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Indonesia and East Timor: The Ecumenical Response
Background Information

Ecumenical Advocacy Update on Indonesia

With the arrival of the international peace keeping force, led by Australian troops, the situation in East Timor is slowly but steadily returning to normal. The refugees who fled the territory for safety and security are beginning to drift back to restart their lives. In recent days clashes have occurred between the peacekeepers and the militias; in one such clash near West Timor Indonesian forces were also involved. The border between East and West Timor continues to be a flash point because of the concentration of the militias in the region. The situation of the East Timorese refugees in the camps in West Timor remains delicate, and there are indications that their right to return is being restricted for political reasons. The sooner this issue is resolved, the better it will be for all concerned, and for the work of INTERFET in reestablishing effective security within East Timor itself.

Stien Jalil, the PGI staff member sent to East Timor to help GKTT (East Timor Protestant Church) during the period of the referendum, was evacuated to Cupang in early September and is expected to return to Jakarta shortly. She continues to send regular reports on the refugee situation in West Timor, where she has been working with the local church, helping to provide humanitarian relief assistance to the refugees. WCC/CCA staff visited the East Timor refugee camp in Darwin, Australia in late September. This is a transit facility which houses and processes between 2,000 and 25,000 people. Refugees from East Timor are brought here for registration, inoculations, health checks, etc. before being moved to Sydney or Melbourne. Staff had the opportunity to attend mass at the camp led by Fr. Joe Rodrigues, a Filipino priest from Bishop Belo’s diocese in Dili, and to meet with the Australian minister of immigration Philip Raddock and his colleagues.

Some time ago, the WCC announced news received from PGI that the Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos, General Secretary of GKTT, had been killed in an ambush as he was travelling from Dili to Bacau. For the past ten days or so, we have received several accounts that he may in fact still be alive. It is with joy that we can confirm that he has escaped threats on his life, and continues to work with and minister to his flock in East Timor. Similar reports have been widely circulated about the killings of several Roman Catholic priests. News received here in the recent days from Catholic sources have also revised these reports, indicating that some of those thought dead in fact have survived. Rev. de Vasconcelos and others who escaped killings continue, nonetheless, to work in the midst of a situation in parts of East Timor which continues to remain tense with fear and apprehension of possible outbreaks of violence. Their personal circumstances remain precarious. Around 70% of GKTT congregations are now in West Timor including around 27 pastors, leaving only 4 pastors in East Timor at the moment, according to our information.

There have also been reports from different parts of Indonesia of harassment of East Timorese, mostly students. The Crisis Center has been collecting information with regard to their people and in some cases, with the help of partners abroad, is trying to evacuate them to safe areas.

Ecumenical actions currently being planned

The WCC continues to monitor the situation not only in East Timor but in Indonesia as well. Regular contacts have been maintained with PGI (Communion of Churches in Indonesia) and CCA (Christian Conference of Asia) to share and exchange information. While the international media continue to focus attention on East Timor, other trouble spots in the country like Ambon and Aceh are rarely mentioned. According to reports we have received from church leaders there the situation in Ambon has deteriorated alarmingly. The clashes between Muslims and Christians continue, with people on either side being killed on a daily basis. There is general fear amongst the Christian community that a systematic attempt is being made to drive them out of Ambon. Two specific actions are in preparation:

The Moderator and the General Secretary of the Protestant Church of the Moluccas have sent an official letter to WCC and CCA, requesting them to send an international, ecumenical delegation to Ambon as soon as possible. The possibility of such a visit is being discussed with PGI and it is hoped that it can be made sometime soon after the forthcoming presidential elections in the country now scheduled for 20 October.
In order to prepare a coordinated ecumenical response to the ongoing crisis in Indonesia WCC and CCA is convening a meeting of the Indonesian Churches, mission partners and related agencies in Hong Kong from 12 – 14 November 1999. The purpose of the meeting is to:
Listen and learn from church leaders in East Timor, Irian Jaya, Aceh and other affected areas how they read and interpret events in Indonesia. Determine a short and long-term strategic ecumenical response Determine how ecumenical partners can best accompany the churches in Indonesia as they pass through this critical period.

