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Indonesia and East Timor: The Ecumenical Response
Background Information

Advocacy Note - East Timor

The Situation

The situation in East Timor has been closely monitored by the World Council of Churches (WCC), particularly since the announcement that a "popular consultation" would be held in the territory. Since the beginning of the year, the WCC and the Christian Conference of Asia have made staff visits and sent delegations to the area in consultation with the Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI) and WCC's member church in East Timor (GKTT). Reports of these visits reflected the fears of East Timorese and international observers that the referendum could well trigger massive, uncontrollable violence.

Throughout the period of Popular Consultation WCC staff in Geneva remained in close contact with the GKTT, which helped coordinate the delegations of international monitors during the August referendum. At the request of GKTT, the PGI sent Ms. Stien Jalil to help with communications and coordination with UNAMET in Dili during August and September 1999. She also kept the WCC and ecumenical partners abroad informed of the situation in East Timor on a daily basis. The youth department of PGI provided young people to serve as interpreters for foreign monitors.

On 6th September, Ms. Jalil was evacuated by military aircraft to Kupang where she is at present helping the refugees who have fled East Timor since the referendum. The anti-independence militias have apparently targeted church leaders and church premises very specifically. GKTT staff has sought shelter in Hosanna Church in Dili. General Secretary Rev. Francesco, according to the last information received, has left Dili for Baucau. Two other GKTT staff who helped with monitoring operations remain in East Timor: Imelda in Baucau ,and Rev. Saud in Dili. The current breakdown in international communication has cut Geneva staff off from them, but contacts are being maintained through the offices of PGI in Jakarta. Roman Catholic Bishop Belo told the press in Australia late Wednesday that many church facilities were under attack, and with them the large numbers of people who have sought protection from militias there. He had lost contact, he said, with about half of his priests who, like many others had apparently gone into hiding, or had met worse fates.

According to reports received Wednesday morning, Dili continues to be tense with frequent incidences of arson and random shootings. We understand the situation is not as bad as it was a couple of days ago.

A report received through Australia indicated that late Wednesday there had been an intensification of violence. The UNAMET staff had been reduced to around 200, and had been isolated by militias who had blocked them and the estimated 2,000 people who have taken refuge in the UN compound from food and water supplies. According to that report, some 5,000 people were in the port area waiting for transport out of East Timor, an estimated 100,000 had fled to West Timor, and an undetermined number had gone by boat to Java and Irian Jaya.

PGI officials report that the Indonesian Churches remain concerned about the situation in East Timor. PGI recognizes and accepts the results of the referendum and has appealed to the government to respect the wishes of the East Timorese for independence. They are skeptical about the impact of the imposition of martial law, that gives emergency powers to the military. Experience shows that Indonesian Security Forces often use such powers to commit even greater human rights abuses. The PGI holds the Indonesian government responsible for the safety and security of all the people in East Timor. If government forces are unable to restore law and order and stop the killings, it should seriously consider the proposal of the international community to send peace keepers. However before such a decision is taken, PGI officials say, the modalities and conditions of placement of peace keepers should be clearly worked out and accepted by all parties.


The situation in East Timor is complex and must be interpreted and addressed within the larger context of socio-political developments in the country. While the situation in this territory is grave, Indonesian members of the WCC Central Committee reminded the churches last week that one must not forget that similarly chaotic situations exists in Ambon and Aceh as well, though on a smaller scale. The Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) are largely to be blamed for the situation in East Timor, but one must remember that 94388 East Timorese votes were cast for autonomy within Indonesia, reflecting the divided loyalties which exist. Many East Timorese have benefited from over two decades of Indonesian rule, and fear the loss of their privileges. Some of them have thrown in their lot with the Armed Forces to frustrate the will of the majority of the East Timorese.

The Indonesian Armed Forces themselves are passing through a critical period of testing. A dominant force in Indonesian economic and political life for 32 years, the military has enjoyed unprecedented privilege and status in society. Under Suharto it is they who have held the archipelago together. The East Timor crisis comes at a time when Armed Forces personnel are demoralized and stretched to the limits, and when the institution to which they belong is in danger of fragmentation, as shown by the performance of the Armed Forces in Aceh and Ambon in recent days. They are under attack not only from human rights activists, but from all sectors of the Indonesian people.

Indonesian elites are also engaged right now in a tense struggle over who will provide the future leadership of the country. Neither Pres. Habibie nor chief opposition contender Megawati commands a majority and are frantically maneuvering to create coalitions with other political forces. Recent reports indicate that Amien Raes of the Mohammdiyah party, who together with Abdul Rehman Wahid of Nahdatul Wida and smaller Muslim groups lost out badly in the last election, is trying to forge a coalition of Islamic parties. All this, together with the economic crisis in Indonesia, creates a situation of generalized uncertainty in the country.

Therefore, initiatives to defuse tension and conflict in East Timor should take these factors into account. The Statement on Human Rights adopted by the Eighth WCC Assembly at Harare is pertinent:

The present conflict in East Timor cannot be resolved without the incorporation of the above principles in any agreement made between the international community, the people of East Timor and the Indonesian government with respect to the deployment of an international force to reestablish order. The WCC Central Committee called last week on the United Nations to review the mandate of UNAMET in East Timor and to adjust and extend its presence as appropriate in order to respond to the continuing needs of the people there.

The WCC has reiterated it opposition to the use of armed force to settle disputes. It has reiterated the requirement of nations to respect the UN Charter with respect to the right of States to be protected from undue attacks on their sovereignty. International law does however provide guidelines within which the international community may intervene with the use of minimal force to reestablish and protect order, and to prevent massive violations of human rights, such as those now being committed in East Timor.

In consonance with the letter addressed late last week by WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, WCC member churches and partner agencies should engage in advocacy with their own governments which would:

Allow the United Nations:

  • to take immediate steps in consultation with the parties concerned to disarm all factions and restore law and order in East Timor;
  • to strengthen its presence in order to defuse conflict and prevent further acts of violence in East Timor;
  • to protect the right of all sectors of the population, irrespective of their position with respect to the recent referendum and the results of the ballot, to full participation in the political life of the country in a free and democratic environment.

Demand that the Indonesian government:
  • provide effective guarantees for the safety and security of all the people in East Timor and put an end to the present killing and destruction in the territory;
  • ensure that those guilty of crimes against the people of East Timor are brought to justice;
  • seriously consider the offer of the international community to send peace keepers to East Timor the Indonesian Armed Forces are unable to achieve this promptly.

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