Addressing the national assembly on the eve of a celebration of Indonesia’s 1945 independence from Holland, Megawati said for the first time she recognized East Timor’s right to self determination.
After East Timor voted to secede from Indonesia in a 1999 U.N.-sponsored vote, fighting between separatists and elements of the Indonesian military plunged the region into chaos.
In the months of violence that followed, hundreds were killed and thousands fled into West Timor or hid in the remote mountains.
At the time, Megawati was in the final weeks of a failed presidential bid and had campaigned against the province’s independence.
Now, she says, Indonesians should “openly respect our brothers’ choice to live in their own state.”
Indonesia’s People’s Consultative Assembly officially recognized East Timor’s independence on Oct. 19, 1999. Since then a U.N. provisional government has ruled, but the half-island region is expected to set up its own assembly and constitution in the coming months.
Still an estimated 50,000 East Timorese live in refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor, having fled during the post-referendum chaos.
Megawati said Indonesia would work with East Timor’s government to help end the refugee problem.
Continuing turmoil in Aceh
Although the president affirmed her support for East Timor’s independence, she said she would not allow brewing separatist movements in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya to lead to further defections.
Megawati apologized to citizens for the government’s past human rights abuses, but said she would not allow either province to break away from Indonesia.
“We convey our deep apologies to our brothers who have long suffered as a result of inappropriate national policies,” she said. “We need to pay more attention to human rights. We need a security force which is effective, highly disciplined and under the control of the government.”
She also urged rebel groups to end their fighting and “help build a new Indonesia.”
Following her speech, as many as 16 small bombs exploded throughout Aceh’s capital, Banda Aceh. Officials said no one was injured by the blasts, but heavily-armed troops patrolled the city’s streets following the explosions.
The bomb attacks came as officials announced they had unearthed a mass grave — the largest found in the area so far. Police say they found 48 badly decomposed bodies inside the grave — casualties, they allege, of rebel attacks.
Rebels from the Free Aceh Movement, who have battled Jakarta’s rule for 25 years, denied involvement. One group member told Reuters the bodies were those of civilians abducted and killed by the military.