Subject: Oregonian: Small Island of Concern

The Sunday Oregonian February 25, 2001 Sunday


Behind a tall hedge in a glade behind St. Vincent's Hospital, five people gathered for dinner Thursday night at the home of Max White, an old thorn in Nike's paw.

There was a design engineer from Hewlett-Packard, a med student down from the Hill, an immigrant labor advocate from Lane County, a student activist at the University of Oregon and a software engineer with a nice feel for penne.

There wasn't, however, much of the usual small talk. There was no mention of youth soccer, the price of gas, or the leftovers on "Survivor," the adventures that occupy the rest of us.

"There are only two issues worthy of grown-ups," White said, rather late in the evening: "Human rights and the environment." And these grown-ups, aged 20 to 60, have been focused for years on the forbidding dearth of human rights in East Timor.

White, who spent the past year working at a medical clinic in Dili, that island's capital city, knows where East Timor lies on the map of our everyday affairs. He once carted a globe down to Pioneer Courthouse Square and found that only 12 of 87 people could even lay a finger on Indonesia, the country that tried to swallow the island whole.

We can only track so many despots through so much bloodshed. "Why does everyone know about Pol Pot and hardly anyone knows about Suharto and the crowd in Jakarta?" asked Will Seaman, the design engineer. "Ultimately, the crimes of our friends don't rate as high as the crimes of our enemies."

"In the annals of crime of this terrible century," Noam Chomsky wrote in the introduction to Matthew Jardine's "East Timor: Genocide in Paradise," "Indonesia's assault against East Timor ranks high, not only because of its scale -- perhaps the greatest death toll relative to the population since the Holocaust -- but because it would have been so easy to prevent, and to bring to an end at any time."

Unfortunately for the East Timorese, Indonesia -- the largest Muslim country in the world -- was a major market for U.S. arms, a partner of U.S. political interests and a source of cheap labor for U.S. business.

That 200,000 East Timorese -- one-third of the population -- were killed or died of starvation after Indonesia's 1975 invasion barely registered in an America that, former President George Bush proclaimed during Desert Storm, "stands as it always has, against aggression, against those who would use force to replace the rule of law."

Those who dined with White on Thursday took different paths to East Timor. Shevin Jacob worked at the Dili medical clinic after his first year of med school. Agatha Schmaedick got involved as a teen-ager when her family supported an East Timorese family through the Christian Children's Fund.

Seaman and White, an Amnesty International volunteer, have been focused on human rights issues in Indonesia since 1994; it is through that work that White began speaking out against Nike's use of cheap overseas labor. The two of them were in Dili up to the eve of the tumultuous August 1999 election in which the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence and pro-Indonesia militias went on a rampage.

When White returned that November to count the friends who had survived, what he saw reminded him of old photos of Dresden and Nagasaki.

Over dinner, these old friends spoke of the politicians who are paying attention to East Timor [Reps. Peter DeFazio and David Wu leap to mind] and the politicians who aren't [Sen. Gordon Smith].

They reviewed old atrocities, such as Henry Kissinger and the 1991 massacre at the Santa Cruz cemetery, and new missions, including the fate of the refugee camps, still controlled by the militias, and keeping the pressure on the State Department on matters of foreign policy.

"The focus of our work in Oregon has been informing the public when their voice can make a difference," Seaman said.

Because a voice is, more often than not, the only thing most grown-ups have to spare when it comes to a desperate island on the dark side of the globe. Reach Steve Duin at 503-221-8597, or 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201.

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