|Senator Russell D. Feingold Opening Statement Subcommittee on East Asia and
Hearing on Indonesia; Countdown to the Elections
Mr. Chairman, there is tremendous change taking place in Indonesia today. in the past year, we have seen the resignation of long-term ruler Suharto and his replacement by President B.J. Habibie We have seen the liberalization of the political environment, including the loosening of restrictions on political parties, a new electoral schedule that calls for June 1999 parliamentary elections, and broader freedom of the press. We have seen an improvement in the general human rights situation, although serious problems remain.
Equally extraordinary, however, is the change in the Indonesian attitude toward East Timor. As many of us here are aware, Indonesia annexed the tiny half-island 23 years ago. Since then, East Timor has been wracked by bloodshed and human rights abuses, with the loss of thousands of lives, the relentless suppression of free speech and countless incidents of torture and brutality. According to human rights groups, East Timor has lost more then one- third of Its population during this period.
But just last week, the United Nations announced that the people of East Timor may be a few steps closer to being able to determine the future status of the territory. According to a March 12,1999, announcement by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Indonesia and Portugal have reached an agreement that there shall be a direct ballot used to consult the people of East Timor on an autonomy proposal put forward by Indonesia. This announcement came after a series of negotiations between Indonesia and Portugal and coordinated by the United Nations.
Specifically, Indonesia has agreed to allow the United Nations to create and implement a system of "direct ballot" to allow the East Timorese to vote on whether they want to remain part of Indonesia as an autonomous province. If the majority of East Timorese reject this plan, Indonesia has said it will repeal the legislation by which it illegally annexed East Timor as Indonesia's 27th province, thereby paving the way for independence.
Mr. Chairman, this represents a rather astonishing development. For years. the Indonesians have rejected even any discussion of a referendum on self-determination. True, the proposal, while it offers a choice only on the question of autonomy, and not on full independence, is not the ideal referendum on self-determination. Nevertheless, it does give the long-suffering people of East Timor the opportunity to express their will through the ballot box. In the end, they may choose to maintain the territory as an autonomous province within Indonesia. But after all the violence and terror, it is high time they be asked for their opinion!
Despite the hope that last week's announcement brings to us, there are still serious problems that must be resolved in the short term, and certainly before any vote takes place. First, East Timor remains substantially over-militarized. It is therefore crucial that the Indonesian military (ABRI) be drawn down and the militias disarmed- Already, there are reports of new soldiers and new weapons being brought into the territory as a result of the announcement. Indonesia must do everything possible to lower the risk of new violence erupting. and at the time of the vote, the East Timorese should feel free to cast their ballots without fear of intimidation.
Second, the parties must resolve the Important issue of who is eligible to vote. So many East Timorese have left the territory since the Indonesian invasion that it will be nearly impossible to carry out an election whose results wilt be broadly accepted without allowing these individuals to participate.
Third, Indonesia could demonstrate good faith by releasing a significant number of East Timorese individuals who have been imprisoned for their political beliefs. I commend Indonesia for having taken the important step of moving resistance leader Xanana Gusmao from prison into house arrest, and for promising to release him from custody prior to any vote. Additional actions of this nature would be welcome.
Finally, it will be important to have the early active involvement of the United Nations on the ground in East Timor to help ensure a conducive and peaceful environment. I hope the United States will support the deployment of a U.N. or other international monitoring team to the territory to assist with the organization of the balloting, as well as, the implementation of any cease-fire arrangements.
Mr. Chairman, I am particularly concerned about the threat of violence that continues in East Timor today, despite the hopeful negotiations that have just been concluded. In addition, there are reports of serious food shortages, a mounting health care crisis, and the obstruction Of outside humanitarian relief by Indonesian government officials.
Mr. Chairman, last year the Senate unanimously endorsed the principle of self-determination for East Timor with the passage of S. Res. 237 in the 105th Congress. S. Res. 237, which I joined with the Senator from Rhode Island (Mr. Reed) to introduce, called on the Government of Indonesia to enact political reforms and protect human rights.
I hope we can continue to support the progress that has already been made, and help make the recently-announced agreement a reality The people of East Timor have suffered for far too long.