SYDNEY — IT is only a gesture. But, possibly as early as this weekend, Australian and Portuguese politicians and students head to East Timor from Darwin, Australia. The group of 150 peace activists plans to lay wreaths at an East Timor cemetery where Indonesian troops massacred civilians last November.
"The idea is to create a media impact so everyone in the world knows where East Timor is and what happened," says Paulo Vega, the news media liaison for the group called the East Timor Peace Mission.
East Timor is on an island about 450 miles northwest of Darwin. It was a Portuguese colony until 1975 when Portugal withdrew and Indonesia invaded. Since then there have been reports of a large number of deaths as resistance groups battle Indonesian troops. On Nov. 12 the Indonesian military opened fire on marchers who were gathered in a cemetery outside Dili, the capital. Indonesia plans to prosecute some of the officers and troops involved in the massacre.
It is unlikely the group, which includes former Portuguese President Gen. Antonio Ramallio Eanes, will reach East Timor. Indonesia has banned the group's chartered ferry from entering Indonesian waters.
The trip, says the government, is "politically motivated and designed to instigate confrontation, aggravate tension, induce divisiveness, and incite disturbances in East Timor."
In fact, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has warned the ship's captain of the potential risks. "If the vessel does attempt to enter Indonesian territorial waters without appropriate authorization and it does provoke Indonesian authorities by acting in that way, one cannot exclude the possibility that something may go wrong," warns Sen. Gareth Evans, Australia's minister for foreign affairs and trade.
In fact, Indonesian warships have been moved off the East Timor coastline. Mr. Vega says the organization will respect all maritime and international laws. "If they say they will open fire if you don't stop, we will stop. We're concerned about safety," he says.
The issue has become important in Portugal where private individuals have provided funding for the trip. Among those the Portuguese have funded are three students and one assistant dean from Brown University and a student from the University of California at Berkeley.
"The Portuguese have this guilt complex which they deserve to have," says David Targan, the assistant dean at Brown.
In the United States, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is planning a hearing today on the East Timor massacre. The US deputy secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs will testify. This will be the third hearing for the committee which is chaired by Sen. Clairborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island, who has a large Portuguese constituency.