Subject: N&O: Added terror for Timor (Op-ed page)

The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) September 8, 2000

Added terror for Timor Susanna Rodell, Correspondent

ROUGEMONT -- In July, American soldiers participated in exercises with the Indonesian military. This week, the proxies of that military, militia groups opposed to independence for East Timor, rampaged through a border town and killed three United Nations humanitarian workers. One of them was an American from Puerto Rico.

Friends of East Timor had begged the Pentagon to suspend the military operation, called a CARAT exercise (for Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training). Instead it was scaled back and relabeled "humanitarian," though witnesses said it included storming beaches and featured Indonesian military leaders riding around in U.S. armored personnel carriers.

The Indonesian military, which was allowed enormous power under the corrupt Suharto government, has resisted control by the more democratically inclined government of President Abdurrahman Wahid. It was this army that originally invaded East Timor in 1975, resulting in the deaths of nearly a third of the population. Indonesia forcibly annexed the province, which had been a Portuguese colony before a short-lived period of independence.

A tenacious liberation movement harassed the Indonesian conquerors in the intervening years, and the largely Catholic population resisted dominance by the Muslim interlopers. International opinion, along with pressure from Europe (particularly Portugal), the United States and Australia resulted in a referendum last year in which the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence.

They paid dearly. Paramilitary thugs destroyed the capital, Dili, while Indonesian soldiers either looked on or actively helped in the rampage. Many East Timorese fled over the border to neighboring West Timor, where they gathered in refugee camps.

Since then, the international community has been trying to help rebuild East Timor and get the former colony started on the road to new nationhood.

Meanwhile, many of the refugees who fled last year have been unable to return, trapped in camps in Indonesian-controlled West Timor under the control of the same militias that caused the original carnage. While U.N. aid workers try to help get them home, the militias regard all foreigners, particularly U.N. personnel, as their enemies. This week their animosity turned to violence. Once again, members of the Indonesian military either stood by and watched the thugs or actively helped them.

These folks are still furious that East Timor has been "taken away" from them, and are doing all they can to make the last remnants of East Timorese under their control continue to suffer. Members of the Wahid government have speculated that the military timed this attack to embarrass a government that's trying to bring it under civilian control, just as President Wahid is in New York for the U.N. Millennium Summit.

What can we do to help this long-suffering people? It's not easy, but there are some steps Americans can take.

Wahid seems to want to bring the military under civilian control; but the signs in Jakarta are not good. The Indonesian parliament recently passed legislation prohibiting retroactivity in prosecuting human rights abuses, and reinstated an automatic 38 seats in the legislative body to the military. A reorganization of Wahid's cabinet replaced moderates with hard-line supporters of the military.

Under those circumstances, it seems unlikely that Wahid will be able to control the militias or punish the guilty. An international tribunal similar to those prosecuting war crimes in Bosnia and Rwanda may be the only solution.

The United States needs to make it clear to the Indonesian army that it will receive no more support in any form until it removes the renegade militias, prosecutes those responsible for human rights abuses and subjects itself to civilian rule.

There are a few bills pending in Congress to make this goal into law. The East Timor Repatriation and Security Act (HR 4357 and S 2621) has attracted a long list of co-sponsors; among them, the only member of the North Carolina delegation is David Price. The others need your encouragement to sign on.

This unacceptable situation in which innocent people are being intimidated, murdered and deprived of their voice has gone on for too long. Indonesia must be embarrassed, pressured and reminded at every opportunity that the vicious leftover policies of the Suharto dictatorship have no place in the world today. A new nation is struggling to be born. We can help.

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