East Timor Protest Shows Clinton Can't Easily Sideline Human Rights

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

EVEN as the United States government becomes increasingly reluctant to make public statements about human rights abuses in other countries, 29 East Timorese students are calling on Washington to intercede with Indonesia on their behalf.

The students have sat in a parking lot of the US Embassy here ever since they clambered over a spiked metal fence during a small demonstration on Saturday. Demanding the opportunity to raise their concerns with President Clinton or Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the students have refused to leave and remain under the gaze of Indonesian police and journalists gathered outside the Embassy gate.

Yesterday morning thousands of activists rioted in Dili, the capital of East Timor, and clashed with police, press reports said.

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These events are precisely what Indonesian President Gen. Suharto hoped to avoid this week. He is hosting the second summit meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which convenes tomorrow.

APEC, which includes the US, Japan, China, Indonesia, and 14 other countries in the region, is an expressly economic organization in which any talk of politics or human rights is off-limits.

Although human rights groups have criticized the Indonesian government for its curbs on labor unions and the press, the most sensitive topic here is East Timor. In 1975, Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony and then annexed it. The Indonesians have stifled Timorese calls for independence ever since.

Mr. Suharto, who has ruled the country since 1966, said this month he would meet with exiled Timorese, but ruled out any discussion of a change in status for the territory. He has not commented on the Embassy action, but Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said the protest was designed to embarrass the government.

TAKING advantage of the summit's publicity glare, Timorese activists are forcing their way onto the agenda on the anniversary of the November 1991 massacre of Timorese protesters by the Army in Dili. An official investigation put the death toll at 50 but independent accounts say approximately 200 people were killed.

The weekend's protests put Mr. Clinton on the spot just as his administration is trying to take a more subtle approach to the promotion of human rights.

Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, in Jakarta in advance of the summit, said yesterday that the US had decided not to pursue ``a `feel-good' strategy where you ... make a lot of bellicose public comments and achieve no results.'' Instead, the US would seek ``commercial engagement'' with countries such as China and Indonesia, boosting trade and economic ties while raising human rights and political concerns on the side. ``We are going to continue pressing human rights issues....'' Mr. Brown added.

In the case of China, the US recently abandoned a policy of linking human rights with an annual review of trade privileges.

The new US approach is similarly consonant with the operating style of the APEC forum, in which member countries make decisions by consensus and eschew any embarrassing public comments about each other's policies and practices.

But Sydney Jones, executive director of the US-based organization Human Rights Watch/Asia, says a quieter US posture on human rights is not a question of sensitivity to Asian values. ``It's a question of guts,'' asserts Ms. Jones. Of the Clinton administration, she adds, there is ``clearly a desire to keep economic issues paramount and not let rights concerns overshadow the very real economic impact at APEC.''

Her organization issued a report today charging that ``commercial diplomacy'' - an administration catch phrase - in the Asia-Pacific region has sidelined rights concerns. The group says that in the case of China, the administration has not implemented an effective policy since it uncoupled human rights and trade privileges, although Mr. Brown argues that the Chinese have resumed talking to the US about the issue.

Jones, who has researched human rights violations in Indonesia, rejects the Indonesian government's promise, conveyed to US diplomats, that the students in the Embassy compound would not be harmed or arrested if they were to stop their protest.

As of yesterday evening, the students had not yet asked for food, an embassy spokeswoman said, raising the possibility that they will conduct a hunger strike.

The students ``are taking a tremendous personal risk,'' she asserts. ``What's likely to happen is that they will be treated leniently until everybody goes home from APEC.''

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