Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, Chairman
USCC Committee On International Policy
June 10, 1999
Thus far this year, the people of East Timor have experienced a level of violence not seen since the 1970s when Indonesian forces invaded and annexed that territory. Rampaging groups of armed militias have committed numerous atrocities upon mostly unarmed, pro-independence communities and individuals. While there are factions among the Timorese as well as an armed pro-independence guerrilla movement, the vast majority of the violence has been committed by paramilitary bands linked to the Indonesian security forces.
On April 6, dozens of people were shot and hacked to death at the Catholic church in Liquiça, a massacre Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo of Dili has likened to that at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in 1991. Just days later, more than a dozen people who had taken refuge in the home of a leading pro-independence figure and brother of the former Indonesian appointed governor were killed by roving militias. In these and other instances, reports indicate that Indonesian police either stood by or directly participated in the attacks.
Throughout the territory, armed members of the dozen or so local militias that have sprung up in the months after B.J. Habibie became president of Indonesia a year ago have waged a relentless campaign of intimidation and violence directed at those thought to favor independence. Estimates of people killed in recent months range from well over 300 to as many as 1,000. Over 40,000 East Timorese have fled their homes and farms, raising again the spectre of hunger that devastated much of the island in the late 1970s. While some of the internally displaced persons are in centers assisted by the Church's Caritas workers, many are without any help and need the protection and relief that could be provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, if allowed to enter in sufficient numbers.
Since President Habibie announced in late January that the people of East Timor were to be given a choice between autonomy and independence, army elements have fomented a campaign of anti-independence violence that has swept over the island. From all accounts, the vast majority of the violence has been committed by the pro-Indonesian militias. In many instances Indonesian military have been reported as either doing nothing to stop the mayhem or as encouraging and actually participating in it. It is beyond question that the Indonesian government has failed in its responsibility to maintain order and provide security for the people.
In early May, the Indonesian and Portuguese foreign ministers signed an accord at the United Nations calling for a popular consultation in East Timor. Scheduled initially for Sunday, August 8 of this year, the people are to be given the choice of voting for autonomy or independence. The UN, which will conduct the consultation, has begun deploying its personnel that will prepare for and monitor the vote; but the violence has continued. Unless it is brought under control and the militias disbanded, the conditions essential for a fair and free vote will be seriously lacking.
At this time, a postponement seems likely, if not inevitable. A delay, however, of more than a few months could result in the entire consultation plan coming undone if forces opposed to the plan come to power as a result of recent elections in Indonesia. If that were to happen, the prospect of even greater civil strife enveloping all of East Timor cannot be ruled out.
What can be done? The Church in East Timor is urgently directing its efforts toward achieving trust and mutual acceptance among those engaged in conflict. Nevertheless, even such unstinting efforts have had limited impact under circumstances ruled by outside forces bent on promoting violence and strife. The two bishops in this majority Catholic and intensely religious country have long combined their fearless denunciation of the violence with an insistent call for dialogue and reconciliation among contending parties. They have formed a Peace and Reconciliation Initiative to promote dialogue and conflict resolution among the main Timorese groups and with representatives of the police and government.
On May 13, Ascension Thursday, the bishops with their clergy and religious led a huge, peaceful march through the streets of Dili calling for an end to the violence. The previous day, the bishops had joined with Protestant, Muslim and Hindu leaders in joint prayers for peace. "We know our land was once peaceful," said Bishop Belo, "but now it has a history of war, death, imprisonment, weeping and suffering." He prayed that East Timorese would be kept from killing each other, and days later, speaking of the August vote, he insisted that "after the choice is made, no group must feel it has won or lost."
In the near term, however, decisive action by parts of the international community seems more essential than ever and could spell the difference between a peaceful outcome and continued bloodshed. As the numbers of the United Nations Assistance Mission to East Timor (UNAMET) increase, they will be able more effectively to monitor and report on the conditions that either favor or impede a successful consultation. While their present mandate does not allow them to offer any direct protection to persons under attack, nor are they allowed to carry sidearms, the particular circumstances of East Timor suggest a review of that policy. Bishop Belo has just recently stated that for a successful consultation to be held, a far larger and armed United Nations presence will be necessary.
More importantly, the Indonesian military that is widely cited as organizing, arming and inciting many of the paramilitary mobs must end such activity and resume their proper function of protecting the citizenry and maintaining order. For this to happen, far greater diplomatic pressure must be applied by the United States especially, but also by other interested governments, and it must be done immediately and urgently. The window of opportunity for effective diplomatic action here is exceedingly narrow. We respectfully urge that our own government act decisively to take the necessary steps, including consideration of maintaining a resident diplomatic presence in the territory throughout this period.
We join with the bishops of East Timor, Carlos Ximenes Belo and Basilio Do Nascimento, and all the Church and people of that troubled land, in praying that this year will mark the true beginning of a lasting peace, in which the rights and dignity of all will be respected.