Subject: SMH: A Shocking Legacy: The Forgotten Hostages of Timor

Sydney Morning Herald 20/06/2000


A shocking legacy: the forgotten hostages of Timor

It is is nine months since the Indonesian army and militias removed nearly one-third of the East Timorese population to West Timor and other parts of Indonesia in a massive operation by land, sea and air. Many were taken by force as their countrymen were threatened and murdered, and their towns and villages were burnt in the aftermath of the independence vote.

Most ended up in dozens of miserable camps in West Timor, but thousands were also taken to other islands. Since then, the United Nations Hight Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organisation for Migration and various independent groups have tried to help with their repatriation.

However, it is estimated more than 100,000 refugees remain in the West Timor camps, while an unknown number of people are being held elsewhere in Indonesia. Groups visiting the camps recently confirm that conditions are poor and exacerbated by heavy rains and flooding. Hundreds are said to have died due to inadequate nutrition, sanitation and medical care. The many alleged killings and other reported abuses have not been investigated.

The militias who initially controlled and terrorised the camps, with the endorsement of the Indonesian military, the TNI, continue to obstruct aid organisations. In spite of assurances to the contrary, the TNI has allowed the militias to remain active in the camps and has not effectively demobilised or disarmed them.

None of the militia members responsible for serious crimes has been arrested or charged. That this situation remains unchanged so long after the events confirms the bad faith and insincerity of the TNI. While some people are reluctant to return to East Timor due to their own backgrounds or connections, observers say that at least half of those who remain in the camps would return if they could. A recent US delegation concluded that most, including many who supported autonomy, want to return to East Timor but are being deterred by threats and disinformation from the pro-Indonesian militia.

Responsibility for what happened lies with the TNI and the international community. The UN and key nations allowed the ballot in East Timor to be undertaken without adequate security, accepting the false assurances of the Indonesian Government and the TNI. The UN mission guaranteed the East Timorese that they would not be abandoned. Yet when the crunch came the UN promptly evacuated most districts and left the population vulnerable.

It is the responsibility of the world community to reunite the East Timorese. Until this situation is resolved, East Timor's wounds will remain open. To its credit, the UN has devoted significant funds and effort to the problem and has repatriated more than 160,000 people.

There is no doubt that President Abdurrahman Wahid's Government wants the matter resolved. The problem is the TNI is not effectively under the command of the civilian Government. The TNI continues to play a duplicitous and hypocritical game, fomenting problems through the militias. Many in the camps are effectively hostages of the militias, being used as bargaining chips for political leverage.

So what can be done? Obviously addressing this problem is not simple or it would already have been resolved.

What needs to happen is clear. The militias should be removed from the camps, disarmed and brought to trial for their crimes. The TNI should be made accountable to the civilian Government. The international effort to return the East Timorese must continue until the job is finished and those taken to islands beyond West Timor must not be forgotten.

The difficulty is how to bring about these objectives. The world must not be allowed to forget or ignore this issue and diplomatic efforts must continue. Jakarta must be regularly reminded that this will be a blight on its reputation until it is resolved. Australia should play a role in reminding the international community (and Jakarta) that the East Timor crisis remains unresolved while the refugees continue to be an issue.

But the essential problem is the militias and the Indonesian army. All international co-operation with the TNI should be withheld at least until the East Timorese are truly free to return and the threat to East Timor from TNI-backed militias is ended.

Australia may have little leverage with Jakarta at present, but it can discourage allies (such as the United States and the United Kingdom) from reinstating military aid.

Any action that can selectively target the TNI should be supported while this situation lasts. And the world must not forget about this issue until it is resolved.

Dr Andrew McNaughtan is the convener of the Australia East Timor Association.

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