Subject: BG: Deadline on Timor

The Boston Globe JUNE 4, 2001, Monday



WHEN THE people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly to become independent from Indonesia on Aug. 30, 2000 (sic), the event was celebrated around the world as an exhilarating triumph for human rights and democratic self-determination. What immediately ensued, however, was a deliberate campaign of murder and destruction carried out by militias spawned by the Indonesian military.

Today there are between 80,000 and 100,000 East Timorese held like hostages in refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor. They are malnourished and in need of medical care. They live in fear of militias and Indonesian soldiers who hold them captive. Until those refugees are allowed to make a free choice either to return to East Timor or to resettle in Indonesia, the bright hopes of Aug. 30 will remain a cruel illusion.

East Timor suffered a brutal military conquest in 1975 and a quarter century of genocidal occupation by the Indonesian Army. Hence the referendum on independence supervised by the United Nations seemed to mark a new stage in that organization's willingness and ability to protect a colonized people from a member-state. And because the United States provided support and logistics, but not soldiers, for a multilateral peacekeeping force in East Timor, the midwifing of East Timor's birth as an independent nation also became a paradigm of how Washington can assist in international humanitarian missions without placing uniformed Americans at risk.

Indonesia intends to stage a one-day registration of East Timorese refugees trapped in the West Timor camps on Wednesday. Time is running out for the UN and the Bush administration to finish properly the task undertaken in East Timor two years ago.

At present, UN and humanitarian groups have almost no unhampered access to the refugees. Since three UN aid workers were murdered by militia members last September, the UN has refused to send its people back into the refugee camps. The militias and the Indonesian military are thus able to spread misinformation about the choice the refugees will make Wednesday between repatriation and resettlement in Indonesia. And the misinformation is supplemented by threats.

As long as the refugees remain in the camps, they attract aid funds from abroad that can be skimmed into the pockets of militia leaders and Indonesian officers. If the refugees' captors can control the registration process this week, they can make it appear that most of the refugees do not want to go home.

Along with the UN, President Bush should demand that Indonesia disarm and disband the militias abusing the refugees and allow international supervision of any registration process. All refugees who wish to go home must be allowed to do so. The new life of East Timor's independence must not be stillborn.

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