East Timor Update: Crisis and Challenge

East Timor Update: Crisis and Challenge

In Dili, the capital of East Timor, gangs which support rival political leaders are burning homes and attacking rivals. 150,000 have fled the city.

In Dili, the capital of East Timor, gangs which support rival political leaders are burning homes and attacking rivals.  150,000 have fled the city.

As of June 30, 2006 there has been a lull in the activities of street gangs who have been rampaging in the streets of Dili, East Timor for the past several weeks. At least 37 lives have been lost and 150,000 people have been driven from their homes. The gangs have been looting and burning houses and properties, often taking advantage of current east-west tensions to settle more personal scores. In recent weeks hundreds of demonstrators, mostly from the western part of the country, have been demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who resigned last week. At least temporarily, this appears to have mitigated the rioting as people turned from burning houses to celebrating Alkatiri’s departure. A smaller contingent of Easterners who had been gathering at the eastern outskirts of the city were allowed into Dili several days ago under a heavy escort of Australian troops, where they demonstrated in support of Alkatiri.

Karen Campbell-Nelson, a former Global Ministries missionary, has been in Dili for the past two weeks, doing some translation and compiling information regarding the impact of the recent unrest on women. In an e-mail from Karen on June 27 she wrote that most government offices were closed, gangs were seen blockings roads and there was still burning and looting of homes. Karen was scheduled to leave Timor Leste last week, but delayed her departure since she felt she could still be a useful support to her colleagues there. Last week she reported, “Folks here are being very quiet today. How long can one just sit around waiting for violence to erupt? It is exhausting. . . . I am just waiting to see what happens and try to document developments as best I can.”

Some local observers have expressed fears that the situation could explode into another Rwanda. Francisco de Vasconcelos is the Moderator of Global Ministries’ partner church, the Protestant Church of Timor Leste (IPTL). His family home and those of several other pastors have been burned down. They have been sheltering at the synod office close to the bridge on the western side of Dili which is guarded by foreign troops.

John Campbell-Nelson is currently our missionary located in Kupang, West Timor. He continues to work closely with IPTL and has been particularly active in its leadership development programs. John plans to travel to Timor Leste in mid-July with Jim Moos of the UCC Northern Plains Conference and James Vijayakumar, Global Ministries’ Area Executive for Southern Asia, to express our concern and support and to discern what more we can do to promote peace, justice and educational/economic development to benefit the poorest citizens of East Timor.

Please keep our partner church, the Protestant Church of Timor Leste, its leaders and members, John and Karen Campbell-Nelson and their family, and the people of Timor Leste in your prayers.

One Great Hour of Sharing and Week of Compassion have sent emergency funds to our partner, the Protestant Church of Timor Leste, to enable them to provide immediate relief assistance during this crisis.

The Southern Asia Office of Global Ministries will continue to provide updates when available on our website.


East Timor is the one of the world’s newest nations. It was voted into existence in 1999 after 24 years of brutal rule by Indonesia. A recent report of the Timor Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation documents the deaths of as many as 180,000 civilians – roughly one third of the pre-invasion population – mostly at the hands of the Indonesian military during its occupation. Forced marches, chemical weapons, massacres, rapes, sexual slavery, assaults, torture, disappearances and food depravation were tactics used against the Timorese people. Karen Campbell-Nelson worked for the Commission and was instrumental in its efforts to document nearly 30 years of the military’s crimes against women.

After the people of Timor Leste voted for independence in 1999 in a U.N.-sponsored referendum, the Indonesian military and militia whom they had armed and trained punished the nation. They killed independence advocates, human rights advocates and religious leaders; burned or otherwise destroyed much of the nation’s infrastructure and most towns; and forced many to leave the nation. Indonesian military leaders who authorized and carried out these and other atrocities now live in Indonesia. However, Indonesia refused to extradite officers who were issued arrest warrants by a Special Panel for Serious Crimes in Timor Leste, and instead created a special Ad Hoc Court in Indonesia to try 18 men that it accused of human rights abuses. Trials conducted by this Court in 2003 resulted in 17 acquittals (some on appeal) and one conviction of five years. missionary.

