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Reforms needed in Indonesia, East Timor

Jesuit Fr. Raymond Schroth’s elegant essay on Indonesia is not just another portrait of life in a distant land. It challenges us to comprehend, in heart and soul, that the human family is one; to realize that no hope or joy, injustice or aggression, is played out in one part of the human family without influencing the rest of the race.

Whether we call it interdependence or the mystical body of Christ, all of us, east, west, north, south, rich, poor, white, yellow or black, are going to find our way in the 21st century together or not at all. Thus, Indonesia’s current suffering is our own.

Deep inside we have recognized for years our common bonds with the rest of humanity. Yet this is also a new moment. A new awareness settled on us in the late 1960s when we first witnessed the spectacular image of an “earthrise” from the moon.

That precious moment spoke of our vulnerability and loneliness: all there together, all life we have ever known, hanging in vast darkness. One planet. Where from and to where were we headed?

Our emerging awareness has been accelerated by technological advances, from satellites to CNN, from cable to a worldwide network of Web sites. No geography. Just transmissions among peoples. No borders, no nations, no distances.

We experience the globalization of world economies. Whether we approach this with trepidation or embrace, its existence is not to be denied. We are left to make of it what we will.

Our own nation’s economy and foreign policies influence the lives and fates of the entire human family far more than the 5 percent our population represents. Most of us live in spectacular abundance. This decadence is matched by our considerable ignorance of the ways of our planetary brothers and sisters.

Indonesia is currently commemorating its 53rd anniversary of independence from Dutch colonialism. The celebration has been punctuated by the fall of Suharto, the U.S.-supported dictator who ruled the entire archipelago as a despot for more than three decades. Ironically, this child of national independence presided over colonizing another nation, neighboring East Timor.

The new regime in Jakarta has publicly committed to building “a just, open and democratic society,” and this we applaud. Suharto’s successor, President B.J. Habibie, has apologized for past transgressions -- but this is not enough. Apologies should be accompanied by acts of justice and the political will to punish perpetrators of injustice.

In supporting Suharto, our own government turned a blind eye to many rights violations as it profited from the area’s rich oil fields and other natural resources.

The United States scarcely objected to the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor that claimed the lives of over 200,000 Timorese, one- third of the population. In fact, Indonesia launched its invasion only hours after President Ford and Henry Kissinger left following an official meeting with Suharto in Jakarta. The United States then doubled military aid to Indonesia, blocked the United Nations from taking effective enforcement action and continued to sell new weapons, particularly helicopters, to Indonesia for the next two decades.

Since 1975 the United States has sold more than $1.1 billion worth of weaponry to Indonesia.

Last month Habibie said he would consider granting a “special status” of autonomy to East Timor. He also released 15 of the several hundred East Timorese being held in Indonesian jails, at military bases and police stations. Yet hours later Indonesian troops assaulted a peaceful East Timorese demonstration in Jakarta, taking hundreds away in buses.

The East Timorese people need the chance to choose their own destiny. They must be allowed to vote freely under international supervision and without the presence of an occupying military.

On the positive side, the U.S. Senate on July 10 passed Resolution 237, which urges the Clinton administration to “work actively, through the United Nations and with United States allies, to carry out the directives of existing United Nations resolutions on East Timor and to support an internationally supervised referendum on self-determination.”

The resolution also encourages Indonesia “to institute genuine democratic and economic reforms ... and to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all the people of Indonesia and East Timor.”

But we can’t leave the fate of Indonesia to our government. Our personal refusal to respond would be a failure to live up to our humanity, a failure to understand who, on earth, we are.

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998