Indonesia bars would-be refugees from leaving E. Timor

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Thousands of residents of East Timor are being prevented by Indonesian authorities from leaving that former Portuguese colony, according to refugees in Lisbon.

This is one of the findings revealed by an aide to Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts. Lawrence Payne has concluded a 10-day investigation into claims by East Timorese of continuing human-rights violations by Indonesia.

East Timor was invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975, partly to prevent the victory there of the left-wing independence guerrilla movement Fretilin.

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Mr. Payne spoke with refugees who had recently arrived from East Timor after paying what they described as bribes to Indonesian officials. The clandestine escape route they used, via Jakarta, has been available since 1979 to East Timorese who can afford to pay for it. Over 1,000 refugees have used this escape route since then.

However, most of these are Chinese-Timorese. Only a handful of ethnic Timorese have succeeded in fleeing the territory. Some 100 Portuguese who are known to be in Dili, the East Timor capital, are also trying to leave.

In international law all East Timorese are Portuguese citizens, as the UN still considers Portugal the administering power.

Senator Tsongas's interest in East Timor was aroused by a flood of letters from Portuguese constituents. They urged US action on the dramatic scenes unveiled to the world when the international Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), forced to leave by the Indonesian invasion, was readmitted to the territory in 1979 and discovered mass starvation and medical neglect. A delegation of refugees later traveled from Portugal to the US and lobbied congressional offices.

From 1975 to 1979 reports had trickled from the territory, usually via smuggled letters, of continuing bombardment and mass executions by Indonesian troops. Thee were reports of starvation behind Fretilin lines, where the people who had fled the towns sheltered, from the Indonesian advance.

After constant pressure from ICRC and the UN, Indonesia finally gave the ICRC permission to return with a food and medical aid program. They entered on a contract that was renewed at six-month intervals until earlier this year, when it was terminated by Indonesia.

During its 18-month program the ICRC began efforts toward a badly needed family reunification program, but it got little cooperation from Indonesian authorities. Thirty-two families with close relatives in Portugal were approved for departure under ICRC authority in this period, of whom 13 actually left.

Despite the end of the aid program, the ICRC is reported to be anxious to continue attempts at reuniting families, and to obtain access to prisons.

The history of East Timorese efforts to leave Timor is complex, and confused by legal and political problems.

Refugees who arrived in Portugal after the ICRC entered Timor say that in April 1979 applications were invited in Dili for those who wished to leave for Portugal. Witnesses say most of the population flooded into the streets, to the annoyance of Indonesian authorities. In a day and a half, the Timorese claim, the ICRC collected 17,000 signatures before closing the list.

Soon after, the Indonesian defense minister, Gen. Muhammad Jusuf, was said to have called a meeting at an athletic stadium and informed the population it was no use applying for Portugal, as the Portuguese government did not want to accept them.

The ICRC has never publicly admitted the existence of its embarrassing list, but one point is clear, according to refugee testimony -- there is an overwhelming desire among East Timorese to leave their homeland.

In 1977 Australia recognized Indonesian rule in Timor. It justified the decision on realpolitik grounds and said Indonesia had in return agreed to allow Timorese with families in Australia to join them. An Immigration Department team conducted interviews in Dili and selected 600 eligible Timorese. To date only a little over half that number have been allowed by Indonesian authorities to leave for Australia.

There is a saying current among the refugees: "If everyone who wished to leave could leave, only the stones would remain."

Why? According to Senator Tsongas's aide, fear is the main motive. "It was important to note the refugees were very, very afraid to speak. They fear that if it gets back to East Timor that they spoke with a US official, harm may come to their relatives," said Mr. Payne.

Soon after the invasion, most refugees were fleeing an open war situation. Today the war has abated, although not ended, and they say they flee arbitrary restrictions on human rights, including imprisonment and even execution.

Of the 20 or so arrivals interviewed in 1981 all insisted that regular engagements between Fretilin and Indonesian troops continue. Most evidence was hearsay, but some refugees had travelled int he mountains and could describe Fretilin positions and arms supplies. They said the war is stalemated with Indonesian troops controlling the towns but not the countryside.

The legal and political problems which attend the refugee situation stem firstly from Indonesia's reluctance to allow people to leave, second from the fact that the Timorese have no international status as refugees, and third from the undefined position of the Portuguese government.

Earlier this year, refugees in Jakarta claimed that the Dutch Embassy, which represents Portuguese interests there, was refusing to issue passports to them, even on production of Portuguese identify documents.

When this was exposed in the press, the Portuguese Foreign Ministry hastily authorized several hundred passports, blaming bureaucratic delay. The suspicion lingered that Portural is reluctant to encourage more refugees, especially as the Africans who came here after the 1974 revolution still stretch the social services budget.

The late prime minister, Dr. Francisco Sa Carneiro, stated that Portugal would accept however many Timorese choose to come, a view endorsed by his successor, Dr. Francisco Pinto Balsemao.

If Indonesian officials in East Timor say Portugal will not accept more Timorese, those listening may believe it. They know the difficulty of obtaining passports and they know that if a refugee is arrested in Jakarta it is unlikely that Portugal would protest.

Because they are Portuguese nationals, the East Timorese can expect no help from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They are thus neither accepted as refugees, nor adequately aided by Portugal, their national government.

The blame does not rest squarely with Portugal. Last year Prime Minister Sa Carneiro appealed to the world to help solve the East Timor problem. He proposed that the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, Japan, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and European Community countries help bring Indonesia to negotiations. There was no response.

The first approach having failed, the government is now seeking a UN special commission on Timor.

Like all refugee problems, the Timor problem masks a political issue. Said Lawrence Payne, "I'm hopeful that changes can be made [East Timor] so they want to go back, and Senator Tsongas will be taking initiatives in this direction."

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