Update on East Timor


East Timor, an island in the Indonesian archipelago emerging from 464 years of Portuguese colonization, has, in the last 10 years, experienced decolonization, civil war, a military invasion and forced annexation by the Indonesian government. War and associated famine and disease have led to the deaths of more than 150,000 East Timorese since December 1975.

Reports from refugees who have fled from East Timor since the December 7, 1975 Indonesian invasion and from reporters who have recently visited the island tell of a continuing 7-1/2 year guerrilla war being fought between Indonesian troops and members of the liberation party, Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor). Their accounts describe the results of the Indonesian invasion: widespread famine (especially between 1978 and 1980), inadequate health care, mass detention, forced relocation, torture, and the elimination of the civil rights of the Timorese people.

The International Red Cross and the Catholic Relief Service have been granted only limited access to East Timor. Much of the international aid which Indonesia has accepted on behalf of the Timorese people has reportedly never reached them, having been appropriated by Indonesian army personnel.

Over 4000 Timorese are still detained as political prisoners on the nearby island of Atauro. John Hamilton, an Australian journalist who recently toured East Timor, wrote of Atauro:

There is no escaping the fact that people are being held here in contravention of basic human rights. The prisoners are charged with being Fretilin members, Fretilin supporters, or merely relatives of people associated with Fretilin.

According to Hamilton there is virtually no privacy in the detention camps and children are dressed in rags. The Timorese have long claimed that torture is practiced in the prisons on the island; the recent release by Amnesty International of an Indonesian military handbook detailing torture techniques seems to corroborate these claims.

Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, the former Apostolic Administrator of East Timor, is outspoken about his lack of faith in Indonesian military law. He has accused the Indonesians of executions, imprisonment without trial, enforced conscription and indifference to starvation. A statement was released on May 20, 1983 by a group of Timorese priests which called for international support for the basic human rights of the Timorese.

The Indonesians continue to uproot the Timorese people from their homes or the resettlement camps they occupy, forcing them to new camps in unfamiliar areas. Relocation is intended to cut off any support that the villagers might offer to Fretilin. Traditional ways of life have been greatly disrupted due to these constant forced migrations, the limited size of settlement areas and refugee flight. Additionally, many Timorese are still waiting to leave the island to be reunited with their relatives who fled to Australia, Portugal, Mozambique, and elsewhere. Rod Nordlund, a reporter for the Philadelphia Enquirer who spent 11 days in East Timor in 1982, stated that the Timorese people are beset with widespread hunger and malnutrition. They face the second major famine in five years.

The Indonesian government denies that these horrendous conditions exist in East Timor today. It claims that things are improving for the Timorese: there is no famine, many schools and roads have been built, more money for development is allotted to East Timor than to any other province of Indonesia. In addition, Indonesia rejects any international discussion of the Timor issue, since they claim East Timor is now a part of Indonesia and, therefore, an internal Indonesian matter. However, the United Nations General Assembly has consistently rejected the legitimacy of the Indonesian annexation of East Timor. It has declared that the Timorese were never allowed their right to self-determination and has passed a resolution each year demanding that Indonesia withdraw from the island.

East Timor acquired its right to self-determination from Portugal in 1974. Just prior to the 1975 invasion the population of Timor was estimated to be 650,000 or more. The Timorese were organized into numerous ethnically diverse tribal groups, and spoke approximately 37 dialects and at least 11 distinct languages. The Portuguese language served as the official written language, but the most widely spoken language among the indigenous population was Tetum. This linguistic diversity reflects the fact that Timor was settled by peoples from Melanesia, Asia and later proto-Malays. According to the anthropologist Elizabeth Traube, who carried out field research in East Timor from 1972-1974, Indonesian influence on East Timor, prior to 1974, had been meager.

Traditional beliefs dominated almost every aspect of life in Timor. The Timor Mambai group had incorporated the concept of Portuguese colonial rule into their mythological beliefs and political system. They felt that an orderly, reasoned political process was essential to cosmological well-being. Dr. Traube reported that in 1974 the Mambai viewed the political change (the decolonization) in terms of its consequences for cosmic order, and along with many other ethnic groups, were determined to play an active role in finding a successor to the Portuguese. In testimony presented before the Decolonization Committee of the U.N. General Assembly in October 1980, Dr. Traube stated that, contrary to Indonesian claims, the people of East Timor were fully capable of determining their own political future.

The period of Portuguese rule in East Timor may be characterized as one of neglect. When the Portuguese arrived in Timor they were interested in exploiting the sandalwood tree reserve of the island. Yet Timor never proved to be lucrative for the Portuguese, and economic development of the island was never undertaken.

The overthrow of the Salazar/Caetano regime in 1974 precipitated the decolonization process in East Timor. Five political parties emerged. Fretilin, the party with the largest following, advocated independence. By September 1975, the remaining four parties (UDT, Apodeti, Kota, and Trabalhista) advocated integration with Indonesia.

A brief civil war, initiated by a UDT coup attempt in August 1975, resulted in Fretilin gaining control of the island. Prior to the outbreak of civil war, Indonesia had carried out covert activities in East Timor aimed at destabilizing both the relationship between UDT and Fretilin (who were both advocating independence at the time) and the decolonization process.

Indonesia began sending troops into East Timor by September 1975. On December 7, 1975, the day after President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger met with President Suharto, the Indonesian army launched a full-scale attack on East Timor. Ninety percent of the arms carried by the invading troops were U.S.-made, in violation of the 1958 U.S.-Indonesian bilateral arms agreement. The U.S. government has continued to support the Indonesian occupation of Timor with deliveries of military equipment, increased domestic and military aid to Indonesia, and diplomatic support.

In 1976 Indonesia declared East Timor to be its 27th province. However, the Indonesian army has not been able to defeat the Fretilin forces. In 1977 Indonesia initiated saturation bombings of Fretilin-held areas. In 1981 50,000 Timorese men and women, ranging in age from 9 to 60, were forced to form a "fence of legs" to flush Fretilin soldiers from the outlying areas of the island. In spite of Indonesia's claim that Fretilin has been reduced to a few hundred poorly armed men, refugees report an increase in guerrilla activity since 1980.

The Timorese now face a period of "Indonesation." The Indonesian language is being taught to Timorese children in all schools. Portraits of President Suharto hang in classrooms, reminding the students of the Indonesians' intention to destroy the traditional Timorese culture. Development of the island is moving at a slow pace due to the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Indonesian administration in Timor. It is claimed that development operations benefit the Indonesians who have moved to Timor under the "transmigration" program, but not indigenous Timorese.

The suffering of the Timorese people is a classic case of the oppression of an indigenous people by a dominating political and military force. Indonesia has violated UN policy and international law by its military aggression against the Timorese and by denying them their right to self-determination. Indonesia has also violated the cultural and civil rights of the Timorese: the right to practice the traditional ways of life, to speak their language and live on the lands they choose, and to be an integral part of the political processes under which they live. Reports of "economic development" of the island by Indonesia cannot justify the genocide committed against the Timorese people.

Timorese sources have recently revealed that Fretilin and Indonesian officials have negotiated a ceasefire. The present situation is difficult to assess, as Indonesia has placed tight restrictions on information coming out of East Timor. It remains to be seen whether Indonesia is negotiating in good faith or is attempting to orchestrate international opinion in anticipation of the upcoming UN vote on the East Timor issue. If this new development leads to Indonesia's withdrawal from the island and a legitimate act of self-determination for the Timorese people, there is a chance that peace will finally come to East Timor.

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