Petition of Representative Christopher H. Smith Chairman, Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights Committee on International Relations United States House of Representatives

Presented by Joseph Reese, Committe Staff July 2, 1998

To the Chair and Members of the Special Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to present this petition. I recently returned from a visit to Indonesia, where I discussed the status of East Timor --- as well as other important issues including the need for democracy and fundamental freedoms in Indonesia itself --- with President Habibie, Justice Minister Muladi, Foreign Minister Alatas, and other officials.

This is a moment of great opportunity in Indonesia. For the first time in many years, it appears that there is a real chance for a speedy and peaceful transition to government of, by, and for the people.

Unfortunately, serious questions remain about whether the spirit of reform that is sweeping Indonesia will include a willingness on the part of high government officials to take a fresh look at the question of East Timor. In my meeting with Foreign Minister Alatas, he expressed his personal view that some sort of "autonomy" for East Timor might be possible. A few days later President Habibie made a similar statement. This represents progress, if only because such statements would have been unthinkable a few months ago. It is not at all clear, however, that the kind of "autonomy" these officials have in mind would confer real power on the East Timorese people to make fundamental decisions about their lives and their communities.

Some observers have suggested that strong feelings about East Timor among leaders of the Indonesian armed forces may operate as a constraint on the negotiating ability of the President and other civilian officials, whatever their personal views may be. In this case it may be that further progress will have to wait for new national elections, which, to the extent they produce a government that owes its power to the people themselves, will almost inevitably enhance the extent to which the military takes its direction from (rather than giving direction to) representative institutions. In the hope, however, that progress can be made even sooner, I offer the following suggestions:

--- First, it is not necessary to decide in advance whether independence, integration, or some intermediate status is the appropriate resolution of the question of East Timor. What is most important is that this decision be taken by the people of East Timor themselves, under a process which everyone --- Indonesia, the United Nations and other concerned international observers, and East Timorese of all persuasions --- regards as fair and transparent. If, as some Indonesian officials insist, the vast majority of East Timorese are happy being part of Indonesia, then these officials have nothing to fear from a process designed to test that sentiment. If, on the other hand, the majority of East Timorese still oppose Indonesian rule after more than twenty years, then Indonesia has little to gain and much to lose by continuing its military occupation of East Timor. A just resolution of the status of East Timor is in the long-term interest of stability for Indonesia.

--- Some Indonesians fear that if East Timor did choose independence, this would give rise to powerful centrifugal forces in all the far corners of Indonesia. It is important, however, to remember two important distinctions. First, the people of the thousands of islands that comprise Indonesia are held together as much by their shared history --- colonization by the Dutch, followed by the successful struggle for independence --- as by any other organizing principle. The people of East Timor do not share this history. Second, East Timor is distinct even from its closest neighboring Indonesian provinces in language, religion, ethnicity, and culture. So the people of East Timor already possess all the characteristics of a sovereign nation, except one: freedom. To the extent these statements cannot be accurately made about other areas within Indonesia in which there have been movements for independence, neither justice nor expediency requires that they be treated similarly. The case for East Timor can and must be permitted to stand on its own merits.

--- The government can take two steps immediately that would pave the way for a negotiating process animated by mutual understanding and a desire for peace and conciliation. First, it should heed the call of Bishop Belo and others for substantial demilitarization of East Timor. Second, it should extend its recent and most welcome decision to free 16 East Timorese political prisoners to include all those detained in connection with pro-independence activities, including Xanana Gusmao. I recently had the privilege of meeting Gusmao in Cipinang Prison. He impresses me as a gentle and thoughtful man, a person of strong principles but also of moderate temperament, whose personal participation in status negotiations would greatly enhance the prospects for their success.

--- Finally, I would urge all other parties --- the United Nations, Portugal, the East Timorese resistance, and all those concerned about self-determination and human rights in East Timor --- to respond in kind to conciliatory gestures on the part of the Indonesian government. For instance, if Indonesia makes a genuine commitment to demilitarization and to good faith negotiations, the resistance should agree to an immediate cessation of armed hostilities. Similarly, Foreign Minister Alatas has complained on a number of occasions that it is Portugal, not Indonesia, that refuses to engage in negotiations. Without judging the accuracy of this claim, it is important that every effort be made to convince the government of Indonesia that all other parties are ready to come to the bargaining table, in good faith and without requiring that any outcome be stipulated in advance.

I am most grateful to the Special Committee for allowing the presentation of this petition. I stand ready to help in any way I can.

Return to UN Petitions list



or make a monthly pledge via credit card
 click here

Bookmark and Share

Background | Take Action | News | Links | What You Can Do | Resources  | Contact

ETAN Store | Estafeta | ImagesHome | Timor Postings | Search | Site Index |