East Timor: Church slams Australia's role
By Jon Land
Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, has condemned the Australian government for its soft stance on human rights in East Timor. He has been joined by church leaders and human rights activists in Australia who have spoken out against the federal government's push to further trade and military links with Indonesia while turning a blind eye to human rights violations in East Timor.
Speaking on the ABC's AM program on July 20, Belo attacked foreign minister Gareth Evans over Australia's foreign policy, saying Australia "was being compromised" by its relationship with the Suharto regime in Indonesia.
Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Edward Clancy, has also raised serious concerns over the federal government's lack of response to the Indonesian military's ongoing violence against the East Timorese people. The situation in East Timor has been described by Bishop Bello as a "living hell", and Archbishop Clancy stated that the government's response leaves "a lot to be desired".
The Uniting Church, at its Seventh Assembly (national summit) which met for a week from July 9 in Sydney, passed several resolutions on East Timor. Joy Bilazo from the Uniting Church's Social Responsibility and Justice Unit, told Green Left that it is campaigning for the Australian government to recognise the right of the East Timorese to self-determination, and that the East Timorese are represented at all international talks regarding the future of their country.
The Assembly also requested the National Council of Churches of Australia to "call on Keating to ensure that human rights principles are included in the conduct of Australia's foreign policy with regard to Indonesia and in relation to trade, military and economic aid and weapons sales".
Protests by East Timorese students at the University of East Timor on July 14, over acts of provocation by Indonesian soldiers and intelligence officers, were dealt with by the most severe crackdown since the Dili massacre in November 1991. Fleeing protesters were beaten and clubbed; over 40 were detained and injured, with up to three reported deaths. A number of students are still missing.
The Suharto regime has consistently attempted to break the role of the Catholic Church in East Timor which has played a major part in maintaining Timorese culture, identity and struggle. Since the invasion by Indonesian military forces in 1975, the number of Catholics has risen from 29% to 90% of the present population. Under Bishop Belo and his predecessor Monsignor Lopes, the Catholic Church has stood up for universal human rights and self-determination; it has become the "peoples church", similar to those in other parts of the Third World, in particular, Latin America and South Africa.
Indonesia's failure to crush the Timorese people's aspirations for self-determination has much to do with this active support from the Church.
The systematic harassment of Bishop Belo and other Church leaders is a deliberate strategy by the Indonesian authorities. He and many others have faced a number of threats to their lives and suffer repeated intimidation from soldiers and intelligence personal for speaking out against the Indonesia's illegal occupation.
In an interview with John Pilger in the July 15 Age, Bishop Belo confirmed the reports of a second massacre which immediately followed the killings at the Santa Cruz cemetery in November 1991. He also strongly condemned Evans' claims that the Dili massacre was an "aberration" and that a second round of killing did not occur.
"How does he know? Is he here, with us? I know well the witnesses. They have spoken the truth ... Unfortunately, I do not have a good impression of this Mr Evans, because of the extraordinary statements he makes. This was not an incident. It was a real massacre. It was well prepared. It was a deliberate operation that was designed to teach us a lesson. To say otherwise, is to deny the evidence of our ears and eyes."
At a press conference in Jakarta on July 19, Indonesian foreign affairs minister Ali Alatas warned Bishop Belo against making public statements against Indonesian rule in East Timor.
The human rights situation on East Timor is not improving. Sister Kathleen O'Connor, Project Officer with Christians in Solidarity with East Timor (CSET), who has recently returned from a two-week visit there, told Green Left, "My overall impression was one of oppression, intimidation and fear. Anybody that wished to speak to us had to come under the cover of night, for fear of being seen with foreigners. We were asked not to approach anybody because it put them in too much jeopardy.
"The Church is really the only security — the only safe place that the people have to feel secure and to feel some sort of trust."
O'Connor added that the attempts to break up the Catholic Church are aimed at breaking down solidarity between the Timorese people.
For the young East Timorese, who are at the forefront of the fight for justice, the Church is crucial. "Another one of the main observations was the tension, especially amongst the young people. The only way that they can meet safely is in the confines of the Church, which they attend in great numbers," O'Connor said.
"The youth are just so frustrated," she continued. "They can't speak out about what is happening in their own country. There are no jobs for them. They are really left with no voice, no say in their own country and nothing for their future at all. They feel it's time that they stood up to be counted, and again take the consequences. The situation for them is like a tightrope".
O'Connor was also critical on Australia's ties with Indonesia. "They have put trade and a commercial relationship with Indonesia far above the humans rights' issues that are raging in East Timor. To me that is not the way to look at it at all."
Solidarity groups and human rights activists throughout Australia are stepping up their campaign work in support of East Timor. Plans are underway to build large demonstrations in commemoration of the Dili massacre on November 12.
In August, members of the Timorese community will challenge the legality of the Timor Gap Treaty, between the Australian and Indonesian governments, in the High Court. A national campaign against oil companies based in Australia and operating in the Timor Gap is also being planned.
[To find out more about these campaigns, contact your nearest East Timor solidarity group. Christians in Solidarity with East Timor can be contacted at PO Box 522 Kings Cross 2011. Ph (02) 356 3888]