conflicts with the Kurds, Timorese, Tibetans, and others who have suffered under oppressive rule.
But true and complete autonomy should also let the minorities within the autonomous region have autonomy. In East Timor, for example, those who wish to remain Indonesian would not be governed by the autonomous government of East Timor but would be citizens and be governed by Indonesia. This would reduce if not eliminate the opposition of those not wanting independence.
The vote in East Timor offered the choice of autonomy and independence. The problem with "autonomy" has been that areas throughout the world have been nominally autonomous but in practice harshly ruled by the larger country. Many Timorese may have voted for independence out of fear that the alternative would be a sham autonomy. For true autonomy to work, there may need to be an international military or police presence to guard against the infringement of autonomy by the national government.
The oppression by the previous Indonesian government, which resulted in about 200,000 deaths in East Timor, and the violent opposition by the militia, have only strengthened the resolve of the many of the East Timorese to become independent. The violence was counter-productive. If the government of Indonesia had instead implemented true autonomy, the people in East Timor may have been content to remain nominal Indonesians.
It's time for the United Nations to promote the autonomy option and for the world's powers to adopt it as the policy that promotes social harmony. Then just maybe the whole world can ultimately become a confederation of equally autonomous peoples.
-- Fred Foldvary
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Copyright 1999 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.