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Senator Pell visits East Timor


MAY-JUNE, 1996

[Sections of the report dealing with Vietnam and Taiwan are omitted.]

Letter of Transmittal
East Timor
The Church's view
Conclusion and recommendation


June 27, 1996

The Honorable Jesse Helms Chairman, Committee on Foreign Relations 
U.S. Senate 
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Helms:

Asia's economic success in the 1990s is the envy of the world. In the West, political growth and development quickly followed economic growth and most Western observers expected this pattern to be repeated in Asia. Yet many Asian leaders argue that the "Asian way" of development can and should be economic and not political. These leaders argue that Asia's stunning economic success may in fact be a result of a more closed political system and they therefore resist pressure to allow democratic development. They also often argue that a Western concept of human rights is inappropriate for the Asian context.

Between May 25 and June 2, 1996, I traveled to Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia to explore these issues of development and democracy, meeting with senior government officials at each stop. ... In Indonesia, I met with President Soeharto; Foreign Minister Ali Alatas; the governor and military commander of East Timor; and several other government officials and representatives from non- governmental organizations in both Jakarta and Dili.


The attached report reflects my findings. I hope my observations and conclusions will prompt further discussion on U.S. policies toward the region. The views expressed herein are my own and any differences between them and existing policy is in no way a reflection of the efforts of our diplomatic team.

Claiborne Pell
Ranking Member

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A. Introduction

Indonesia is a vast, dynamic and complicated country. It has the fourth largest population in the world and the largest Muslim population in the world; yet it remains strongly secular. The government is an authoritarian one, led and dominated by President Soeharto, a small number of his advisors and the military. There is no apparent successor to Soeharto and no tested process in place for a transition of power. The economy is increasingly open and deregulated, but subject to widespread corruption and influence peddling.

There are a number of issues of interest to the United States in Indonesia. Indonesia has had an impressive economic development and an impressive increase in the average life expectancy. There is a developing middle class. The government has developed and implemented a model population control program. The focus of my trip, however, was a visit to East Timor. When I was in Indonesia in 1992, President Soeharto refused my request to visit East Timor because it was not convenient at that time. I appreciate his willingness to allow me to visit during this trip.

It is important to note that there are other human rights problems in Indonesia aside from those in East Timor. Many independent human rights observer groups criticize government policies in Ache and Irian Jaya. Issues such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right to form political parties and the development of the rule of law are all of substantial concern in Indonesia today.

In response to a request by the UN, Indonesia established a National Commission on Human Rights to investigate human rights issues country- wide. I met with several representatives from the Commission in Jakarta and was impressed with their dedication to improving the lives of ordinary Indonesians. Their investigations are hampered, however, by a lack of funding and staff. Still, they seem to be operating truly independent of the government and I commend their efforts.

That our delegation did not focus on human rights issues outside of East Timor does not mean they are unimportant or that they are unworthy of international attention. The broader spectrum of human rights concerns will likely continue to be an issue for U.S.- Indonesian relations for the foreseeable future. Time limitations of our trip caused us to focus our scrutiny primarily on East Timor.

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B. East Timor

In December 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, during a period of great political upheaval in Lisbon, which meant that Portugal was in no position to resist. The Indonesian military has committed widespread and well-documented human rights abuses in the twenty years since the invasion. The number of East Timorese who have died from violence, abuse or starvation in these 21 years will probably never be known, but they are credible estimates that they could number as many as 200,000. A particularly egregious incident took place on November 12, 1991, when the Indonesian military shot and killed over 200 people (by most credible estimates, although the actual total will likely never be known), during a peaceful demonstration. By all accounts, the protesters were unarmed. This became known alternatively as the Dili or Santa Cruz Massacre. While no events on this scale have been reported since then, widespread reports of abuse continue, including arbitrary arrest, torture, disappearances and killings. I heard several credible reports of these types of abuses while I was there.

Since I have been back in the U.S., there has been yet another conflict between Indonesian troops and East Timorese youth. The most recent disturbance took place in Baucau, a small city on the northern coast, to the east of Dili. Early news reports indicated that Catholic East Timorese had taken to the streets to protest reports that Muslim Indonesians had torn a picture of the Virgin Mary. The U.S. State Department reported that roughly 80 were arrested and that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been given access to all of them. There were additional press reports quoting East Timorese leaders saying that some of those arrested had been mistreated.

