|Subject: Los Palos meeting
Date: Thu, 17 Sep 1998 20:40:10 -0700
From: bradley robert simpson <email@example.com>
The following is a report from a meeting which took place in Los Palos on August 30. Brad Simpson and Kristin Sundell recently left East Timor after a two week visit.
We stayed overnight in Los Palos after checking in at a well stocked police station, where we were asked if we were journalists, etc. The next morning we set out to find a rumoured free speech forum. We eventually saw truckloads of students, followed by truckloads of army troops, heading towards the edge of town, and followed them.
A free speech forum had been blocked in Los Palos several weeks prior, and an Australian journalist kicked out for inquiring about troop movements through nearby Lautem. What we attended was a meeting (monologue) which had been organized by the local Bupati (basically the mayor) and governor Abilio Soares to trumpet the virtues of autonomy in a tightly controlled setting. Students had been invited as well, and perhaps 100 of them came from Dili.
The students were pretty nervous when we arrived. There were hundreds of troops in the building where the meeting was to take place, a clear attempt at intimidation. They refused to go in until their safety had been guaranteed by the Bupati.
Inside we estimated that perhaps one-third of the attendees were military. On one side of the floor was a company of Team Alpha,a local paramilitary organization (they even had a plaque on the floor with their name). Next to them were local civil servants, and then the section of students, then a company of troops from the local territorial battalion. On the podium were the local military and police commanders, the bupati, and Abilio Soares, and ranking officers sitting behind them. To their left were civilians, and to their right perhaps 200 combat troops. The rest were civilians. At least 400-600 military were present.
The proceedings began with Abilio Soares giving an hour long speech on the merits of autonomy. There was no response at all from the audience. At that point the question and answer began and the situation spun out of Indonesian control. One student denounced the moderator and the undemocratic nature of the proceedings, to the cheers of the rest. For two hours after that a parade of students called for a referendum and rejected autonomy as tantamount to integration. One particularly vocal student denounced the military themselves and called for the elimination of ABRI and the Intelligence forces from East Timor.
It was an extraordinary sight, seeing students in an arena crowded with hundreds of soldiers directly challenging their right to be in East Timor. No one could remember this ever happening in Los Palos. Certainly before May nothing of this sort could have taken place. The Indonesian attempts to control the proceedings were a complete failure, two weeks after a free speech forum had been blocked. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the event.
After that the meeting broke up and everyone left peacefully. Some students, clearly exhilarated by what had taken place, jeered the soldiers as they drove by in their trucks. The episode is symbolic of the fluid situation in Timor right now. The Indonesian military presence outside of Dili is as strong as ever, but a space has opened up due to the confusion in Jakarta which has filtered down to East Timor, and the East Timorese are taking advantage of the moment. We were neither questioned nor harrassed as we left.