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Military Is Said to Prevent East Timor Refugees' Return

November 23, 1999


UNITED NATIONS -- Intimidation by militias linked to the Indonesian military is preventing tens of thousands of East Timorese refugees from returning home from camps in West Timor, a senior American diplomat said Monday on a tour of the region.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the United States representative at the United Nations, which took over the civilian administration of East Timor when Indonesia ratified the territory's vote for independence, said in a phone interview that international relief experts were losing a crucial information battle to the roving pro-Jakarta gangs that lost out in East Timor and are now operating freely in West Timor, an Indonesian province.

After the overwhelming vote for independence in August, the militias waged a campaign of violence in East Timor, driving many people into hiding or across the border to West Timor.

"The militia are using two core tactics to prevent the refugees from going home," Holbrooke said from Dili, the East Timorese capital. "One is physical intimidation, but the more serious one is disinformation. They have told the people that there is still fighting in East Timor, that Australian troops will rape the women and that they can't go back because Xanana Gusmão will kill them or take retribution." José Alexandre Gusmão, the East Timorese independence leader, is widely known to Timorese by his pen name, Xanana.

Holbrooke said the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was "not yet on top of situation." He said he and the United Nations administrator, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, would ask Gusmão to make a reassuring videotape on Tuesday to be shown to the refugees. Msgr. Carlos Ximenes Belo, the Nobel Peace laureate who is a spiritual leader of the East Timorese, will also be approached, he said.

Holbrooke compared the militiamen, some of whom he saw wearing Indonesian Army T-shirts, to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who terrorized Cambodian refugees in Thailand in the 1970's and 1980's.

"We don't want these camps to become permanent," Holbrooke said of the settlements in West Timor. "It is a truism of all refugee camps that the longer people remain refugees, the less likely they are to return. These people should go back immediately. But they're scared."

Monday, Holbrooke helped arrange an agreement on border security between Indonesian military commanders and the Australian officer, Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, who commands the international peacekeeping force in East Timor. Matan Ruak, the deputy commander of the East Timor's former rebel army, Falantil, also attended the meeting.

In Geneva, Kris Janowski, the spokesman for the high commissioner for refugees, said the agency's staff members had been assaulted and stoned while trying to help refugees leave the camps. He said officials, who have tried radio broadcasts to get information to refugees, were forced to use "hit and run" techniques to get them out of camps -- driving up and racing to load as many people as possible into a vehicle before the militias intervene.

About 90,000 East Timorese have returned home, leaving between 100,000 and 150,000 displaced people in West Timor, not all of whom want to go back. The Indonesian government is being asked to resettle those refugees elsewhere in Indonesia.

Holbrooke and other experts say the Indonesian military, stung by the loss of East Timor, could turn West Timor, an undisputed Indonesian province, into a festering crisis for Indonesia, the United Nations and possibly Australia, which is leading the peacekeeping forces.

A long conflict in West Timor could cost Indonesia the international support that it needs at its most critical point, a British expert on Southeast Asia said.

"Indonesia is a very, very sick country," Peter Carey of Oxford University told an Asia Society audience in New York Monday. "It needs to be in a process of intensive care."

He said the country would have to be rebuilt with a kind of Asian Marshall Plan -- a more comprehensive aid package than those provided normally by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

But Carey, a history professor at Trinity College at Oxford Universtiy and the author of numerous books on the region, said outsiders would have to understand that the situation could get worse in West Timor even as camps are emptied, depriving the militias of important power bases. The Indonesian Army and its East Timorese supporters are in effect making their last stand there, he said.

"The situation in West Timor is very insecure," he said, "and very insecure people will do very violent things."

In Washington last week, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, used a budget amendment to tie all future military sales and cooperation with the Indonesian military to a list of demands that include the return of the refugees to their homes and the prosecution of all members of the armed forces who aided the attacks on East Timorese since the August referendum.

Holbrooke said that late last week in Jakarta he told Indonesian government leaders -- including President Abdurrahman Wahid, who is known by a nickname, Gus Dur -- that "Indonesia's international standing is being clobbered by what was happening in the camps."

"The civilian leadership, from President Gus Dur on down -- and particularly the attorney general and the defense minister -- all wanted us to put public pressure on their own military to solve this problem," said Holbrooke, who has been traveling with Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state for Asia and the Pacific, and Robert Gelbard, the ambassador to Indonesia. "They did not regard this as outside interference. They encouraged it. They welcomed it. They asked us to do it."

"The Indonesians are much more concerned about Aceh than about West Timor," Holbrooke said, referring to the independence movement in their troubled Aceh province. "We told them we want to get West Timor settled because we also are concerned in the long term about Aceh and the rest of Indonesia."

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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