Subject: ST: Jakarta-Dili Ties on the Mend (refugees)

The Straits Times (Singapore)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Commentary

Jakarta-Dili Ties on the Mend

John McBeth, Senior Writer

With the border issue settled, both sides turn to tackling economic concerns

FOR three years now, the small white house across the street from the football field in the heart of the frontier town of Atambua has been used as a mess by Indonesia's paramilitary Police Mobile Brigade. But they have still failed to repair some of the smashed windows that bear a lasting testimony to the brutal murder of three United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) aid workers in September 2000.

The killings by a mob of frenzied militiamen came a year after then-East Timor's vote for independence triggered widespread bloodshed across the former Indonesian province and sent 250,000 to 300,000 refugees fleeing into neighbouring West Timor. About 30,000 to 45,000 of those never returned, preferring to retain Indonesian citizenship and eke out a living in temporary camps and resettlement villages.

The UNHCR pulled out of Atambua after the three workers from the United States, Croatia and Ethiopia were hacked to death with knives and machetes and their bodies burnt.

But despite that horrendous crime - and the ridiculously light sentences subsequently handed out to six men charged with the brutality - the commission returned 18 months later to help in resettling the refugees, some of them the families of militiamen.

That comes as little surprise to those who have admired UNHCR operations in other parts of Asia. Without a doubt, the agency's greatest achievements were during the 1980s, assisting the Vietnamese boat people, Laotian tribal refugees and the tens of thousands of starving, malaria-ravaged Cambodians who flooded into Thailand - particularly from the Khmer Rouge zones - following the 1979 Vietnamese invasion.

In Indonesia, however, the UNHCR earned the ire of the government for its strong public statements on human rights violations in East Timor, a position also taken by the UN Human Rights Commission in calling for an international inquiry into the abuses.

In his newly published book, The Pebble In The Shoe, ex-foreign minister Ali Alatas criticises then-commissioner Mary Robinson for acting on her own initiative at the request of a hostile non-member - Portugal.

The Indonesians also acted unreasonably in blaming the UNHCR for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Atambua, setting off a series of international repercussions that, after the 1999 bloodshed, only served to isolate Jakarta further. Still despite the worst atrocity in its history, the agency persevered, albeit under restrictive 'Phase Five' security precautions that were only lifted last year.

When it finally ended its mission late last year, all but 4,000 refugees had been permanently resettled, mostly in West Timor. A handful moved to the neighbouring islands of Sumba, Flores and Bali and even fewer accepted a government offer of free migration to Central Kalimantan, where they would have been given 2ha of marginal land. The main reason for not going: It was too far from Timor.

Other refugees were taken in by relatives and friendly villagers or settled on land owned by the Catholic Church.

Although 224,000 East Timorese had returned to their homeland by 2002, the 400 or more repatriated in the next three years has slowed even more, to just 20 so far this year. The rest took part in the 2004 parliamentary and presidential elections, marking them as bone fide Indonesian citizens.

Figures vary considerably. The UNHCR says it reintegrated 28,800 East Timorese in 11 resettlement sites around West Timor, but local officials put the number of refugees in the border district of Beru alone at 45,000, or 12,480 families. Aware of the envy that can be aroused by giving too much help to outsiders, the local government has been careful not to ignore the needs of impoverished local residents.

In the village of Naiola, south of Atambua, a mixture of landless West Timorese farmers and refugees from the East Timorese enclave of Oecusse live side by side in apparent harmony. Each of the 290 families has been allotted a plot of half a hectare, many of them planting cashew trees provided by the World Food Program, which could eventually earn them a tidy income. How to survive in the meantime is a daily concern.

Farmer Augustinus Soares Oki, 29, and his wife Josefina, 24, say life is hard, with the nearest water 1.5km away and the newly tilled soil lacking the nutrients to grow corn and other productive crops. The couple tend papaya trees in their backyard and are also feeding two rented cows, whose second calves will become their own in exchange.

'We work so hard, but the yield is so disappointing,' sighs Mr Oki, echoing a sad refrain that is often heard in villages across this sun-burnt province. On occasion he has had to sell rocks from a nearby river to feed his family but, for all of the difficulties, Mr Oki has never thought of returning to his former home.

'We came here to save ourselves from the violence,' he says. 'Why go back?'

It is the same for Ms Magdalena Rekomendosa, 26, who joined the exodus from Dili in 1999 and still lives with her husband and three children in temporary housing on the outskirts of Atambua. Even today, she is not sure what happened back then when the panic began and they ran like everyone else.

'The situation was bad, but we really didn't understand it ourselves,' she says. 'I'm Indonesian and East Timor is still so chaotic.'

Relations between East and West Timorese have been through some testing times. No doubt irked by what they feel was a government betrayal, many East Timorese have a reputation as complainers whose demands for special treatment are not always appreciated by their equally impoverished benefactors across the border.

The Indonesian-backed militias, blamed for causing much of the bloodshed in 1999, have long since been disbanded and the military which once supported them has now entered a new, if uncertain, era. The only recent border incident occurred close to the town of Maliana last January when East Timorese police shot dead three former members of the Red and White Iron militia, including one man who was on the UN list of war crimes suspects.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda accused the East Timorese of using excessive force, but Dili claimed that the three were among five Indonesian infiltrators who attacked the patrolling policemen and tried to disarm them. Whatever the truth, Indonesian troops near the site of the incident overlooking the gravel-filled Talau River were not happy to see recent visitors and instructed them to leave.

With the border demarcation now largely settled, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his East Timorese counterpart Xanana Gusmao on cordial terms, the main issue between the two countries these days appears to be Dili's reluctance so far to implement a 2004 memorandum of understanding to introduce border passes and open three traditional markets along the 175km-long frontier.

New Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta is said to have promised action on both during his recent visit to Jakarta, but no one is holding his breath just yet.

'The local East Timorese don't have any basic necessities,' says deputy Belu district chief Gregorius Mau Bili, a former Unicef official. 'But if we sell to them, the East Timorese government accuses us of fostering illegal trade. We always seem to be in the wrong.'

Still, seven years after the Aug 31 referendum that ended Indonesia's brutal 25-year rule over East Timor, Jakarta may finally have good reason to complain and to trumpet the goodness of its intentions.

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service


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