A Light on East Timor
Indonesias brutal 19-year occupation of East Timor has
caused the deaths of one-third of the islands
populationsome 200,000 peopleand shows no sign of
Indonesias brutal 19-year occupation of East Timor has caused the deaths of one-third of the islands populationsome 200,000 peopleand shows no sign of letting up soon. Yet for most of the world, East Timor still seems too distant a tragedy to be troubled aboutespecially in light of similar but better publicized brutalities that make the evening news.
But its invisibility isnt simply because of lack of concern. Indonesia has waged a well-orchestrated international public relations campaign to block information of the Timorese genocide from reaching much of the world. Only the most horrific atrocitiessuch as the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre in 1991 where at least 200 Timorese protesters were killedget covered by the mainstream media. Meanwhile, much of the Timorese population continues to be confined to concentration camps, its culture threatened by Indonesias efforts to repopulate the island with Javanese settlers.
Indonesia uses its powerful influence in the Southeast Asian community to cover up its actions in East Timor. Recently it all but blocked the Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET) held in Manila by threatening to pull its extensive investments out of the Philippines and to end talks it was mediating between Manila and Filipino Muslim insurgents. And although the Filipino government bent to the pressure and banned a number of well-known human rights activists from attending the meeting, Indonesias interference in ACPET in time backfired and served to focus international attention on its East Timor policy.
Showing their solidarity for international human rights, Filipino students, academics, activists, and members of the religious community rallied in support of the East Timor activists who had made it to Manila. Archbishop Jaime Sin of Manila publicly apologized to D. Ximenes Belo, the bishop of the East Timor capital Dili, for the Philippines role in the boycott of the APCET conference, saying, "I know how your people have suffered...following the abominable violations of human rights among your flock. It is Christ who suffers each time that freedom is shamefully usurped."
East Timor is one of the two predominately Catholic populations in Asia (along with the Philippines), but the church has yet to make self-determination of the East Timorese a priority. The Vatican has made a statement by refusing to integrate the East Timorese church into the Indonesian conference of churches, yet much consciousness raising, mobilization, and prayer are still required if the church is to take a solid stance in opposition to the genocide of the East Timorese people.
Although East Timor receives scant coverage in the mainstream media, individuals such as linguist Noam Chomsky and journalists who have seen the Timorese struggle firsthand incessantly raise the issue through the channels open to them. Portugal, which bears responsibility as the former colonizer of East Timor, has made Indonesias occupation of the island its number one foreign policy concern and continues to advocate for East Timor in the United Nations and in other international forums.
The United States, however, has yet to make waves internationally on the topic of East Timor. On June 29, the U.S. Senate had its first East Timor vote, striking a provision from a foreign aid bill that would have stopped Indonesia from using U.S.-sold weapons in East Timor. And though Bill Clinton raised East Timor as a human rights concern several times during his presidential campaign, since taking office he has succumbed to a realpolitik attitude toward Indonesia, the fourth-largest nation on Earth, a major oil producer, and Americas "traditional friend" in Southeast Asia. The administration even sidestepped an October 1992 decree by the House of Representatives that barred Indonesia from purchasing military training from the United Statesthe U.S. now provides the same training for "a fee."
Clintons trip to Jakarta this fall for the Asia Pacific Economic Summit and the increased awareness in Congress of the East Timor situation create new opportunities for grassroots lobbying efforts to be heard. In the past, people of faith and conscience have played a major role in raising little-known issues of injustice in the public arena. And if we dont now, who will? We are called to bring light to the dark placesespecially to those corners of the world where the powerful seek to hide their insidious actions.