Subject: 'Britain should bear some responsibility for Timor Leste'

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TIMOR LESTE 'Britain should bear some responsibility for Timor Leste'

July 21, 2009 | TL07615.1559

LONDON (UCAN) -- As the 10th anniversary of the UN-sponsored referendum for Timor Leste's independence approaches, a yearlong campaign by a Catholic agency to raise awareness of the country in Britain is reaching its climax.

On Aug. 30, 1999, the people of Timor Leste voted overwhelmingly to sever ties with Indonesia, which had occupied their land for 25 years following the withdrawal of former colonial ruler, Portugal. During Indonesian rule, up to 200,000 East Timorese are reported to have died due to famine, the independence struggle and reprisals.

After the independence vote, pro-Jakarta militia went on a rampage that left hundreds dead.

Britain must bear some responsibility for the tragedies, says Progressio, an international Catholic advocacy and development agency. This is because Britain sold a total of £287.75 million (US$475 million) of arms to Indonesia during the occupation period.

Since independence, says Progressio, Timor Leste has been wracked by poverty with today about half the population unemployed and 45 per cent living on less than US$1 a day. Moreover, there is continuing violence between political and ethnic rivals.

Britain has given £1 million to the World Bank Trust Fund for the overwhelmingly Catholic country but recently announced it had no further plans to contribute. It funds other programs and agencies in the area, but Progressio says in a recent statement that "even the most optimistic estimates suggest this is less than 10 per cent of what the UK earned in arms sales."

It went on: "We are now asking the UK government to acknowledge its role in the occupation and repression of the East Timorese people by funding comprehensive capacity-building and rehabilitation programs."

For the past year, Progressio has been running a campaign to persuade Britain to do more for Timor Leste. It campaigns in schools and among parishes and youth groups. It is also lobbying members of parliament directly as well as supporting a petition organized by activists in Timor Leste which will be presented to visiting dignitaries at the anniversary celebrations.

Progressio's most recent project was an exhibition of photographs of Timor Leste held at the Houses of Parliament just before MPs left for their summer recess, opened on July 6. The newly appointed Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster attended the event.

"The exhibition was staged in a hall which all MPs must pass through on their way in and out of the Chamber," said Progressio spokesman Jo Barrett. "It attracted a lot of attention ... we are confident that it met with a good response."

At the exhibition, Progressio presented the Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis, an MP, with hundreds of messages from the British public calling for justice for Timor Leste.

Lewis praised the campaign and said it was "incredibly important" to recognize the important contribution faith played in solving some of the world's worst problems.

He also praised the testimony of Zequito de Oliveiro, an East Timorese, who spoke movingly at the launch of the deaths of family members, including two brothers, in the violence.

Progressio was founded in 1940 as the Sword of the Spirit, in response to the silence of the Church hierarchy to the rise of fascism. In the 1950s, it started providing information to people inside and outside the Church about international affairs. In 1965, it changed its name to the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) and set up an overseas volunteer program.

It is still legally known as the CIIR but in 2006 changed its name to Progressio after Pope Paul VI's 1967 encyclical "Populorum Progressio" (On the Development of Peoples) -- to reflect its dual mission of recruiting development workers and advocacy on behalf of developing nations.

At the height of political violence in 2006, Sister Guilhermina Marcal helped care for about 23,000 people sheltering in the grounds of the Canossian Convent at Balide in Dili. Today, that number stands at about 1,400. Sister Guilhermina campaigns for those who have been displaced by violence, saying they will never be able to return home without financial and emotional support. Dili, 2008. -- Photo by Progressio (

A salt worker uses a bamboo tube to pour seawater through a clay filter to make salt crystals. This is the first step in a long and labor intensive process, which brings whole families to the salt flats each day from 4 am. With unemployment at 50 per cent, many Timorese have to take what little work they can get. Liquica province, Timor Leste, 2008. -- Photo by Progressio (

Antonio da Silva of Timor Leste, a staunch critic of independence, lost part of his left ear when men opposed to his political views attacked him. Their prosecution stands in stark contrast to today’s situation in the country that sees many criminals go free. Dili, 2008. -- Photo by Progressio (

Unemployed with five children to care for, Jose Menezes Nunes Serrao survived an attempted beheading in April 1999 when pro-Indonesia militiamen attacked a local parish church in Timor Leste. Today, he campaigns for the Indonesian authorities to reveal the location of the unmarked mass graves of up to 200 people who died in the attack. Liquica, Timor Leste, 2008. -- Photo by Progressio (

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