East Timor action update
Eric Piotrowski
July/August 1999

East Timor has been suffering under a brutal occupation at the hands of the Indonesian military for the past 24 years, and the US government has been supportive of Indonesia the entire time. In May of this year, however, Indonesia agreed to hold a ballot in East Timor which would - for the first time ever - allow the Timorese people to decide if they wanted to break away from Indonesia (independence), or integrate with the occupying nation (under a so-called "autonomy" plan). The original voting date was August 8, but because of the horrible violence and fear on the island, the UN announced on June 22 that the date will be pushed back until the end of August.

Unfortunately, as soon as Indonesia agreed to the ballot, the Indonesian military, ABRI, began to arm paramilitary groups in East Timor. Since May, these groups have slaughtered over 150 Timorese civilians suspected of pro-independence activities.

Half of those in these paramilitary groups are from West Timor, which has been a part of Indonesia since it declared its independence in the '60s. The other half are from East Timor, but those who join tell of being harrassed into membership. There are reports that military personnel threaten East Timorese men and women (and their families) with arrest, torture, and even murder if they do not agree to join the paramilitary groups. In addition, the grinding poverty in East Timor provides the military with desperately poor individuals who may, for desperately-needed payment, commit acts which they would otherwise consider unthinkable.

Because of the incredibly high death toll (200,000 East Timorese have been killed since the invasion began), most people in the region consider integration with Indonesia to be a betrayal of their ancestors' suffering and struggle. Therefore, the spirit of the Timorese people seems to be one of unconditional independence. However, the climate of violence and intimidation has made it difficult for pro-independence advocates to campaign against the autonomy plan. Their names appear of death lists, and their families are threatened with torture and murder.

A number of things are being done to stop the violence. First, the International Federation for East Timor (IFET) is organizing an Observer Project that will send 200 individuals from around the world to East Timor. These people will travel with threatened public figures, observe the human rights conditions in outlying areas (where the violence is most severe), and report on the fairness of the vote. The IFET website (http://etan.org/ifet/) has more information on the project.

Second, the US Senate recently passed legislation that prohibits military assistance to Indonesia until such a time as they disband the paramilitary groups, stop the attacks on civilians, and allow foreign journalists and human rights observers into East Timor.

Finally, the House of Representatives is considering similar legislation that would also ban the JCET program which trains Indonesian soldiers. In addition, many legislators have signed onto a letter sponsored by Lane Evans (D-IL) that urges President Clinton to press Indonesia to make needed changes in order to guarantee a free and fair ballot in August. (The State Department has been atrociously reluctant to raise the issue with Indonesia.)

People in the US who want to help can call their legislators and urgesupport for HR 1063 (which bans the JCET program) and H. Con. Res. 97 (which calls on Indonesia to disband the paramilitaries and allow for more access to East Timor). Gainesville residents should call Lisa Weiss at Rep. Karen Thurman's office at 202-225-1002.

Also, IFET is in desperate need of funds for the Observer Project. The cost for one person to travel to East Timor is $1500, and living expenses are estimated at $200/week. One member of the Florida East Timor Action Network is applying to join the Observer Project, but he needs our financial support to make it happen.

This vote is exactly what the Timorese people have demanded for 24 years and this is certainly an historic moment for East Timor. But the violence could prevent the vote from happening in a fair and democratic way. Any improvements in the situation there will come as a result of pressure put on Indonesia to clean up its act.

Therefore, the participation of US citizens is absolutely crucial. Our actions have real consequences, and taking a moment to call or write a letter (or better yet, contribute to the Observer Project) is an easy way to strike a blow for human rights, democracy, and international justice.

For more information visit the IFET website listed above, or the websitefor the East Timor Action Network at http://etan.org. For local news and events, visit the Florida ETAN website at http://www.atlantic.net/~altin/floridaetan. Anyone interested in contributing money to the Observer Project should send an email to altin@atlantic.net or call (352) 374-6816.

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