From .......... National Catholic Reporter

October 11, 1996

page 12


By EYAL PRESS Special to NCR

JAKARTA, Indonesia—After enduring 21 years of brutal occupation at the hands of the Indonesian military, the East Timorese people deserve the long-suppressed right to decide their future for themselves, said Florentino Sarmento, one of the most prominent and respected leaders of the East Timorese Catholic community.

Sarmento, in addition to being the vice chairman of the Commission for Peace and Justice of the Dili diocese, is also president of the parish council of the Motael Church, and chairman of the ETADEP Foundation, a non-governmental organization that assists East Timorese with agricultural development, animal husbandry and the establishment of credit cooperatives in rural areas. In a recent interview, Sarmento expressed dismay at the ongoing repression and hardship endured by his people.

The pattern has indeed been longstanding. According to Amnesty International and other human rights groups, since Indonesia's invasion of overwhelmingly Catholic East Timor in December 1975, the small island-nation has lost an estimated one-third of its population — 200,000 people — to starvation and killing. While the U.N. Security Council has twice passed resolutions condemning Indonesia's occupation, the military stranglehold on the island continues. One of the reasons is that Western governments, unlike when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, have refused to stand up to Indonesia's aggression.

Although the United States, Britain and others have voiced concern about human rights abuses on the island, they have also served as the main suppliers of weapons and training assistance to the Indonesian military.

Sarmento is especially concerned with the long-term effects that the two decades of occupation have had on East Timor's youth, saying that, in recent years, not even the Catholic church can provide safe haven from the violence enveloping the island.

Sarmento's grim appraisal of the current situation carries special weight in light of the fact that he has long been viewed as flexible in his dealings with the Indonesian authorities. Unlike some East Timorese resistance leaders, Sarmento does not believe that East Timor can have a future without working out some form of relationship to Indonesia. The crucial thing, he said, is that the nature of this relationship be determined freely and independently by the East Timorese themselves.

Asked his opinion of official claims by the Suharto regime that East Timor is benefiting from Indonesian rule, Sarmento scoffs.

Last December, on the 20th anniversary of Indonesia's invasion, roughly 100 Indonesians and East Timorese jointly entered the Russian and Dutch embassies in Jakarta and called for East Timor's self-determination. An Indonesian NGO, Solidaritas Perjuangan Rakyat Indonesia untuk Rakyat Maubere, has meanwhile formed to monitor the situation there.

The Suharto regime has been doing its best to silence such voices. In fact, it is currently engaged in a major crackdown against critics of all kinds.

The crackdown began July 27 when hundreds of Indonesian troops stormed the Jakarta headquarters of the opposition Democratic Party of Indonesia, whose popular leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was forcibly ousted by the government a month earlier. Following the storming of the PDI headquarters, which triggered riots throughout much of Jakarta, the Indonesian government launched a massive, still ongoing assault on suspected opposition leaders. Numerous NGOs have been harassed and had their offices raided; hundreds of people have been picked up off the streets for interrogation and torture; and the leader of Indonesia's largest independent union, Muchtar Pakpahan of the Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union has been arrested and is being tried for "subversion," a charge that carries the death penalty.

Like most East Timorese, Sarmento is careful not to involve himself in Indonesia's internal politics. Still, he said, support and solidarity for East Timor from the outside has been critical in boosting morale.

One of the groups expressing solidarity for East Timor is the U.S. Catholic community. In July 1994, the U.S. Catholic Conference issued a statement in support of East Timor, calling for an end to human rights violations and a reduction in the military's presence. Still, Sarmento said that the Catholic community could be doing more to draw attention to the issues at hand.

Tom Quigley, policy adviser on East Asian Affairs for the U.S. Catholic Bishop's Forum, said that the church does not take a formal position on East Timor's self-determination, backing current efforts by Portugal and Indonesia to work out a solution. But the Catholic community does, he said, regularly issue statements protesting the human rights violations there.

For Sarmento, the hope remains that continued pressure from the international community will eventually result in change. He noted the rising international prominence of Bishop Carlos Belo, the outspoken head of the East Timorese Catholic church. "I really feel scared, after 20 years — even someone like myself, who once favored integration [with Indonesia].... But we still have hope, especially with solidarity."

Picture of Florentino Sarmento