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Time for Indonesian, Timorese rights

The resignation of Indonesian President Suharto is an important step toward bringing democracy to Indonesia. This is an important moment for East Timor. A decision must now be made -- a decision that can be shaped by international pressures -- as to whether the 1976 annexation of East Timor will have been a Suharto policy or will be a permanent Indonesian government policy.

In 1975 the Indonesian army, under orders from Suharto, invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, claiming it had been invited in by Timorese leaders. Since then, the story has been one of military occupation, political repression, bloodshed and distant cries for help. Between 100,000 and 200,000 of the 600,000 largely Catholic East Timorese population have died at Indonesian hands during this period.

A change at the top of the Indonesian government does not necessarily mean the emergence of a government that respects human rights in Indonesia or in East Timor. Nor does it guarantee a reduction or the elimination of the dominant role of the Indonesian military. But it is an opening.

It is, of course, our hope that a democratic government in Indonesia could emerge that would respect the aspirations of the peoples of Indonesia and East Timor.

The United States has been a longtime economic and military supporter of Indonesia. It is especially important at this time that the international community send a clear message to the new Indonesian leadership that any continued support depends on political freedoms and human rights.

It is also time to begin arrangements for a United Nations-supervised referendum on self-determination in East Timor.

As an immediate gesture of goodwill, the new authorities should release all prisoners of conscience.

For too long, governments around the world have been prepared to turn a blind eye to atrocities in Indonesia and East Timor, and in some cases have allowed the sale of military equipment that has directly contributed to human rights violations. This must stop. The international community should act now to ensure that the new government does not repeat the same mistake.

It is time to urge Congress and President Clinton to formally end all military training and all transfers of weapons, spare parts and ammunition to Indonesia. The United States should offer Indonesia only economic assistance, and that assistance should be conditioned on Indonesia’s showing new respect for human rights.

The Pentagon recently announced the suspension of military training for Indonesia, but a long-term ban is needed. This is the time to support democracy in Indonesia and self-determination in East Timor.

National Catholic Reporter, June 5, 1998