Taiwan also worthy of a referendum         990906 Taipei Times
Paul Lin


Overall, the referendum held in East Timor on Aug. 30 deciding the territory's future (a choice between independence or autonomy within Indonesia) went smoothly. Consistent with the general expectations, the referendum proved to be a victory for the pro-independence faction. However, even if East Timor now declares independence, the pro-unification groups will continue to use all means available, including violence, to disrupt the realization of independence. And even after it overcomes all these roadblocks to independence, East Timor, hardly well-endowed with natural resources, has a long way to go in development. In any event, the free expression of the popular will through a peacefully conducted referendum is in itself highly significant and encouraging.

East Timor is a former colony of Portugal. However, Portugal was forced to withdraw from East Timor in 1974 due to political unrest at home. A power vacuum was therefore created in East Timor. The democratic republic hastily established in East Timor at the time was less than stable. Indonesia seized the opportunity and invaded East Timor in 1975, then annexed it the following year.

The Indonesian military brutally suppressed East Timor's independence movement. However, East Timor's independence movement gradually won moral support from the international community, and the movement finally saw an opening after the Suharto regime collapsed last year. Besieged by problems in both foreign and domestic affairs, B.J. Habibie, the new Indonesian president, agreed to allow the referendum in East Timor.

The East Timor referendum inevitably makes one wonder whether Taiwan, an island also facing the issue of independence, should hold a referendum as well. Taiwan and East Timor undeniably share resemblances.

First, East Timor has a population of more than 800,000 and a territory close to 19,000 square miles. On the other hand, the population of Indonesia is 200 million, while its territory is 1.9 million square miles. Obviously the size of Indonesia's population and territory is overwhelmingly greater than that of East Timor. Nevertheless, the difference between the two is still smaller than the size difference between the populations and territories of Taiwan and China. Furthermore, East Timor's economic condition can be characterized as "barren," which is no comparison at all with Taiwan, one of the "four dragons" of Asia. Consequently, the difficulties facing East Timor's struggle for independence should have been greater than Taiwan's.

Second, East Timor constitutes the eastern half of the island of Timor, which is just east of the Nusatenggara Islands, a group of islands east of Indonesia's most populous island, Java. In the Indonesian language, the word "Timor" literally stands for "east." The island of Timor is historically part of Indonesia and Java from the standpoint of geography. East Timor was set apart when it became a Portuguese colony in 1512, while the western half of Timor and other parts of Indonesia were a Dutch colony. Unlike the Taiwan Strait, which naturally separates Taiwan and China, the boundary between East Timor and Indonesia is artificially drawn. Geographically, Taiwan has more reason for independence. In contrast, the geographical relations between China and Hong Kong and Macao resemble that of Indonesia and East Timor.

Taiwan was under Japan's colonial rule for a period shorter than the time East Timor was under Portuguese rule. However, if you consider Taiwan's foreign occupation as beginning from the Dutch and the Spanish occupation before Cheng Cheng-kung's (鄭成功) rule over the island during the Ming Dynasty, then Taiwan is no less deserving than East Timor of a referendum on independence.

Third, East Timorese are the descendants of western Malays and Papuans. The people of Taiwan consist of the descendants of the Han people (漢人) from China and Taiwan Aboriginals. Taiwan's population predominantly consisted of the Han people even before the evacuation of the ROC to Taiwan in 1949. Therefore, the flight of people to Taiwan in 1949 hardly constituted a deliberate effort to assimilate the people on the island into Han-Chinese culture. In contrast, the Indonesian policy of large-scale transmigrations to East Timor beginning in 1975 was a deliberate effort to assimilate the East Timorese. The attempt was comparable with China's efforts in assimilating Tibet and East Turkestan. Indonesian migrants make up most of the pro-unification forces in East Timor.

The relationship between East Timor and Indonesia bears an overwhelming resemblance to the relationship between Taiwan and China. If the international community acknowledges the legality and legitimacy of East Timor's choice of independence, then the holding of a referendum in Taiwan to decide the island's future would be equally legitimate and legal.

One fact worth highlighting is China claims that the 1.2 billion people on the mainland should also vote in any referendum on Taiwan's future. However, in the 1995 referendum on the independence of Quebec from Canada only the people of Quebec participated. Only the people of East Timor voted in the referendum on East Timor's independence as well. Therefore, of course only the people of Taiwan should be allowed to participate in a referendum on Taiwan's independence.

Once East Timor declares independence, conflicts between the pro-independence and pro-unification factions are inevitable. East Timor now needs a leader with a broad vision who is capable of leading his supporters to face the territory's painful history with some sensibility. Only then will the young country be able to work toward a brighter future.

Paul Lin is a commentator on Hong Kong issues who now resides in New York.


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