site menu spacer Comments on the East Timor information contained in the U.S. Department of State Indonesia Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998

March 8, 1999

During 1998, the people of Indonesia and East Timor asserted power unseen in decades, forcing 32-year dictator Suharto from office, and, in the words of the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DHRL) report released last week, "opening an opportunity for meaningful political and economic reforms. The ultimate result of this reform effort remains unclear." One thing that is clear, however, is that the current situation for people in East Timor is deteriorating rapidly.

Although not discussed in the State Department Report, East Timorese human rights are transgressed more frequently under the Habibie government than during the last years of the Suharto regime. The upsurge of pro-Indonesia paramilitary activity over the past few months, in the context of East Timor's uncertain political future, creates an urgent need for international human rights monitors. ETAN joins the East Timorese people in calling for United Nations personnel to be stationed in East Timor as quickly as possible.

The State Department Report covers 1998. But the situation is so volatile, especially in East Timor, that events during the first two months of 1999 put many of the documented human rights violations in a different context. In particular, the violence and terror committed by paramilitary groups in East Timor armed and trained by Indonesian army and intelligence personnel has created a climate of fear not seen in years. Even as Jakarta officials offer autonomy or independence for East Timor, their soldiers and agents are fomenting chaos.

During 1998, under both the Suharto and Habibie regimes, "the government continued to commit serious human rights abuses." The State Department report details hundreds of violations, in the context of phrases like "pervasive corruption," "extrajudicial killings throughout the year," "security forces continued to torture, abuse, and otherwise mistreat persons", "harsh measures against separatist movements," "troop levels remained unjustifiably high."

Bureaucratic language cannot communicate the daily horror of living in East Timor, occupied by a brutal foreign military force. Although DHRL does a capable job of compiling human rights violations and the continuing responsibility of the Indonesian government, the report fails to convey the atmosphere of state and proxy terrorism.

Although some specific victims and atrocities are mentioned, the State Department Report does not quantify the pervasive oppression. The annual report of the Australia-based East Timor Human Rights Centre was also issued last week, detailing 277 incidents of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances in East Timor during 1998, as well as 51 cases of state murder (euphemistically called "extrajudicial execution") and 352 incidents of torture and inhuman treatment. The figures are significantly higher during the second half of 1998 (under the "reform" Habibie government) than the first half, perhaps because the attention of repressive forces was diverted to Jakarta during the upsurge of protest which brought down Suharto. Once that was over, the military could re-establish its forces in East Timor, continuing the repressive occupation that has endured since 1975.

The State Department Report describes the denial of East Timorese human rights by the Indonesian military. It does not, however, mention the denial of East Timor's fundamental right to self-determination, as provided for in the first article of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and recognized by the U.N. and international law. East Timor should be discussed in a separate report from Indonesia, and the East Timorese people struggling for their rights should not be referred to as a "separatist movement."

The State Department Report discusses the "severe economic crisis" in Indonesia, but does not mention its harsh effect in East Timor, a territory by far poorer than any province of Indonesia.

The Report is appropriately skeptical of some reports of attacks on civilians by pro-independence guerillas in East Timor. It also points out that "there did not appear to be an overall reduction of troop levels" in East Timor, citing "some unconfirmed but credible information that troop levels are actually significantly higher than the Government had stated." In fact, this information (leaked Indonesian military documents provided by ETAN) has been confirmed by its lack of denial by Indonesian military leaders; its authenticity has been verified by Western diplomats and other Indonesian records. Additional military documents, to be made public this week, indicate that levels remained at roughly 21,600 through November, not including the recently created paramilitary groups.

The end of the Suharto dictatorship has ushered in significant improvements in press freedom and the right to assemble in both Indonesia and East Timor. Less visible, it has also brought an increase in government-instigated violence, especially against civilians in East Timor. The report says "In East Timor, several large demonstrations and free speech forums were held without government interference." In fact, most of those events were held in spite of attempted government interference and intimidation. In some cases, the organizers cancelled meetings or demonstrations rather than risk casualties from violence initiated by the military. There is a significant difference in the political climate between the capital Dili, where mass protests were allowed, and the countryside, where gatherings were often thwarted by military pressure or direct intervention.

The Indonesian military blocked East Timorese NGOs and foreign observers from entering the area around Alas in November, where (as documented by the State Department) at least six (and probably many more) civilians were killed by Indonesian troops. In late January 1999 (after the period covered by the report), six civilians were killed in the Suai area, causing more than 5,000 others to seek refuge in churches. Although this pattern was beginning as the State Department report was written, it has escalated severely in 1999. This military- instigated violence threatens to tear apart the fabric of East Timor's fragile civil society and prevent a peaceful political transition.

The upcoming Indonesian elections may be a step toward multi-party democracy for Indonesia, but they will not bring political accountability to East Timor; local parties, such as one based on supporting self-determination for East Timor, are prohibited by the new election law.

The State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has done a credible job of reporting on violations of East Timorese human rights, but that alone cannot solve the problem. The moral, political and economic weight of the United States government and the world community must be brought to bear on the Indonesian government so that these violations will finally cease and East Timor will achieve self-determination.

Last Friday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Indonesian political and military officials and with East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, under house arrest in Jakarta. Secretary Albright called for an end to "the cycle of violence" in East Timor, and for "disarmament of all paramilitary forces," as well as "favoring" troop reductions and an international presence in East Timor. In light of the current situation, the U.S. government must exercise its influence to the fullest to require an end to paramilitary activity in East Timor, a substantial and genuine withdrawal of Indonesian troops, a democratic process to identify East Timorese wishes on autonomy and independence, and the rapid deployment of United Nations monitors.