In East Timor, violence, fear continue after Suharto's fall Indonesian officials raise hopes of independence

May 31, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

EAST TIMOR, Indonesia -- More than a week after the fall of President Suharto, his picture still hangs in the El Turismo Hotel here -- a reminder of the long, brutal shadow the former Indonesian strongman continues to cast on this wind-swept, tropical island.

As Indonesia's new administration releases political prisoners to change its authoritarian image, many here still live in fear of a military occupying force that rules through kidnappings, torture and executions, according to human rights groups and church workers.

"If it is not very important, don't go out of the house after 8 o'clock," warns a student separatist leader, referring to the military's practice of detaining and interrogating people after dark. "We're scared. That feeling has been in our hearts for years."

In recent months, violence between the military and popular forces supporting independence for East Timor has increased. In April, soldiers killed a mother and her 8-year-old son while searching for separatists they thought were meeting in the woman's home, according to church workers.

In the past two months, paramilitary forces have kidnapped 10 youths suspected of aiding the resistance around the city of Baucau on the north coast. And in January, four civilians from the village of Hatas near the border with West Timor were forced to squat in a river with their hands behind their heads and executed, according to a human rights activist.

The resignation on May 21 of Suharto, who ordered the invasion of East Timor in 1975, has raised hopes that the government may now be more willing to negotiate an end to a bloody conflict that has ground on for two decades in this isolated corner of Southeast Asia.

Last week, Indonesian Justice Minister Muladi said Indonesia must change its attitude toward East Timor and consider giving the territory of 900,000 some degree of autonomy. In a remarkable move, the new administration allowed foreign journalists to freely interview East Timorese guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao last week at an East Jakarta prison where he is being held.

Roman Catholic Archbishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, who shared in the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize and routinely helps free prisoners, thinks the fall of Suharto may help reduce the level of terror.

"What happened in Jakarta could have an influence here, little by little," said Belo, sitting by a garden Friday at his rectory in East Timor's capital of Dili.

Indonesia's new president, B. J. Habibie, has said he plans eventually to release all political prisoners, but it may be some time before Gusmao walks free. The government considers the rebel leader a criminal. Hupudio Supardi, head of the press and ** information division of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, said that Gusmao could be granted amnesty, though.

East of Jakarta

East Timor, half of a poor, rugged island known for its coffee and sandalwood, lies more than 1,400 miles east of Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. For hundreds of years, it was a neglected, Portuguese colony.

When a leftist government took hold in Lisbon in 1974, Portugal began pulling out. Citing concerns over an independence movement that at the time had Communist leanings, Suharto launched an invasion in 1975 and annexed East Timor the next year -- a sovereignty claim the United Nations has refused to recognize.

Human rights groups estimate that the war caused the death of up to 200,000 people from bloodshed and starvation, although that number may be high. In 1991, soldiers clashed with a group of 2,500 pro-independence demonstrators in Dili, killing more than 50.

Indonesia's government claims the invasion was a humanitarian response to a request by the majority of people in East Timor in 1975 to end a civil war that erupted after Portugal allowed political parties to form.

"Indonesia has never had territorial ambitions," Supardi said.

A different world

Arriving in East Timor, visitors immediately sense that it is unlike most of the rest of Indonesia. Although all flights in and out are domestic, an immigration officer examines the passports of foreigners and questions them about their occupation and purpose of their visit. Journalists are only allowed in under government permission.

Visitors often stay at the El Turismo, where the rooms are bugged, according to Western diplomats. One Western official reported finding a listening device in a napkin holder at the hotel restaurant.

The signs of military occupation are everywhere: A rusting, troop transport ship lies moored in the harbor, trucks filled with camouflage-clad soldiers traverse the coastal roads, and thatched, lookout posts sit atop grassy hills dotted with eucalyptus trees.

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