Indonesia and Portugal have not had diplomatic relations since the takeover. Since 1992, the foreign ministers of each country have held talks under the auspices of the UN Secretary General on East Timor, but these talks have produced little. I met with Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas in Jakarta and was particularly pleased to hear him speak highly of Portugal's relatively-new Foreign Minister Jaime Gama. For my part I attended the inauguration of Portugal's new President, Jorge Sampaio, in April and was struck by the new Government's interest in seeking some accommodation with the Indonesians.

Alatas felt that Gama showed a new willingness to listen to Indonesia's views, in contrast to his predecessor. I, too, am impressed with Gama and know his personal sense that the issue of East Timor should be resolved. Alatas told me that they could work toward a solution that would satisfy both countries and the international community as long as both sides were "realistic" in their position.

Sadly, Alatas did not mention the need to satisfy the wishes of the people of East Timor, although, when I raised it, he agreed it was important. I encourage continued talks between Portugal and Indonesia and welcome positive movements toward a solution. But I believe that any solution which does not make the desires of the East Timorese as a paramount concern will ultimately fail.

One of the most obvious issues for most East Timorese is the strong presence of Indonesian military (ABRI) troops stationed there. Government officials in East Timor, including Governor Abilio Soares and Colonel Mahidin Simbolon, the military commander, told me that Indonesia stations in East Timor 15,403 troops (including police who, in Indonesia, are a branch of the military). Government officials in East Timor and in Jakarta said that there were two primary reasons why such a force was needed in East Timor.

First, they are said to be required to keep the peace threatened by rebels, known as FRETILIN, of whom, according to Colonel Simbolon, there are 188, armed with 88 weapons.

Second, the military force is needed to perform public works projects such as building bridges, roads and houses. The military commander told me that not only were ABRI troops the only ones willing to go into remote villages to do such work, but that when the government did pull some troops last year, local leaders and villagers protested. He argued that it was much less expensive to have military troops do these projects than to have civilians do them.

I should note that East Timorese not in the government strongly and repeatedly disputed the claims that only the military can perform these tasks and that locals would protest the removal of troops.

The vast majority of these ABRI troops are not East Timorese. When asked why so few East Timorese held high level positions in the military, Colonel Simbolon argued that not enough East Timorese had gone through the military academy. He told us only eleven East Timorese had graduated from Indonesia's military academy and, of those eleven, one is a first lieutenant and two are second lieutenants. These are the highest-ranking East Timorese officers in ABRI. On the police side, the highest-ranking East Timorese is a Major, who is a traffic chief. Again, Simbolon made the argument that the East Timorese were not qualified enough.

The presence of this armed, uniformed, non-Timorese force in East Timor causes immense friction and conflict. The East Timorese are ethnically different in culture and appearance from other Indonesian ethnic groups. I was repeatedly told that Indonesian military and police routinely treat the East Timorese with disdain and even contempt. Simply put, the people of East Timor feel they are subjugated by a foreign army of occupation.

I firmly believe that a tremendous amount of the tension and conflict which exists in East Timor could be relieved if Indonesia were to slash its troop levels there and turn over authority at all levels to East Timorese citizens. Governor Soares and Colonel Simbolon agreed that this could help the situation, but offered no ideas on how such a change could come about.

Governor Soares and Armindo Mariano, head of the Golkar Party in East Timor, are both East Timorese and both stressed in our meetings that they were working to improve the "Timorization" of the local government. Mariano has been a participant in the All-Timorese dialogue, a forum sponsored by the UN Secretary General for East Timor -- current residents and those in exile-- to explore practical measures to improve the situation there. It is not a forum for discussing East Timor's political status.

Both Soares and Mariano are firm in their conviction that East Timor will develop and prosper only as a part of Indonesia. When asked how many East Timorese supported integration with Indonesia, both said the majority did.

