Following an outburst of horrific violence spearheaded by the Indonesian military that shocked the world and claimed the lives of thousands of people including several priests, nuns and seminarians, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor came to an end in 1999 after nearly 80 percent of registered voters cast their ballots for independence in a United Nations-sponsored referendum. An international peace-keeping force under U.N. auspices has replaced Indonesian forces, effectively concluding the violence in East Timor. But before the international forces arrived, most of the territory's infrastructure was destroyed by departing Indonesian troops and their local allies, and today, months later, reconstruction has been limited.
Many other problems remain unresolved, most prominently the plight of an estimated 120,000 East Timorese in squalid refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor. The refugees were among the 250,000 people brought to West Timor, most of them forced there by the Indonesian military in September 1999, and despite promises to return the refugees to East Timor, only about half had been allowed to do so by early February. Some in the camps, where hunger and disease are rampant, 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 may want to remain in Indonesia.
By all accounts, however, the vast majority wish to return home to East Timor, but are being subjected to intimidation and other forms of abuse. Thus, numerous East Timorese families remain separated, adding to East Timor's trauma and creating an atmosphere in which rebuilding is made that much more difficult. The refugees in West Timor should be allowed to choose whether or not they they wish to return home without further delay. Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo has appealed for international pressure toward this goal.
At the same time, there are separate continuing investigations by the United Nations as well as a human rights commission appointed by the new Indonesian government of President Abdurahman Wahid. The Indonesian commission has taken the courageous step of naming 33 individuals, including six generals seen as responsible for the violence in East Timor last year. The commission has recommended that these people be tried in Indonesian courts. For its part, the United Nation has recommended that an international tribunal be constituted to try those charged with carrying out the 1999 violence in East Timor. However, international pressure will be needed to ensure that justice for the people of East Timor is finally obtained.
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 recent weeks, 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 Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), among others, have been active on the East Timor issues, and are expected to propose resolutions and other initiatives in the weeks to come that would address the plight of the refugees in West Timor as well as the need for adequate reconstruction aid and justice for the victims of last year's violence.
PLEASE CONTACT YOUR SENATORS AND REPRESENTATIVES ASKING THAT THEY ADDRESS THE STILL UNRESOLVED PROBLEMS OF EAST TIMOR AND OFFER THEIR SUPPORT FOR SUCH LEGISLATIVE EFFORTS.
More information: Tom Quigley, 202-541-3184 (ph), 202-541-3339 (fax);