The recent unrest that began the end of April this year has roots in perceptions of unequal treatment in the armed forces that led to a large group of soldiers issuing a petition of protest and the subsequent sacking of 591 troops of a force less than 1400. Since the alleged discrimination within the forces apparently fell along regional lines, this, in turn, led to suspicion and distrust, particularly throughout Dili, between those whose families originate from east (Lorosae – rising sun) and west (Loromonu – setting sun) regions of Timor Leste. The tensions are also aggravated by the fact that the military and police are under different commanders and have different political allegiances. A further division has been drawn between President Gusmão, perceived as more flexible and diplomatic in dealings with the international community, and recently-resigned Prime Minister Alkatiri, who has ruffled feathers by refusing World Bank loans (the Bank favors development through privatization of many sectors that would likely reap huge profits for outsiders) and dismissing interests of the international business community as interference with East Timor’s autonomy. There are reasons to suspect the motives behind international pressures for Timor Leste to accept more outside help. In Australia, for instance, a leaked Defense Force document revealed that Australia’s first objective in Timor Leste is to “seek access” for the Australian military so that it can exercise “influence over East Timor’s decision-making” which would have implications for sharing Timor Leste’s oil resources.

Mr. Alkatiri recently negotiated an agreement with Australia for sharing production from one of the oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea – resources which by all reasonable understanding of international law and precedent should belong exclusively to Timor Leste, but which Australia plans to develop as it has developed other fields based on territorial agreement it had made with Indonesia prior to Timor Leste’s independence. This agreement was years in the making and is considered a poor one, but the best that Timor Leste is likely to achieve given that Australia withdrew from all legal conventions that would have required it to surrender rights to these resources. This agreement will split the profits from one oil and gas field 50-50, but will not resolve the underlying conflict. The income that Timor Leste will see once this resource is developed will finally give it the resources to begin to build a nation. This expectation of increased financial resources, although a potential boon for the nation, is also increasing pressures on the Timor Leste government to accept outside help in its nation-building efforts.

The United Nations has been reducing its presence in Timor Leste since the nation was formed in 2002, but many feel that democracy is not well enough understood, securely established and trusted for the U.N. presence to be reduced. Furthermore, the lack of any justice for the people of Timor Leste for the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Indonesian military has created a tendency for political and ethnic groups to rely on violent demonstrations to further their influence. Intimidation and other fear tactics are perceived as normal ways of operating. Political leaders often seem to incite and escalate conflict and use the ensuing violence for political gain.

The Dili-based Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis as well as the U.S. based advocacy group the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network are among those calling for an increased presence of the U.N. in Dili, the capital of East Timor. Some of the recommendations of these organizations include:

  • All U.N. activities in Timor Leste should be in cooperation with the sovereign government, and foreign security forces in Timor Leste should be under coordinated U.N. command.
  • The U.N. should commit to a mission of at least five years to avoid the past mistakes related to withdrawing too soon. It must deal with the country’s deep poverty through appropriate sustainable development and provide vigorous electoral support.
  • The U.N. must renew efforts to end impunity for crimes, restore effectiveness in the judicial system, and exemplify accountability and transparency in its own operations.
  • The U.N. should encourage a broad-based, national discussion to help the nation determine what local security forces are appropriate.
  • The next U.N. mission should involve more women at every level as nearly all those responsible for the current crisis are male, but women and children suffer the burden of displacement from their homes.

Opportunities for Advocacy on behalf of the Protestant Church of Timor Leste and the East Timorese people:

  • Advocate for a strong U.N. presence in East Timor for as long as it is needed. The U.S. government has repeatedly supported reducing the U.N. presence in Dili. Write the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, and to your senators using the above recommendations.
  • Advocate to the U.N., the Indonesian Ambassador to the U.S. and the U.S. government that there must be accountability for the crimes committed by Indonesian military officers in Timor Leste in the past.

Advocate for a reversal of the Bush Administration’s decision to reinstate military aid to the Indonesian military without the requirement that reform (demonstrated by imposing justice for victims of its past crimes, ending the culture of impunity for actions of military officers and establishment of financial transparency in its operations) precede the delivery of aid (November, 2005) which Congress had mandated.