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Celebrating Freedom

August 16, 1995



Indonesia will celebrate 50 years of independence from Dutch colonial rule Aug. 17, but all will not be celebratory. Activists and human rights organizations will use the occasion to emphasize continued human rights abuses in Indonesia and its disputed rule in East Timor.

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Since last November, when President Clinton and other leaders gathered in Jakarta for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the country has become somewhat more restrained in its behavior. The International Committee of the Red Cross now has access to prisoners; the police confront protesters using shields and tear gas instead of guns; and people no longer suddenly disappear.

But even some Indonesian leaders admit that progress has been slow. Foreign Minister Ali Alatas told a parliamentary hearing last month that ''there are things which leave us open to human rights criticism. These things exist, we have to admit it.''

One immediate problem is the country's crackdown on journalists. Another is labor-rights abuses. A third is East Timor. Indonesia invaded the territory in 1975 after the withdrawal of Portuguese colonizers and annexed it a year later - a move not recognized by the United Nations. During the summit in November, East Timorese students scaled the walls of the US embassy in Jakarta and began a sit-in protest. Riots broke out on the streets of East Timor.

Though the province has been relatively calm since six people were killed in January by the Indonesian military, protests will likely recur until Jakarta is willing to get to the core of the problem: self-determination. Though there has been little talk of a referendum on independence, the East Timorese should at the very least be free to express their views on human rights abuses and autonomy peaceably, without fear of imprisonment or even death.

In anticipation of the freedom celebrations Aug. 17, President Mohammed Suharto released three leading political prisoners in Jakarta, who had been jailed for life for their roles in an abortive coup attempt in 1965. But some 50 other political leaders remain in jail, and human rights groups in Indonesia are calling on Suharto to use the occasion to grant total amnesty to these prisoners. The celebrations should be seen as a chance to spotlight freedom - from political persecution and repressive rule.