The Indonesian presidential elections scheduled for early November, have now been advanced and are scheduled to take place on 20 October, 1999. Despite radical reform in electoral politics in the post-Suharto period, the early indications are that the old style of wheeling, dealing and horse-trading remains still very much in vogue. On 3 October, against all expectations, the newly-elected People’s Consultative Assembly, the country’s highest legislative body, elected Mr. Amien Rais as the speaker of the house over the candidate supported by Megawati. Amein Rais’s National Mandate Party had done poorly in the national elections, and as a result he decided to pull out of the presidential race. His election as Speaker put him in a key position in national politics. It is also an indication of the growing Islamic influence in the country. Mr. Rais is a key player linking the Muslims and reform politicians. This grouping is putting its support behind the moderate Muslim leader Abdul Rahman Wahid of Nahdat-ul-ulema Party in the presidential elections. Subsequently, in the election of the speaker of the Lower House, Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party again stumbled. Having failed to achieve effective alliances with other parties, she was constrained at the eleventh hour to support Akbar Tandjung of Golkar party.

These contests for two key political posts indicate that the presidential elections are going to be hotly contested. President Habibie, despite requests from his party colleagues in Golkar to step aside in view of the East Timor debacle, has refused to do so. The two other candidates in the field are Megawati and Abdul Rahman Wahid. Abdul Rahman Wahid, who till late had thrown his weight behind Megawati, has begun to shift his position. If these two can reach an agreement in terms of dividing the Presidency and Vice Presidency things are likely to move smoothly, if not it the outcome will depend on which of the two can forge an effective alliance with other parties. Indicators are that if Megawati is denied the Presidency because of power politics, her supporters could create problems and Indonesia could witness another round of uncertainty. The power struggle amongst the Indonesian elite is on. Much will depend on who is able to work out a better deal with the army and the Golkar -- which still remains a force to be reckoned with.

The East Timor debacle has evoked strong nationalist sentiments and anti-Australian feelings are running high throughout the country. Even moderate politicians like Abdul Rahman Wahid have come out with strong statements against the Australians. Some Islamic groups have called for Jihad. Ordinary Indonesians have been mobilized in a nationalistic fervour and not a single day goes by without protests and demonstrations against the Australians. It seems the Australian intervention has provided Indonesian politicians with an opportunity to mobilize the people in a surge of anti-Australian feeling. According to political observers the relationship between the two countries has been damaged almost irreparably. It will take a long time to heal and for the Indonesians to "save face" and regain their pride. Prime Minister John Howard’s public pronouncements of acting in the region as deputy to the global policeman -- the U.S.A. - and his talk about upholding Australian values have only added insult to injury. Reaction against Howard has not only come from Indonesia but also from the region, particularly from ASEAN, which has received its share of criticism for not responding to the East Timor crisis and thus allowing the Australians to take the lead. ASEAN’s Asia Regional Group whose main task is to deal with security concerns was found to be wanting an adequate response to the crisis in East Timor.

The relationship between Indonesia and Australia is bound to remain tense and explosive depending on how the situation in East Timor is handled by the peacekeepers. In this connection, the border between East and West Timor is bound to remain a flash point. The United Nations must act quickly to address the situation of the East Timorese refugees in the camps in West Timor in order to avoid any major conflagration between the Australian peacekeepers and the Indonesian troops.

Meanwhile, the churches in Australia and Indonesia should meet on a regular basis till this crisis is resolved, in order to avoid misunderstandings and to continue a healthy ecumenical relationship. In view of political developments, there is bound to be pressure on the churches in these two countries, particularly the churches in Indonesia, where religious and nationalist sentiments are running high.

October 12, 1999

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