Subject: UN: ETAN press briefing on refugees in W Timor

United Nations summary

14 July 2000

Press Briefing


The East Timorese refugee camps in West Timor presented a political crisis needing immediate resolution by concerted action of the United Nations, the United States and the Indonesian Government, correspondents were told yesterday afternoon at a Headquarters press conference. The press conference was sponsored by the United States Mission to the United Nations.

That was the message of the East Timor Action Network (ETAN), reporting on observations made during an ETAN-coordinated delegation visit to a number of those camps. Taking part in the press conference were ETAN Media and Outreach Coordinator, John Miller, as well as two delegation members, the filmmaker John Sayles, and Loren Ryter, a researcher on Indonesian politics and history.

Reporting on conditions at the camps, Mr. Sayles said he was struck by their easy accessibility. Without fences or walls, entry to the camps was open and the level of tension was high. If camp residents talked to outsiders, TNI (Indonesian army) policemen became very visible and people drifted away.

Tension was also high on the part of those working in the camps, he said. This was less the case on the part of non-governmental organization (NGO) workers delivering nonpolitical aid than those charged with speeding the separation of those who wanted to remain Indonesian citizens and those who wanted to return to East Timor. Since acts of retribution had occurred after the vote and United Nations workers had been obstructed in their work, it had become easier for former militia to enter the camps and agitate than for legitimate personnel who feared for their safety.

It was important to remember that the people in the camps were not those who had fled the fighting but rather those who had been transported against their will, Mr. Sayles said. While political meetings were not allowed in the camps, a situation at a camp on the border had turned into a two-day conference about future action between former militia and army members. They had been described as forcefully campaigning for 20 per cent of East Timorese territory being turned over to the 20 per cent of East Timorese who had voted for reintegrating with Indonesia.

Further, they had seemed very interested in being seen as a political entity and not as refugees, Mr. Sayles added. Those East Timorese who lived off the camp had seemed more like exiles than refugees, free, as they were, to visit the camps and work out their political agendas.

US Press Conference - 2 - 14 July 2000

Mr. Sayles said the situation in the camps was not desperate from a health perspective, although an outbreak of malaria seemed unavoidable and would kill hundreds of people once the rain stopped. However, the continued existence of the camps in West Timor was a danger to both East Timor and to the people of West Timor.

He said the biggest problems were occasioned by efforts to take a census or establish identification, at which time armed factions in the camps stirred trouble and threatened United Nations workers. Any activity related to making a decision brought out those elements, even though there seemed to be no political will to force a decision on the part of TNI or the Indonesian Government. Rather, eyewitness accounts indicated that without the presence of those organizing to keep people from returning, people felt free to make a decision.

Mr. Ryter emphasized the political nature of the situation in West Timor. "This is a hostage crisis. Hundreds of thousands of East Timorese were taken across the border against their will during the post-ballot violence last year. They continue to be held. It's impossible to determine which of those people want to go home and which are preventing them from doing so."

The stakes were very clear, Mr. Ryter continued. Violence between local residents and the population had shot up dramatically in the last months. A number of severe conflicts had broken out in May and June. Houses had been burned. There were injuries and United Nations workers had been attacked. That clearly indicated that the remaining refugees were being treated as "political bargaining chips" by former militia.

However, he said as international bodies and governments tried resolving conflicts, they increased because the Indonesian military which had supported the militias and organized the campaign of violence and evacuation in East Timor last year were now denying involvement with them. Further, they were charged with taking action against the militia leaders preventing repatriation. Those armed leaders resented the military and were intent on holding onto their position by any means. The situation was illustrated by the situation of militia leaders who had been brought to trial, not for involvement in violence but for weapons possession. The Indonesian military seemed to be detaining militia leaders on a pretext so their involvement in the organized violence would not be exposed.

The United Nations and the United States both had a role in the situation, Mr. Ryter said. The United Nations had organized the referendum with full knowledge that bloodshed was possible. It must see through that goal and not abandon the crisis in West Timor. It must provide resources to set up a judicial system that could hold people accountable for violence because former militia were more likely to return in the face of legal certainty. The United Nations should also beef up its internal police force and provide legal personnel at a rapid pace.

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With regard to the United States, he said it was definitely the wrong time to reengage the Indonesian military. Any signal to warm up to it was a sign that the violence against East Timorese and those working for them would be tolerated. The Pentagon's argument that its exercises were humanitarian rather than military were an appeasement to Congress, which had made it clear that no military engagement would be allowed until East Timorese repatriation was completed. The United States was planning a military exercise next week with the Indonesian military. It did not involve military training, but if carried out in light of East Timorese history, it would be seen as a signal of support for the worst excesses and not for efforts at reform.

Mr. Miller said the situation at present was crying for action. Plans to register the refugees had been put on hold because those attempting to conduct a census had been chased from the camps. The escalating conflict over the past month had created a beneficial effect that was still in the balance. The West Timor governor had become very vocal in calling for removal and resettlement of troublemakers. Indonesia had resettlement plans. The United Nations and Member States must press for Indonesia to fulfil its promises and protect United Nations workers.

Asked how many of the Indonesian military were still in place after being involved in the violence and relocation of East Timorese, Mr. Miller said 36 officials ranging from Indonesian generals, civilian leaders and militia leaders had been named culpable by the Indonesian Human Rights Commission. All the militia leaders named in the report remained at large.

Mr. Sayles said the situation was not an impossible one. There was no religious or ethnic hatred between the people of East and West Timor. The conflict could be resolved into a situation somewhat similar to the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It was an island divided roughly in half with two different colonial traditions. There were enormous developmental and internal political problems, but the people didn't live in fear of attack from each other.

The Indonesian Government should be pressured to make a stand and state it would close the camps in a couple of months, Mr. Sayles said. Then it should separate the people and relocate those who wanted to return to East Timor into a camp there. Those who wanted to stay with Indonesia should be relocated to camps on another island. That would take the tension out from a long period of border incursions, even though the border would still need monitoring by the United Nations.

Would such a solution be possible? Mr. Sayles was asked. He said there appeared to be a good deal of will power for getting control of the military. The situation could prompt Indonesia to develop their own legal system. That would take a long time, however. For now, a mechanism should be established whereby the United Nations proclaimed the TNI in charge of security on Indonesian soil and set up a task force outside the camps.

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Interviewing the smallest family unit at a time, it would tell people the camp was closing and they could chose: either return to a United Nations camp in East Timor or go to a camp set up on another island by the Indonesian government. They would be told they would have two months after moving to finalize their decision, but the refugee camp in West Timor was no longer available. That solution needed willpower on the Indonesian side. But the government had the power to end the fighting on its border, regardless of cost.

On the bright side, Mr. Miller said, was news that a West Timorese team of journalists had traveled to East Timor and had begun to dispel the disinformation spread by the former pro-Indonesian East Timorese in the camps and through the media. While refugees, returnees and everyday militia were not avidly welcomed back, most who had returned had been able to rejoin the community life. The worst incidents involved insults. There was no air of revenge against those who had sided with the Indonesians.

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