Subject: OPED: Tiny land with a world of woe
Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 08:58:30 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <>

The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) February 12, 1999


Tiny land with a world of woe Susanna Rodell, Correspondent

ROUGEMONT -- Once when I was living in Australia, I interviewed a young immigrant, one of many who had arrived in the late 1970s from Southeast Asia to find a better life. He was 20 at the time, had a job in a textile warehouse, was saving his money, making friends, slowly making a new niche for himself. He had big dreams. A tall, handsome kid. He told me about his recent history, what had spurred him to emigrate and start over again far from home.

When he was 17, he had stood with the priest in the belfry of his village church and watched as his father, the village chief, was shot and his mother and sisters raped, then killed. The murderers were invading Indonesian troops. His home was in East Timor, the tiny half-island formerly ruled by Portugal. When Portugal pulled out, Indonesia moved in, killing, by some estimates, a third of the population.

Australia, eager for good relations with its populous and powerful northern neighbor, recognized Indonesia's forcible annexation in 1975 of the former colony, despite the fact that four Australian journalists (one of whom was the brother of a friend of mine) were also killed by the Indonesian troops for the crime of getting in the way and trying to report on the slaughter.

When I returned to this country my colleagues often teased me about my obsession with this tiny, obscure wannabe nation, but I'd argue that we got very upset about events in the Balkans and Algeria and Somalia - East Timor's crime was mere obscurity. Were its citizens any less worthy of our attention? We're talking about 200,000 people dying. Surely this is not a small tragedy.

And in the intervening years, Indonesia has tried to flood the largely Catholic East Timor with Indonesian Muslims and dilute its native population, provided little or no educational or economic opportunities and used its small but determined guerrilla resistance movement as a pretext for brutal repression. Foreign journalists have not been given free access, and even organizations like the Red Cross have had a hard time functioning there.

Like other oppressive regimes, Indonesia has controlled the East Timorese population with a combination of outright military force and covert support for paramilitary groups, which continue to spread terror. This month 6,000 people were driven from their homes by such groups.

Throughout these oppressive years, one of the most courageous figures to emerge was the Catholic bishop of East Timor, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, who risked his life again and again to publicize the plight of the people and try to intercede with the Indonesian authorities. A turning point in the struggle came in 1996 when Bishop Belo shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Jose Ramos-Horta, the exiled East Timorese political leader.

Still, a Nobel Prize won these two no brownie points with the oppressive Suharto regime. The brutality continued.

Now, however, the Suharto dictatorship has fallen and Indonesian President B.J. Habibie has recently announced that he will offer the East Timorese a deal. He wants to grant them autonomy, although not full independence. The proud East Timorese are almost certain to reject this deal, and so far Habibie has resisted calls for a referendum on independence.

Xanana Gusmao, the resistance movement's jailed leader, has called for a cease-fire between government troops and guerrillas, which is certainly a necessary first step. If the autonomy deal is rejected, as seems almost certain, President Habibie should agree to an internationally monitored period in which all Indonesian troops withdraw from the colony, guerrillas are disarmed and a fair vote on independence can be taken.

In the meantime, international aid groups and foreign journalists should be given access to this tiny, unhappy country so that its people, after 23 years of enforced silence, can finally tell their stories.

And more of us need to listen.

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