Subject: Letter on proposed RDTL immigration law

East Timor's Parliament is debating an immigration law which, among other things, would give the Ministry of the Interior the power to deport virtually any foreigner or shut down any organization which includes foreigners and is engaged in civic affairs or anything else the government doesn't like. (UN, WB, UN agency and some foreign diplomatic staff are protected by SOMA, SOFA or similar immunity agreements, but the rest of us are at risk).

Parliament is moving through the law section by section, and expect to finish it in a few weeks. At present, they have approved through Article 14 without changing anything in the text as approved by the Council of Ministers on 5 February (below).

As my letter below states, the most important aspect of this proposed law is its implication for East Timorese democracy. This is an independent country at last, and that insensitive pressure from foreigners can create a backlash. Indeed, reaction against such pressure is one of the motivating factors behind this repressive legislation.

Below is a letter that I' delivered yesterday in English and Portuguese to about two dozen friends in the Parliament and Government of RDTL.

Obrigado, 
Charlie 

Charles Scheiner P.O. Box 88 Dili, Timor Leste
mobile: +670-723-4335 email: cscheiner@igc.org

21 March 2003

Dear _____________,

Tomorrow is a proud anniversary. One year ago, East Timor's elected Constituent Assembly approved the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste. All the people of Timor Leste, as well as many from other countries who supported your struggle, rejoiced in this milestone on the road to independence.

Personally, I was especially proud that Timor Leste had overcome centuries of colonial rule and repression to embrace principles of democracy and freedom. As you know, Articles 40-45 of your Constitution guarantee freedoms of speech, information, press, assembly, association, movement and religion to all people.

One year later, I write you with disappointment. The Council of Ministers has approved legislation which would revoke these rights for foreigners in Timor Leste, and the Parliament is discussing the legislation without full consideration of its implications. I refer to the proposed law establishing immigration and other procedures for Timor Leste. Articles 9, 11, 12, 63 and probably other parts of this proposed law, as explained by the President of the Council of Ministers in her LUSA interview on 10 March (enclosed), contradict the letter and the spirit of your constitution.

It was difficult for me to decide to write this letter, to express an opinion on a bill before your National Parliament. East Timor is an independent country, and I as a foreigner should not intervene in your affairs. So I hope you will view this letter as shared thoughts from a concerned friend of East Timor, not as a recommendation about what I think you should do.

As you know, I have worked for East Timorís human and political rights for more than a decade, starting and leading the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) in the United States, coordinating the International Federation of East Timor (IFET) globally and during the 1999 referendum here, and, since 2001, working in Dili with Laío Hamutuk.

Since 1991, I (and most other activists in solidarity with East Timor) have directed our energies and protests at foreign governments and international institutions that were complicit in violating the human and political rights of the East Timorese people. We did not claim to speak for East Timorís people or leaders, and we did not pressure East Timorís resistance or government to take particular action. We advocated for the East Timorese peopleís right to self-determination, and we respected that right even when the United Nations and international governments did not.

Since 1999, with Laío Hamutuk and IFET here in Dili, I have worked tried to make the United Nations, international agencies, foreign governments (especially Australia and the United States), and international NGOs more respectful of and responsive to the wishes and needs of the people of East Timor.

I write as a disillusioned friend, who is dismayed by what this legislation indicates about the future of East Timor. If foreigners are not allowed to peacefully express their views on civic issues, whose rights will be next to go? Is the freedom that so many East Timorese sacrificed so much for over so many years to be discarded so readily?

My principal concern is not that I may be deported if the proposed law is enforced. I will return to my house in New York, where I can make much more money, live a more comfortable life, and direct my work for justice elsewhere. I write because I am concerned about the future of your country.

Several parts of this bill are frightening, not only because of their implications for democracy in East Timor, but because they so forget the past and ignore the present. East Timorís government and many of your social and political institutions rely on international workers, police, ďvolunteers.Ē and soldiers. Just last month, your government asked UNMISET to extend, and international consultants provide irreplaceable support for most agencies of government. While this is unfortunate and temporary, it may be necessary as institutions are formed and your own leaders gain experience.

