Subject: CNS: Health care, education out of reach for East Timorese, says activist


Health care, education out of reach for East Timorese, says activist

By Stephen Steele

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- More than three years after East Timor voted for independence, access to adequate health care, education and basic human rights remains out of reach for most people in the country, said an East Timorese human rights worker.

Jose Luis de Oliveira, director of the Association for Law, Human Rights and Justice, known by the Indonesian acronym HAK, said East Timorese institutions are unable to serve citizens due to a myriad of economic and social problems.

At the root of the problems is the absence of justice for the perpetrators of the violence that followed a 1999 U.N.-sponsored referendum, when East Timorese overwhelmingly rejected Indonesian rule.

More than 1,000 people were killed and most of East Timor's infrastructure was destroyed by militias and retreating Indonesian troops following the vote. An ad hoc human rights trial conducted in Jakarta, Indonesia, acquitted senior-level Indonesian military officials, while convicted militia leaders received minor sentences.

Those acquitted were being tried for ordering the September 1999 massacre at a church in Suai, East Timor. At least 151 people were killed at Suai, although human rights activists say as many as 400 were massacred.

"This was really painful for the East Timorese to hear, that people directly involved in the massacre at the Suai church were set free. This is like saying that what happened to us didn't really happen," he said.

East Timor's fledgling judicial system is ill-equipped to handle such cases, he added. Many militia members and others involved in the 1999 violence have returned to East Timor and remain free.

"The new government has no clear steps toward pushing for a justice process for crimes that happened in the past," he said.

"We have a situation where people aren't feeling any sense of justice, as if independence is just a formality," he said.

De Oliveira attributed the inefficiency of the new government, which took power in May 2002, to the U.N. transitional government that administered East Timor for the three years after Indonesian rule ended.

"We feel the current situation is in large respect the consequence of a lack of thorough foundation building during the transition," de Oliveira told Catholic News Service in Washington in early February while in the midst of a one-month U.S. speaking tour sponsored by the East Timor Action Network.

De Oliveira said many East Timorese were excluded from participating in the transitional government because of education and language requirements that discriminated against them.

"East Timorese who cooperated with Indonesia and gained higher education are now in higher positions with the new government," he said.

Those who resisted Indonesian rule often lacked higher education, leaving them on the outside looking in with regard to the new government, said de Oliveira. Additionally, impoverished communities under Indonesian rule have remained poor, leading to rising tensions between young East Timorese and their government.

"We are told that in independence we need people with skills and with higher education and so the people who gave so much for independence cannot contribute in this new structure. Those who suffered the most in the past have the most burdens placed upon them now," de Oliveira said.

"As a result, what would normally be a small incident turned into a huge demonstration and unrest that led to a lot of violence," he said referring to the early December riots in Dili, East Timor's capital, following the arrest of a student protester.

De Oliveira also criticized the East Timorese government for modeling its judicial system on a Portuguese system. East Timor is a former Portuguese colony.

"Less than 7 percent of East Timorese can speak Portuguese, but our judges are coming from Portuguese-speaking countries. This combination of very few East Timorese speaking Portuguese and the imposition of a foreign system has led to unequal justice," he said.

"Most people don't understand their basic rights," he said.

Constancio Pinto, charge d'affairs for the East Timorese Embassy in Washington, said the new government was struggling in providing basic services to its citizens because of lack of funding.

"We are a new and very poor country. More funding from the international community would help," he told Catholic News Service.


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