Wed, 29 Mar 2000

Another E. Timor disaster

The violent way with which Indonesia got rid of East Timor last year is likely to haunt the nation for many years to come. As Indonesia faces international demands for a war crime tribunal to try its military leaders, another East Timor humanitarian disaster of horrendous proportion looms large again this week which could prove to be a major embarrassment for the country. Indonesia has announced that after Friday, it will no longer provide relief aid to around 100,000 East Timorese still languishing in refugee camps in the western half of Timor island.

Considering the extensive damage that Indonesia caused during its 24 years of illegal occupation of the territory, one suspects that the East Timor issue will continue to dog Indonesia. The refugee problem, in all probability, will prove to be just the tip of the iceberg as we pay the price of the mistakes past regimes committed in East Timor.

The East Timorese refugees have been told that they have until March 31 to decide whether to return to their homeland or accept the offer of Indonesian citizenship and be resettled elsewhere in the archipelago. The termination of the government's relief operation means the refugee camps will soon be closed down, and their inhabitants moved out, one way or another.

This is indeed a tough choice to make for the refugees. While most undoubtedly want to go back to their homeland, almost every one of them has nothing to go home to, or to look forward to. And having voted for independence, it is inconceivable that they would want to take up Jakarta's offer of citizenship.

East Timor was ravaged by violence which erupted after the Aug. 30 ballot that saw the majority opting for independence. The destruction, perpetrated by pro-Indonesia East Timorese but allegedly with direct or indirect support of the Indonesian Military, was so complete that there is virtually nothing left of the towns and villages in the new independent country. Not only do the East Timorese refugees have no jobs to go back to, they also have no roofs over their heads if they do decide to go back.

Not surprisingly, many East Timorese have chosen to stay in refugee camps, even with all the discomforts, rather than face the uncertainty of returning to their homeland. Many who did return have subsequently crossed the Indonesian border back, and have chosen to live, for the time being, in the refugee camps.

The issue of the East Timor refugees, just as with all people displaced by war, is an international problem. The solution, or rather the burden, therefore, must be borne by the international community. Indeed, massive international aid has been pouring in since October. But East Timor is primarily the responsibility of Indonesia, if only because the September violence could, and should, have been prevented by Indonesia. If Indonesia now finds that it has had to shoulder the larger share of the burden, then it only has itself, or rather its past leaders, to blame.

To Indonesia's credit, it has, until today, lived up to its responsibility in caring for the East Timor refugees. But there is also a limit to its resources, especially when the country has hundreds of thousands of other refugees displaced by violence in Ambon, North Maluku, West Kalimantan and Aceh. The East Nusa Tenggara provincial administration, which oversees the western half of Timor island, has now been told by the central administration in Jakarta that as of April 1 no more money will forthcoming for the East Timor refugees. The provincial administration in turn gave the ultimatum to the refugees to make their choice.

With only three days before the deadline, we hope that the government, particularly the East Nusa Tenggara provincial administration, will show more wisdom and compassion in dealing with this sensitive issue. Carrying out its threat to forcefully remove the refugees, or simply neglecting their needs, would turn the refugee problem into another major humanitarian disaster.

He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind, so the saying goes. The East Timor refugee problem was largely Indonesia's doing. The failure of the government, or rather the military, to live up to its international responsibility after the ballot last year has wrought a very high price. It is just as well that the East Timorese are not asking for war reparations, which could have been well within their rights. But the refugee problem is one that Indonesia has to address. Considering the damage it caused, can Indonesia seriously claim today that it has done enough for the East Timorese refugees, and stop further relief aid to them?