By Max Lane
On November 9, the second Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET II) opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in defiance of calls by the Malaysian government not to proceed.
On November 7, the government took its first action to prevent the conference from going ahead by deporting Filipino Renato Constantino Jr, the convener of the first APCET in Manila in 1994. The government also summoned newspaper editors and told them not to report on the conference.
The APCET II convener in Kuala Lumpur, Dr Sanusi Osman, told Green Left Weekly on the eve of the conference, "Hopefully the government will realise that its international reputation will be severely harmed if it moves against the conference. As far as we are concerned, the conference does not break any laws. It is a conference seeking a way to peace. Malaysia is honoured that such a conference can take place here."
However, on the morning of November 9, the conference venue was attacked by Malaysian government supporters. Following the attack, all conference delegates were detained. APCET II issued the following statement, which was received by Green Left Weekly on November 10 at 2.30pm.
"More than 100 local and foreign participants attending the Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor were arrested on Saturday, November 9, 1996, following an attack by a group claiming to be members of the Malaysian Public Action Front.
"Eyewitnesses said that the attack was unprovoked and occurred during an inter-denominational prayer session at the beginning of the conference. 'The participants were just shocked when about 200 disrupters stormed the conference room door and went on a rampage', said the eyewitnesses. 'They man-handled the women participants, hurled verbal abuses and destroyed hotel furniture', they added.
"Many of the disrupters wore white shirts and dark blue trousers. On their shirts were button badges bearing the words UMNO Youth. Others were wearing T-shirts with the words MCA or Gerakan Youth. UMNO is the backbone for a coalition of political parties under the National Front, the party in power in Malaysia. MCA and Gerakan are affiliates in the National Front.
"Eyewitnesses said the attack lasted about an hour. The intruders smashed glasses, threw around chairs and shouted verbal threats. 'However, the conference participants did not retaliate. They huddled together to prevent getting hurt. The local participants formed the outer circle protecting their international colleagues in the inner circle,' said the eyewitnesses, who wish to remain anonymous for safety reasons. Two women conference participants were punched in the chest and another male participant sustained a nose injury. About 100 disrupters outside the Asia Hotel conference venue held a banner which read: 'East Timor is Indonesia's Affair, NGO's don't interfere', while chanting slogans and singing.
"Senior police officers arrived at the conference hall an hour later and warned those present to disperse. One conference organiser, R. Sivarsa, requested time to pack up and clear the conference room. He also wanted police to evict the disrupters for intruding into a legal and private conference. Eyewitnesses said Sivarsa spoke for about an hour. The eyewitnesses claimed that disrupters in the room kept shouting abuse at the participants and police throughout the hour.
"Police ordered the participants to be rounded up at 12.30pm. With the cooperation of immigration officers, the police rounded up more than 40 foreign participants for deportation on the next available flight. The international participants were from Bangladesh, Nepal, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Mozambique, Canada, Ireland, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Australia. They were instructed to pack their bags and proceed to an awaiting police truck. They were later sent to immigration department headquarters and then on to Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah International Airport for deportation.
"Three foreign journalists and three local reporters were among the 60 local participants and volunteers detained in the conference room and arrested at about 3pm. The 20 women were taken to the Wangsa Maju police station, while 39 men were detained at the Jalan Bandar police station. From the latest information received, they have been charged under Section 27 (A) (1c) of the Malaysia Police Act for illegal assembly and refusal to disperse. If found guilty, this accrues a fine of A$1600-A$8000 and/or one year imprisonment. It has been learnt that the women will be held overnight while the men will be released on Tuesday (November 12)."
The statement also included a list of all Malaysian and foreign participants who detained. The Australian-based detainees include East Timorese activists Abel Guterres, Helder da Costa and Joao Carrascalao, Andrew Alcock, Bishop Hilton Deakin, Andrew McNaughton, Maria Brett and Russel Anderson. The Malaysian detainees include Sanusi Osman, Sharaad Khuttan, president of the Malaysian People's Party Syed Husin Ali, Professor Jomo Sundaram and Lee Siew Hua from the human rights group Suaram and Elizabeth Wong, formerly a Sydney-based activist.