September 20, 1999
Volume 52, No. 5
Carter Center Update:
Carter Center joins call for international intervention in East Timor
A 15-member Carter Center team observed the Aug. 30 public consultation in East Timor to determine the future status of the territory, but the center was forced to evacuate its remaining three international staff members from East Timor in early September due to escalated levels of violence perpetuated by militia groups believed to be supported by the Indonesian government.
The militias' actions are in response to the former Portuguese colony voting overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. More than 98 percent of 450,000 eligible voters (total population 800,000) turned out for the referendum, nearly 80 percent rejecting autonomy within Indonesia.
Last July the center sent eight observers to the East Timor capital of Dili to monitor the situation, produce a series of public reports and help ensure that necessary preconditions for free and fair balloting were secure. Additional staff were sent closer to voting day to monitor the event, and some planned to remain in East Timor for several weeks, but dangerous conditions forced them to leave.
"Our observers received numerous reports throughout July and August about Indonesian military support for the pro-integration militias, and visits to militia sites confirmed those claims," said Chuck Costello, director of the center's Democracy Program and leader of its East Timor mission. As Costello commented in a recent national interview, "We had members of our staff assaulted at the port of Dili in the presence of police officers and in view of a military group. We asked for assistance and got none. [The police] did nothing. They watched and then ultimately walked away. We had to evacuate our last remaining staff because they were under fire."
After being pursued through the city by armed militia and Indonesian police, some of the center's international observers were evacuated to Jakarta with the help of the Australian consulate and the U.S. Embassy. Many of the center's local staff were able to flee East Timor, but the whereabouts of some remain unknown.
Kirk Wolcott, program coordinator for the center's Conflict Resolution Program, was in East Timor. "It was a privilege to be part of the team," he said. "My two weeks there as a short-term observer were full of excitement, purpose and a fair amount of danger. After being forced to drive across West Timor when our airline flight was cancelled, we arrived in Dili the day five people were killed, including two in-laws of one of our local drivers.
"The next day, I deployed with three other observers to Maliana, where within two hours of our arrival, two people were hacked to death with machetes and 22 houses burned to the ground by pro-integrationist militia members," Wolcott added. "We were kept up half that night by gunfire intended to intimidate pro-independence supporters. The next day, the United Nations sent one of its top officials to Maliana by helicopter to determine whether the vote should be canceled in that district, given the high level of violence and intimidation. The ballot did go forward, and we were astonished and pleased when nearly 99 percent of eligible voters turned out, many of them traveling great distances by foot to cast their votes."
Although the center no longer has staff in East Timor, it continues to monitor the situation daily. "President [Jimmy] Carter himself is looking to the visit of the five-member delegation being sent by the United Nations Security Council," said Costello. "If Indonesia doesn't take steps at once to bring this violence under control, then clearly they should allow the international community to step in and do the job. The complicity of Indonesian military in sustaining these militia groups violates the clear wishes of the majority of East Timorese."
Carter has urged the government of Indonesia to take effective action to prevent new intimidation and violence, saying that "maintenance of public order and security remains the agreed responsibility of the Indonesian government and is essential to a successful conclusion of the public consultation process and peaceful resolution of the longstanding issue of the status of East Timor."
Ann Carney is associate director of public information at The Carter