But East Timorese who are not a part of the government and other observers living in East Timor quickly and insistently contradict this. When asked how a plebiscite on the issue of independence versus integration would turn out, I was told that over 90% of the people would choose independence and that number would include some who formerly supported integration.

The personification of East Timorese resistance to Indonesia's occupation of the territory is Commander Xanana Gusmao, who, at the time he was captured in 1992, was the leader of the armed resistence. He remains the titular head of the East Timor-based National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM), which he founded in 1988 to unify East Timor's various political and armed resistance groups.

Since his arrest and trial he has been imprisoned in Jakarta where, he is visited regularly by the ICRC and by all accounts is treated in accordance with international norms. Xanana, as he is commonly known, has attained a status for East Timorese similar to that which Nelson Mandela had for black South Africans while he was in prison.

I was eager to meet with him while I was in Jakarta both to get to know a person who has such a reputation in East Timor and to learn his current thinking on the possibilities for a political settlement of the East Timor situation.

Though I made a request of the Indonesian government for permission to visit Xanana before I left the U.S. and repeated the request in each of the meetings I had in Jakarta, I did not receive permission to see him.

From East Timor I wrote him a letter inquiring about the conditions of his imprisonment and his views on East Timor's future. (A copy is printed at the conclusion of this report.) I then requested the letter be delivered to him, but that request was refused. The Indonesian Correctional Authorities deemed my message to Xanana "political" and therefore prohibited.

Whenever the possible independence of East Timor is discussed, talk quickly turns to its potential economic viability. The territory has few natural resources, but advocates of independence point out that many independent Pacific island nations also have few or no resources. One person questioned what economic independence meant in an era of increasing international economic interdependence.

Florentino Sarmento, the head of East Timor's largest non-governmental organization, Etadep, and a delegate to the All-Timorese dialogue, acknowledged that going it alone would be difficult, but was convinced that a solution could be found, especially with consultation with political leaders abroad.

In regard to natural resources, East Timor's most valuable crop is coffee. I was able to visit a coffee cooperative started last year and funded by USAID. The cooperative, carried out by the National Cooperative Business Association, started with only 700 farming families and $7 million in USAID seed money. It now boasts 6,700 families and expects to turn a profit as early as the end of this year. Project director Sam Filiaci stressed he is not there for charity; he is developing a money-making organization that will provide lasting economic advantage to all involved, and especially to East Timorese coffee growers.

On the day I visited one of their processing plants in a remote mountain location, farmers from miles around gathered. Proud of their skill and of their new facilities, these people also told stories of harassment by the military and police (who turned out in a large force for my visit) and of insistent pressure on the farmers to move out of the mountains and down to the more populous areas on the coast.

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C. The Church's view:

East Timor is an overwhelmingly Catholic entity. More than 90% of the population is Catholic and the Church occupies a critical role in the lives of its citizens. The Church also plays a large role in the communication between East Timorese and those in the United States who are interested in the fate of this land. A number of Portuguese priests previously stationed in East Timor, along with a number of Timorese priests, now live in the U.S.

I had hoped to meet with the Bishop of East Timor, Msgr. Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. Bishop Belo is widely admired for his forthright objections to Indonesian human rights abuses and is a vital leader of his people. Regrettably, he was away from East Timor during my visit, though we were able to talk by phone.

I was able to meet with eleven priests from a variety of East Timorese parishes in what was by far the most fruitful and dramatic meeting of my trip. Sitting in a large room with open windows, using a microphone to be heard and taping the conversation, these priests gradually and fearlessly opened up to me and told me what they had seen and heard in their parishes over the last twenty years.

They spoke of military harassment of the Church that varies from obstructing their ability to meet with their parishioners to trying to create mistrust among the people of the Church. One priest told me ABRI tries to reinterpret his interest in the welfare of his parishioners as political opposition to Indonesia and integration. No one at the meeting had ever been arrested by the Indonesian authorities, but several had been detained and interrogated by them, for up to ten hours at a time. One told me of receiving a letter signed by the police insisting that he leave town for a month, although he proudly said he never left. The worst of these interrogations took place in 1991 and 1992, in the aftermath of the Santa Cruz massacre.

