Subject: Washington Post Editorial: Hostages in Timor

Washington Post Wednesday, January 5, 2000


Hostages in Timor

EAST TIMOR was last summer's crisis; the attention of most governments has moved on. But some 170,000 refugees from East Timor remain in camps in West Timor, and many are essentially being held captive. For them, the crisis isn't over, and it shouldn't be over for the U.S. government or other Indonesian allies either.

East Timor is a small territory that Indonesia occupied for decades, despite fierce local resistance. When strongman rule in Indonesia gave way to democratization, the United Nations was allowed to sponsor a referendum on independence. An overwhelming majority of East Timorese voted last August to sever their connections with Indonesia and establish a new nation. But a local militia, created and armed by the Indonesian military, responded with terror, burning villages, sacking the capital of Dili and killing a still unknown number of civilians. When a U.N. force finally chased the militia across the border into West Timor, which remains part of Indonesia, the militia forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to come along.

Many of those unfortunates have now made their way back home, and some do not yet want to return. The devastation and absence of jobs in East Timor may be dissuading them. But tens of thousands do want to go home and are being prevented by militia who continue to control the refugee camps, according to U.N. and other officials.

Indonesia's recently elected President Abdurrahman Wahid has said he wants the refugees to be able to go home, but he admits he does not fully control the military. Military spokesmen in Jakarta say they, too, want the refugees home, but they claim they do not fully control the militia. The military itself is likely divided on the issue.

The U.S. government rightly wants to support Mr. Wahid as he proceeds with democratization and economic reform. His relations with the military are delicate--not only on Timor but on how to respond to rebellions in other regions of Indonesia, whether to hold generals responsible for past human rights abuses and other issues. A sledgehammer approach--across-the-board sanctions, say--would likely do more harm than good.

Yet it remains urgent to press the Indonesian government and military at all levels to resolve the refugee standoff. The armed forces have the power to keep the militia at bay. They, like Mr. Wahid, should understand that relations with outside nations can flourish only after the East Timorese go home.

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