Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: W Timor Bishop Wants Governments To Arrange Lasting Solution For Former Refugees

S9845.1383 March 7, 2006

INDONESIA West Timor Bishop Wants Governments To Arrange Lasting Solution For Former Refugees

ATAMBUA, Indonesia (UCAN) -- The bishop of the Indonesian diocese bordering Timor Leste (East Timor) has made a direct appeal to Indonesia's president to take immediate steps to settle the situation of former East Timor refugees.

Bishop Anton Pain Ratu of Atambua told President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a Feb. 24 teleconference that he would like to see the resettlement or repatriation of the people who came to West Timor in 1999 from East Timor.

The number of "new citizens" is too large for the border districts of Belu and North Central Timor (TTU, Indonesian acronym) "with such limited area for farming and raising animals," the Divine Word bishop said. He asked the president "to help solve this problem thoroughly by accelerating transmigration and repatriation of the former East Timor refugees."

The video hookup in Atambua, the capital of Belu district, 2,000 kilometers east of Jakarta, was arranged by the government of East Nusa Tenggara province. It was part of a teleconference that brought Yudhoyono in contact with regional governments at the edges of the Indonesian archipelago. West Timor is Indonesia's southernmost territory. The three other areas involved in the event were Aceh in the west, Miangas Island of North Sulawesi province in the north and Merauke district of Papua province in the east.

Bishop Pain Ratu, once dubbed the "bishop of refugees," also expressed his hope that the Timor Leste government would reopen the possibility of repatriation by giving amnesty to former East Timorese who have been declared guilty of violating human rights in the former Indonesian province.

"I know the two suggestions -- transmigration and repatriation -- are not easy to implement," acknowledged the prelate, who heads Cooperation Forum of Interreligious Leaders of Belu and North Central Timor. Catholics form close to 95 percent of the two districts' population of close to 450,000.

Responding to the prelate, Yudhoyono recalled the government programs when he was Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs under then-president Megawati Soekarnoputri: relocation within East Nusa Tenggara, transmigration to another province or repatriation. Transmigration is a longstanding government program to relocate people from densely populated parts of the country to less populated areas.

"With those programs we hoped we could solve the humanitarian problem thoroughly. But in reality we have to admit that we have not been able to settle it completely. It is still a long way to go," the president said.

The former refugees came with the estimated 250,000 people who entered West Timor amid massive violence following the August 1999 referendum in which East Timor voters chose independence from Indonesia by a wide margin. Most of these people returned to their homeland, but 24,544 families with 104,436 people remain in West Timor. They automatically became Indonesian citizens at the end of 2002 and were no longer considered refugees.

Some former refugees have been relocated to other provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan, but most of them still live in temporary camps along the West Timor-Timor Leste border.

Other people present at the Belu end of the teleconference expressed their opinions about the situation to UCA News.

Wilibrodus Joseph Nahak, a Catholic layman from Belu, said he supported the bishop's suggestions, describing the local Catholic leader as a man who understands how the displaced people feel.

"Amnesty is very important to solve the problem of the former refugees," he said, but he doubted the Timor Leste government would easily give amnesty to people who have been declared guilty of severe violations of human rights.

Hundreds of people died in the post-referendum violence, which was blamed on pro-Jakarta militias supported by some elements in the Indonesian military.

Fransisco Xavier Soares, a former refugee, told UCA News, "Granting amnesty is important and appropriate, but I think the East Timor government will not agree." According to Soares, the majority of former East Timor refugees now living in NTT are families of those who fought for the integration of East Timor with Indonesia in the civil war in 1975 and did not favor independence.

"If the East Timor government does not grant amnesty, the problem of the former refugees will remain and the people of East Timor will continue to live in fear of being attacked (by the pro-Indonesia former militia)," he said.

The deputy head of Belu district, Gregorius Mau Bili Fernandez, told UCA News the Timor Leste government stopped its repatriation program two years ago and no longer allows former refugees to meet family members in border areas.

Very few of the former refugees opted to join the transmigration program, he acknowledged, "but the main cause is that the former refugees still want to live close to their homeland and hope that one day they could return there."

Dominggus Alves, a former refugee, now lives in a resettlement area in Belu. "I am very happy the Indonesian government gave materials to build houses in resettlement areas. Having a house of our own helps us concentrate on earning a living, trying to survive," he told UCA News.

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