Washington — More than three months ago, Secretary of State George Shultz expressed concern to Indonesian officials about reports of continuing human rights abuses in the Indonesian-occupied former Portuguese colony of East Timor.
But since that time the Indonesians have continued to restrict access to East Timor by foreign journalists and by officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Independent assessments of conditions in East Timor have been hard to come by.
The restrictions have led to renewed concern among some American congressmen that conditions in East Timor are not nearly so benign as the Indonesian government makes them out to be. One reason for congressional concern is that in violation of an arms agreement with the United States, the Indonesians used American weapons in their 1975 invasion of East Timor. By some estimates, the invasion, and the famine that followed it in 1978 and '79, killed more than 100, 000 Timorese.
In July, 123 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary Shultz urging that ''the plight of the people of East Timor'' be given serious attention in the meetings Shultz conducted during his visit that month to Indonesia. The congressional letter to Shultz was drafted by Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio.
A US government spokesman later confirmed that Shultz had raised the issue of human rights in East Timor in a July 11 meeting with Indonesia's foreign minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja.
Indonesian officials insist that conditions in East Timor are improving and that Indonesia is carrying out a program of accelerated development in the territory. But Congressman Hall and some of his colleagues are not convinced. In answer to a query from a reporter this week, Hall said, ''I've seen nothing to indicate that the situation in East Timor has changed for the better since the Shultz visit.''
Hall focuses on one point in particular. He notes that Indonesia has refused to permit the ICRC to conduct an independent survey of East Timor to assess the humanitarian needs of the people, despite reports from refugees and Catholic clerics of continued fighting and hunger in several areas.
In a letter sent to Lisbon earlier this year, the apostolic administrator of the Roman Catholic Church in East Timor, Msgr. Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, wrote that the Timorese were suffering from ''disease, hunger, persecution, and the loss of freedom.'' Monsignor Belo, who is a native Timorese, wrote in the letter dated Feb. 11 that Indonesian forces had intensified anti-guerrilla operations and were forcibly recruiting rural Timorese. In July Pope John Paul II voiced concern over Indonesian actions in East Timor.
State Department officials who have had access to East Timor have disagreed with the Reverend Belo's account of conditions there. While acknowledging that some ''sporadic'' fighting continues in the eastern part of the territory, the State Department does not find any significant lack of food in East Timor.
In a letter to the New York Times published Sept. 7, A. Hasnan Habib, the Indonesian ambassador in Washington, charged that ''some few clerics'' in East Timor were being manipulated by Fretilin, the East Timorese independence movement. Ambassador Habib described Fretilin as ''a small band of renegades.''
According to the State Department, an extended de facto cease-fire in East Timor broke down in August, 1983, after Fretilin insurgents killed 16 Indonesian Army engineers engaged in civic action work in East Timor. The US estimates that some 500 to 600 Fretilin guerrillas are operating in East Timor.
Last November, the Indonesian ambassador to the United Nations said ICRC operations in East Timor had been suspended due to the August 1983 incident and Indonesian concern for ICRC personnel. But Western diplomats said the ICRC made its decision to suspend food and medical assistance operations well before the August incident, because it could not get unrestricted access to all the villages where an evaluation of aid requirements would have had to be made.
A working paper for the United Nations Secretariat said the ICRC had ''intended to continue the program in 1983, but it was not granted access to all the places where assistance requirements would have to be evaluated.''
The ICRC has been able to visit prisons and detention centers in East Timor and on an offshore island. An agreement reached in 1983 would extend those visits to other detention centers on the main island.