Washington – Increased political sensitivity here over U.S. ties to Indonesia has given advocates of independence for East Timor more hope of pressing Washington to support their cause, according to activists and government analysts alike.
"Indonesia, and especially President Soeharto, are now damaged goods in this town," noted one State Department official here last week. "That makes the atmosphere around here much more receptive to East Timor than has been the case for a very long time."
Hoping to take advantage of that new atmosphere, a delegation of East Timorese and their supporters, led by Jose Ramos Horta, one of the two Timorese who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December, will press their cause here this week, especially with sympathetic members of Congress.
They want President Bill Clinton to name a special U.S. envoy on East Timor, as he has done for Northern Ireland, Cyprus, and Bosnia, and other civil conflicts with strong international overtones, and to come out unequivocally in favor of a U.N.-organized referendum on East Timor to decide the former Portuguese colony's status, Ramos Horta said here yesterday.
"Let's have a referendum carefully prepared by the U.N.," he said. "That's all we ask."
Activists are especially upbeat about three developments since Ramos Horta, leader of the exiled resistance to Indonesian rule, and East Timor's Catholic bishop, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, travelled to Oslo to collect the prize in December.
In a Dec. 27 letter to Senator Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin lawmaker who has taken a special interest in East Timor, President Clinton for the first time expressed interest in a referendum on self-determination.
"I note with interest your support of a U.N.-sponsored self-determination referendum in East Timor," Clinton wrote. "I will take your idea into consideration." In the same letter, he spoke favorably of using a "combination of engagement and pressure" on Indonesia.
On the heels of Clinton's unexpected statement, the appointment by Secretary General Kofi Annan earlier this month of veteran Pakistani diplomat Jamsheed Marker as the U.N.'s first special envoy on East Timor is seen as a sign of renewed international interest in resolving the 22-year-old controversy. Activists have also been heartened by the Clinton administration's failure so far this year to go through with the proposed sale of nine F-16 warplanes to Indonesia. Until December last year, top U.S. officials had insisted the sale would be formally submitted to Congress in January.
But top Republican lawmakers, normally big boosters of arms sales to friendly Third World allies like Indonesia, have come out against the deal in recent weeks, forcing the administration to delay action. "It's frozen," one official told IPS. The Republicans' unusual behavior appears to have far more to do with domestic politics than with their concern over Indonesia's repression of human rights in East Timor since Jakarta invaded the territory in December 1975.
Disclosures that a prominent Indonesian conglomerate funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars in allegedly illegal campaign contributions to the president have galvanized Republicans, who have pledged a full investigation.
Those disclosures have given rise to charges that contributions over a number of years by individuals associated with Indonesian tycoon James Riady influenced U.S. policy on a range of issues, from East Timor to a 1994 decision to suspend a formal investigation on labor rights in Indonesia that could have resulted in Jakarta losing trade preferences worth tens of millions of dollars.
"Money comes in; policy gets changed," noted George Will, a widely published conservative columnist in a Washington Post column yesterday which related such transactions directly to East Timor.
While the administration has fiercely denied any connection between the campaign contributions and policy, it has been put very much on the defensive. "There's a need now for Democratic politicians to show there hasn't been any influence," according to Charles Scheiner, U.S. coordinator of the East Timor Action Network.
Indeed, Washington sent a top trade official earlier this month to Indonesia with an apparent mandate to consider re-opening the labor rights investigation. Meanwhile, the U.S. AFL-CIO trade union federation has held demonstrations in front of Jakarta's embassy here denouncing the detention of a prominent labor organizer, Muchtar Pakpahan.
At the same time, reports of continuing human rights abuses in East Timor have also hurt Jakarta. Last month, Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, returned from a brief visit to the territory claiming that the human rights situation there was "at the bottom of the scale."
"What I found in East Timor was terror," he said, adding that Clinton should appoint a special envoy of the stature of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell.
But it is not only East Timor and campaign contributions which are causing problems here for Indonesia at the moment. If anything, the turning point came last July when Jakarta cracked down hard against its domestic opposition. Washington strongly denounced the repression and suspended the F-16 sale. For the first time in his 30-year reign, senior officials suggested publicly that Soeharto should reconsider any plans he has for re-election in 1998. At the same time, top U.S. business publications ran prominent articles on corruption in Indonesia, focusing especially on the fortunes of Soeharto's children and business cronies. Corruption and the president's family are also fuelling discontent within the military, according to analysts here.
"The army is deeply split," says Prof. Daniel Lev, an Indonesia expert at the University of Washington in Seattle.
East Timor has added to dissent within Indonesia, according to George Aditjondro, a self-exiled Indonesian journalist and academic who appeared yesterday with Ramos Horta. Since the Nobel award, the issue has "polarized Indonesian intellectuals, some of whom are arguing for a referendum."
In addition, more than a dozen Christian, Muslim, and legal aid groups have publicly protested the rape-torture of an East Timorese woman by the military, while two of Indonesia's largest Muslim organizations appear more open to supporting a referendum, he said. "The hard-liners have become isolated; that's why repression has intensified," Aditjondro said.