East Timor will become independent on May 20, 2002, the first new nation of the 21st Century. It is an occasion for rejoicing, after many years when prospects for an end to the violent conflict there seemed bleak. A UN administration was put in place after Indonesian forces withdrew from the territory two years ago to bring about the transition to independence. While much remains to be done, progress has been made in rebuilding after the destruction by militia groups that captured world attention in 1999.
But following nearly a quarter century of terrible loss of life during which time as much as a third of East Timor's original population of less than 700,000 perished, it would be a mistake to assume that international solidarity with East Timor is no longer needed. To ensure the safety of this new and fragile nation, the support of the United States is warranted for the foreseeable future. The lessons of the past are pertinent: were it not for international solidarity, historians believe that it is most unlikely that East Timor ever would have reached this juncture.
Nonetheless, serious problems remain. An estimated 70,000 East Timorese refugees remain across the Indonesian border in West Timor, where they went after nearly 80 percent of voters cast their ballots for independence in a UN sponsored referendum in August 1999. The refugees were among the 250,000 people brought to West Timor, most of them forced there by the Indonesian military in September 1999.
As noted before, some in the camps are members of militias who participated in the destruction of East Timor, in addition to their family members and others who once worked for the former Indonesian administration in East Timor; because of these complicated circumstances, some in the refugee camps want to remain in Indonesia.
International pressure as well as some changes in local dynamics have led to the increasing return of these refugees, but more needs to be done to resolve the problem. Some wish to return home to East Timor, but have been subjected to intimidation and other forms of abuse. The remaining refugees in West Timor should be allowed to choose whether or not they wish to return home without further delay. Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo has appealed for international pressure toward this goal.
U.S. policy on the refugees should include: steady encouragement from Washington to Indonesia to promote returns, plus continued encouragement to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to remain actively present in the area. The United States should also assist UNHCR with the costs of returning the refugees to East Timor, including cooking pots, rice, tin sheeting and plastic for temporary shelter.
In part because of international pressure, border attacks by militias and Indonesian troops have been curbed over the past year. But there are fears that once UN peace keeping forces are reduced, the attacks will begin anew. Should this happen, it will be extremely difficult for the new state of East Timor to develop. A high U.S. priority should be for East Timor to be properly defended against attack, which is the most important in the eyes of long-time experts. An international peace-keeping force under UN auspices remains in East Timor: its presence will be badly needed for the foreseeable future to guard against border attacks by militias and Indonesian forces. Continued subversion of East Timor by the militias and their Indonesian army backers cannot be ruled out.
At the same time, prosecutions of those responsible for the violence of 1999when thousands were killed, including priests, nuns and seminarianshas been slow. Again, international pressure will be needed to ensure that justice for the people of East Timor is finally obtained. Bishop Belo has said that it will be difficult to achieve reconciliation in East Timor unless justice is rendered for the crimes that took place.
The USCC has taken numerous actions on East Timor in recent years, most notably strong statements by Archbishop McCarrick and Bishop Fiorenza during the crisis of September 1999. In 2000, Archbishop McCarrick and Bishop John Cummins have made separate visits to East Timor to express the solidarity of the Church in the United States with the people and clergy of East Timor.
Members of Congress such as Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Rep. Tom Lantos, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH), among others, have been active on the East Timor issues, and have introduced "The East Timor Transition to Independence Act of 2001" to help support various forms of US aid to East Timor, as well as security for the territory, measures which Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo has strongly encouraged.
It is likely that a new, updated resolution will be introduced in the coming months to mark East Timor's independence. It is expected that this and other measures will be proposed in the House to deal with a range of human rights issues affecting East Timor, and in the Senate, Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and others will introduce similar measures. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR SENATORS AND REPRESENTATIVES ASKING THEM TO SUPPORT SUCH LEGISLATIVE EFFORTS ON EAST TIMOR.
Action Alerts (7/99, 9/99); Updates (2/00,2/01); USCCB statements on East Timor (6/99, 9/7, 9, 15,30/99).
For further information: Tom Quigley 202-541-3184 (ph); 202-541-3339(fax); email@example.com