None of the priests had been present at the 1991 massacre but one told us, with great emotion, of his experiences that day and in the months afterwards. His home is near the Santa Cruz cemetery where the massacre occurred. He had heard the shots that morning, but thought at first they were the rumblings of a storm. When he went out later, he heard from people what had happened and he went to the cemetery and tried to give last rites to those who were dying or dead. The military would not let him approach and tried to make him leave. He stayed anyway and soon saw three large military trucks approach and be loaded with corpses. Then he saw other trucks come that were filled with water and he watched them spray the blood off the ground where the killings had taken place.

The wounded were all taken to military hospitals, he said. He then proceeded, without prompting, to confirm the stories I had read and been told earlier, that no one was allowed to visit these wounded in the hospitals, not even the priests. Again, he was unable to give last rites to the dying. He estimated that in the month following the massacre as many people died in the hospitals, either from poor treatment or from torture, as had been killed in the cemetery. He told of hearing eyewitness accounts of mass graves holding as many as 100 corpses in one pit. He said the month following the massacre came to be known as "The Second Massacre."

When asked about the type of human rights abuses that occur today, the priests argued that the fundamental human right of any people is that of self-determination. The people of East Timor have been denied that right for over twenty years and all other rights abuses follow from that fact. They asked me how far the U.S. government and the U.S. people were willing go in helping East Timor in its struggle for self determination? They asked why, if the U.S. government says it cares about human rights and cares about human rights abuses in East Timor, it still continues to support the government of Indonesia on its occupation of East Timor?

Emotions around the room continued to rise, both for those telling the stories and those of us listening to them. I was struck by the knowledge that five years previously this group would have risked the sudden intrusion of armed ABRI officials, as the priests systematically contradicted everything Indonesian government officials in Jakarta and in Dili had said - the people of East Timor resist integration into Indonesia as strongly now as they did twenty years ago. There is an "ebb and flow" quality to the resistance; the Indonesians gain the upper hand [through various forms of intimidation] and the East Timorese temporarily retreat. When Indonesia seems to lighten up a bit, and the East Timorese "have the courage to shout," the resistance pushes back, but ABRI always comes back again, in a "continuous game." They provided a document listing the exact type and number of troops located throughout East Timor (a translated copy of this document is attached as an appendix to this report) to show us how pervasive and strong the military is there. When asked about Indonesia's argument that it has poured more economic investment into East Timor than into any other province in Indonesia, they responded disdainfully that "the people are not willing to sell their liberty for all the gold in the world."

Finally, I asked the fundamental question I had asked in al

l the meetings: if it were possible to hold a plebiscite in East Timor, offering a choice of political arrangements from autonomy to integration, how would the people vote? This classical political science-approach to finding a solution was met with hard nosed realism: how can you even hold out this approach to a people who have suffered so much for twenty years? More importantly - and fundamentally - after over twenty years of continued resistance in the face of abuse, even torture and death, have not the people of East Timor already made their preference clear? Does not their resistance itself constitute a referendum? What more proof do you need that the people of East Timor want independence from Indonesia?

To confirm this message, the acting rector of the University of East Timor, handed me a letter at the airport as we were leaving Dili, in full view of my ever-present official escort. By all accounts I have heard, I believe he was probably questioned after we left; one only hopes that his position will protect him from rougher treatment. The letter was written and signed by five university students, and asks the U.S. Congress to support East Timor in its struggle for independence from Indonesia. (A copy of the letter is printed as an annex to this report.) The end of the letter was particularly moving, as it thanked me for coming and hoped that my visit was "independent," because they were concerned that Indonesia sponsored the visits of other delegations in order to "shut their mouth and close their eyes."

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D. Conclusion and recommendation:

By the time of my departure, it was clear to me that the people of East Timor continue to resist the often heavy handed occupation of their island by Indonesia. The resistance takes many forms and, while armed resistance and physical resistance may have diminished, it was evident that the people of East Timor practice an emotional and intellectual resistance that no amount of military pressure will ever be able to suppress.

Yet it was also evident that Indonesia will not, in the foreseeable future, grant East Timor either the autonomy it clearly wants or a process for determining its own future. How, then, can U.S. policy bridge the gulf?