The proposed legislation implies that East Timor only wants foreigners who come here for high-paying jobs with foreign-funded projects. If we come because we believe in your nation and your people, because we think our support for East Timorís unfinished struggle for self-determination is still valuable and appreciated, because we believe all people should enjoy human rights, justice and peace, are we not welcome?

If we remind the U.N. that they are still responsible to protect East Timorís security, are we not welcome? If we tell Australia to respect East Timorís sovereignty and stop stealing East Timor natural resources, are we not welcome? If we criticize the United States for forcing East Timor to exempt its personnel from international justice, are we not welcome? If we join the voices of East Timorís people and leadership who call on the international community to end impunity for crimes against humanity committed here, are we not welcome?

East Timorís past has been very difficult for many people, but there are also proud moments which should not be forgotten. I cannot count the number of times I, as a U.S. citizen, peacefully protested the Indonesian occupation at Indonesian and U.S. government facilities in my country. During most of those demonstrations, we were honored to be joined by people from East Timor, Australia, Indonesia, Portugal and elsewhere. I know that similar events happened in many other countries, and members of the Council of Ministers and the National Parliament participated in them. Have you forgotten?

During the last few weeks, Foreign Minister Josť Ramos-Horta wrote articles for newspapers in the United States, Europe and Australia expressing his support for a belligerent U.S. policy toward Iraq. Although I do not agree with the Ministerís views, I do believe he has the right to express them, and should not have his right to travel restricted by governments which disagree.

As East Timor performs the difficult and essential task of writing your immigration laws, I hope you are cautious about taking examples from other countries. In the United States and Australia, for example, many repressive policies are in place, especially toward those who evade legal immigration procedures. It is important to distinguish between those who are in a country legally, with proper documentation, and others who violate immigration and visa laws. And it is important to remember that neither Australia nor the United States are models of freedom both countries, for example, supported Indonesiaís illegal occupation of East Timor for more than two decades.

Last month, I was gratified to be asked by East Timorese friends to join a protest against the impending U.S.-led war against Iraq. On February 15, about 100 East Timorese people peacefully walked to the U.S., British and Australia embassies, meeting with the U.S. and U.K. ambassadors, to show opposition to war. I and about 20 other foreigners joined the march. I would have done so wherever I was that day (more than ten million people protested in over a hundred countries), but I was proud to do it here, with people who have suffered so much from war and hope to help others avoid that horror.

Yesterday, after the war began, some of the same colleagues asked if I would speak at a public discussion on the war next week, sharing my perspective as an American with four decades of activism for peace and justice. I told them that under the proposed immigration law, I could be deported for attending such a meeting, let along speaking. But I agreed to do it, because I believe the people of East Timor need access to a range of information, denied for so long by occupation and war.

If the proposed legislation is in effect by then, the Government should deport me. I will leave East Timor sadly, as I have many friends here and have been privileged to participate in your struggle. I will not forget the inspiration I have taken from the victory of East Timorís independence, and from the hundreds of courageous, generous and dedicated people I have come to know. It will also be painful for me to see East Timor so quickly abandoned the ideals for which we struggled for so long.

What you have taught me will be invaluable as I move to the next phase of my lifelong effort to undo, in some small way, evils inflicted by my government. I thank you for that, but I will also have re-learned an unpleasant lesson about the corrupting effects of power.

Thank you for taking the time to read this long letter, and I would be honored to hear your thoughts or discuss these issues with you.

In solidarity,

Charlie

P.S. Although I am sending this letter only to a few friends and their heads of their institutions, feel free to share it with others. I can also provide it in Portuguese.

Enclosed with the letter was the LUSA interview with Ana Pessoa, and translated excerpts of the law, which have already been posted to the east-timor list.


 


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