OSAKA — A catastrophe may await the people of East Timor even after the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force, according to a Japanese volunteer for the United Nations Mission in East Timor.
Akihisa Matsuno, a political commentator on Indonesian affairs, worked as an electoral officer for UNAMET during the Aug. 30 referendum over independence in the disputed Indonesian-occupied territory.
He returned to Japan last month after fleeing the provincial capital Dili and the brutal wave of violence following the ballot, and said that it is now the situation in West Timor that is very important. “We’re hearing a lot about the situation in East Timor, which is relatively calm now that the U.N.-backed multinational force has been deployed there, but militias backed by elements of the Indonesian military are now holding as many as 200,000 East Timorese refugees in West Timor, in effect as hostages, singling out supporters of independence and executing them.”
Matsuno, an assistant professor of Indonesian studies at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies, has written extensively on Indonesian affairs and serves as secretary general of the Osaka East Timor Association, a nongovernmental organization that has been advocating East Timor’s right to self-determination since 1985. He is also an adviser to Diet lawmakers.
Speaking at the association’s offices here, Matsuno said there lies the potential for a humanitarian tragedy on a massive scale and a protracted conflict before the situation in East Timor is resolved.
“I would agree with observers who say that a worse catastrophe than what we’ve seen in the past few weeks is possible. It’s already happening,” he said.
“We know that these 200,000 East Timorese in West Timor are facing deportation to Irian Jaya (West Papua), with very little hope of returning to their own country. There’s very little time to stop this from happening.”
According to Matsuno, West Timor is also becoming a launch pad and supply base for militias opposing independence preparing to make incursions into East Timor and carry out a new campaign of violence, as they have vowed to do.
In an effort to get the Indonesian government to put a stop to the situation unfolding in the West Timor refugee camps and to crack down on the militias, Matsuno’s group, along with other NGOs, is urging the Japanese government to apply both political and economic pressure.
“Japan should persuade the Indonesian government to stop these rogue elements inside the government and military from cooperating with the forces against independence,” Matsuno said. “Japan should, for example, hint at imposing economic sanctions. We need to focus on the political solution to this problem, because there are still signs that elements of (both) the Indonesian government and the Indonesian military are still operating to somehow stop this whole process. We are seeing these signs in West Timor.”
Matsuno predicted that the process leading up to the day when East Timor is a full-fledged independent nation will take three to four years, but noted that it will not be without obstacles.
“The United Nations has no clear idea about the duration of this provisional period. At least in the coming months there will be more conflict, and there must be (an understanding) in Jakarta for the process to move forward.”
Commenting on criticism leveled at the U.N. for the way it conducted the referendum, Matsuno defended UNAMET’s work in East Timor, but conceded its shortcomings.
“The main objective of the U.N. mission was to hold the referendum, and in this respect it was successful, but the problem was with the security arrangements,” he said.
“Now the U.N. needs to reflect on what went wrong and whether we failed to take enough precautions to maintain security in East Timor (prior to the referendum). I think the U.N. had enough evidence and information to be able to predict the violence that exploded in the aftermath of the referendum.”
The U.N. “continually promised” the East Timorese that it would stay on even after the ballot, Matsuno said.
“Many of the volunteers and election officials were evacuated with a somewhat guilty conscience because we left the local people, (who were) so vulnerable to the violence. It’s very shameful.”