The U.N. can both help and hurt. The U.N. sponsored talks between Portuguese Foreign Minister Gama and Indonesian Foreign Minister Alatas can bring positive results. But these talks run a serious risk of ignoring the views and wishes of the East Timorese themselves. The All-Timorese dialogue offers more hope, although for the moment the political status of East Timor is not on the table for discussion. The best outcome of these two series of talks would be the implementation of confidence-building measures such as a some form of autonomy for East Timor; a reduction in Indonesian troop strength; and an increase in the number of East Timorese in leadership positions in Dili.

Progress in any of these areas would, I believe, be welcome in East Timor and would ease some of the stark anti-Indonesian sentiment there. Passions could calm and economic initiatives, such as the coffee project, could develop. Then a compromise solution between the East Timorese and the Indonesians might be found. The key is that the East Timorese themselves must be a part of the solution from the beginning. A deal struck between Portugal and Indonesia or between Alatas and Boutros Ghali, or between Jakarta and Washington will not provide the solution. No true and lasting solution can come without East Timorese input; no solution that is seen as being imposed from above will work.

Indonesia is one of the most important countries in the region and will grow increasingly important. It is evident that the U.S. should have close relations with Indonesia. Both countries have mutual strategic, economic and environmental interests and would benefit from increased cooperation in those areas.

But Indonesia also has serious shortcomings in the way it treats the East Timorese and others of its citizens and it is important that, in our dealings with Indonesia, we not ignore or downplay the fact of these serious human rights problems.

When we have an important bilateral relationship with a country in which there are human rights problems, there are those who argue that we should downplay the human rights concerns and focus, instead, on those areas of mutual interest, such as strategic or economic, which can strengthen the relationship. Their theory is that a stronger relationship might encourage more progress on human rights. I do not agree with that approach.

U.S. support for human rights in other countries does matter. All the East Timorese I met told me that foreign pressure, and especially U.S. pressure, had succeeded in moving the Indonesian government. Our ability to effect changes in the human rights policies of Indonesia and other countries may be limited, but it is important for our nation to make every effort to do so.

I believe we could have a better and closer relationship with Indonesia if the government would take what seem to me to be relatively easy steps. If, for example, they would switch from a "heavy" hand to a "light" hand in East Timor, they would gain improved relations with the U.S. and other countries and would, in my view, lose little.

Quite aside from its policies toward East Timor, Indonesia is quickly approaching a critical point in its political development. President Soeharto's sixth five-year term in office will end in 1998. While he has been quoted in the press as saying he will not run for a seventh term, most political analysts fully expect him to be in office for life. There is no chosen successor nor established process for succession.

Indonesian citizens cannot change the government by democratic means. The government is still heavily dominated by GOLKAR, the President's party. The government appoints half the members of the People's Consultative Assembly, theoretically the highest authority of the state, and the Assembly in turn elects the President and Vice- President. The military is automatically given 15% of the seats in the National Parliament and while 80% of the Parliament is elected, there are only three legal political parties. Civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly or freedom of the press, are severely restricted.

Indonesia has actively worked to open its economy while keeping its political system relatively closed. De-regulation and moving away from central control has brought tremendous growth and development, of which the Indonesian government is rightfully proud. Could not the same be done in the political sphere?

Indonesia has the potential to be a great nation with world-wide influence. But it will never reach that goal with the anachronistic, authoritarian style of government it currently has. There are limited signs that this system may be loosening. The Court system has taken steps toward functioning independently, but it is not yet truly independent. There are some non-government organizations that criticize government policies, but they still operate in an atmosphere of surveillance and fear of retaliation.

Indonesia should follow the example of Taiwan in the late 1980s and 1990s and take strong steps toward a true democratic system. One important change it could make now would be to legalize the formation of other political parties. The region and even the world has much to gain from a democratic Indonesia. The U.S. should offer assistance and encouragement where ever possible and adopt policies that will help move Indonesia toward that goal.

I hope that Jakarta will take seriously the recommendations in this report, work for a solution that is acceptable to all parties, put the issue of East Timor behind them, move toward democracy, and become the important international power it is meant to be.

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