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"The Role of NGOs in Asia:
An East Timorese Example"

by Jose Ramos Horta

In situations where popular forces stand up to entrenched totalitarian governmental power, there are a number of motivations and a variety of players who go to make up the popular opposition. The nature of totalitarianism is that no official opposition is allowed to exist, and where it emerges, it is divided and harassed. Such is the case in military and quasi-military regimes in South East Asia, such as Burma and Indonesia. What then is the nature of this dissidence, what are its objectives and activities, and who are the key players? What success can they hope for? In using the example of East Timor in trying to answer these questions, it will be possible to provide a framework for action, elements of which may be transferable to other situations in Asia, and a directory of activities with an estimate of their accumulated impact, which may be useful.

The East Timorese, prior to 1975, had been colonized by the Portuguese, but outside of the capital Dili, continued to live and farm with little interference. When Portugal began to disinvest itself of empire in 1975, Indonesia began to exert its influence in the colony. It infiltrated propaganda and troops, helped to provoke a civil war, then finally invaded and annexed the colony, claiming that it had been invited to do so by the East Timorese. After annexation it hand-picked an East Timorese assembly who voted for integration with Indonesia. Since then the majority of East Timorese have been actively and passively resisting, some militarily, some clandestinely, some diplomatically overseas. One third of the East Timorese population (200,000) have been killed, 80% per cent of villagers have been resettled, thousands have fled to Australia and Portugal and, currently, East Timorese suffer massive human rights violations at the hands of the 20,000 Indonesian troops who are stationed in every town and village of the territory. Internationally, East Timor is backed by public opinion in many countries, but is regarded by most governments as a de facto part of Indonesia. The UN however still regards Portugal as the rightful administering power, and East Timor as one of its main unsolved de-colonization issues. Against this background of 21 years of neo-colonisation by Indonesia, what then has been the role of those resisting and opposing the occupation?

The core of the resistance has been the people of East Timor. Had they not opposed the intruders, the issue would be dead, in spite of the illegality of the occupation. The small number of guerrillas in the mountains, though militarily small, supply essential inspiration and leadership for the movement. Meanwhile the youth of East Timor supply most of the active opposition, both in the towns and villages of their land and in Indonesia itself. Leadership has been provided by charismatic Resistance Leader and outstanding tactician Xanana Gusmao, now gaoled in Jakarta, and by religious lead er Bishop Belo, bishop for the 90% of East Timorese who are Catholics.

However, because East Timor was closed to the outside world from 1975 till 1989, and has since then been subject to restrictions imposed by the Indonesian army, the East Timorese cannot by themselves successfully carry on the struggle. Nor have they the resources to do so. Allies in the outside world are needed. Who are these allies?

East Timor has few friends among the powerful governments in the world. (Its only active advocate has been Portugal). Support for its cause comes almost entirely from non-government organizations (NGOs) whose efforts have been the main reason that the East Timor issue is still alive internationally after 21 years of Indonesian occupation and international indifference. I myself, given the great privilege of representing the East Timorese people at the UN and internationally, have been instrumental in influencing international opinion, however it is the NGOs that have formed the base of the opposition to Indonesia. Public opinion in Australia and Portugal, more than in any other country, is aware of the issues and consequently sympathetic. Activists in those countries, and in parts of Europe and North America, have established a huge range of East Timor solidarity groups which have kept alive the issues of Indonesian human rights violations and the illegal occupation of East Timor. Journalists, writers and broadcasters have equally been at the forefront, as a result of their successfully penetrating the restrictions imposed by Indonesia on reporting about the repression in East Timor. Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch-Asia, have also been prominent. Campaigners against arms sales, especially the Ploughshares Women in Britain, Catholic and other church groups and individual bishops, and more recently pro-democracy groups in Indonesia, have all contributed substantially to exerting pressure on national governments to alter their pro-Indonesia positions.

Where are these NGOs located? Australian NGOs are the most n umerous, because of Australia's proximity to East Timor and the large numbers of East Timorese refugees in Australia. Northern Europe is the next most active area: Ireland, Britain, Holland, and Scandinavia (Norway Sweden, Denmark, Finland). Portuguese NGOs stand alone in not needing to struggle against their government, which is already pro-East Timorese. More recently established NGO activity in Canada and the United States, where previous government support for Indonesia has prevented the imposition of sanctions, is pivotal in redirecting US attitudes, and therefore UN attitudes, in favor of East Timor. Other less active, but important NGOs exist in six Asian countries, seven other European countries and among Portuguese speaking countries, such as Brazil and Mozambique.

What are the objectives and activities of pro East Timor NGOs? By far the most important objective is to procure the withdrawal of Indonesian armed forces from East and the implementation of a UN sponsored act of self-determination. Tactics adopted include: lobbying internationally (at the UN and UN Human Rights Commission), lobbying national governments, production of East Timor awareness-raising journals (Inside Indonesia, Melbourne, and Tapol , London, are prominent), film-making about Indonesian repre ssion and human rights violations (eg, Death of a Nation), sensitive broadcasting (eg by Radio Australia and Radio Netherland), and mass action such as demonstrations outside Indonesian consulates, establishing East Timorese "embassies", street marches and banners, solidarity days, poetry readings, and publicly burning the Indonesian flag.

Another objective of the East Timor campaign is to expose and halt human rights violations committed by Indonesia in East Timor. International human rights groups based in London, Washington, Melbourne, Geneva, and Hong Kong are active in documenting and publishing the abuses, promoting mass letter-writing to the offending senior Indonesian government of ficials, and bringing the violations to the notice of the UN and the Indonesian government itself. Other objectives include: forging an alliance between East Timor self-determination groups and Indonesian pro democracy groups for the sake of democratizing Indonesia, which will be to their mutual benefit; providing sanctuary for East Timorese refugees who are threatened with expulsion by the Australian government; relieving the hardships of people living inside East Timor. Most of the initiatives in these three areas emanate from Australia.

What success have the NGOs had in meeting these objectives? It is impossible to determine which of the achievements of the 21 year campaign are the result of NGO pressure, for there are other forces at work which indirectly help to effect change. The work of NGOs, as mentioned above, runs parallel to the efforts of the East Timorese themselves, particularly inside East Timor. In addition the Indonesian military itself has contributed tactically to the East Timorese cause, by arrogantly and consistently indulging in cruelty and violence, which, on occasions such as the Santa Cruz massacre when the Indonesian military killed 270 or more East Timorese civilians, have become internationally recognized as their military norm. The most significant achievement of the campaign has been to keep it alive from 1975 up until the present.

Films, television coverage, news broadcasts, books, journals, conferences and demonstrations have all contributed to this end. General achievements of the movement include the passing of certain United Nations resolutions (1975-1982, 1993, 1997), which have condemned Indonesia and called for an end to human rights violations and a withdrawal of troops from East Timor, and the appointment of certain UN rapporteurs and envoys (1976, 1991, 1994, 1997) who have visited East Timor and reported back to the secretary-general. Other achievements which may justifiably be attributed more directly to the efforts of the NGOs include the establishment of a very focused East Timor Human Rights Center in Melbourne, the tactical alliance forged with pro democracy forces in Indonesia, and most importantly of all, the 1996 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to representatives of the East Timorese people.

The collaboration between the East Timorese, mostly within East Timor, and the NGO movement throughout t he world has been the source of most of the positive results of the struggle. The role of the NGOs has been pivotal in internationalizing the issue and maintaining the momentum for 21 years. Indonesia has every reason to dislike them.

Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta is the 1996 joint Nobel Peace Prize laureate,
an honor which he received for his decades of effort
working for an independent East Timor

See Ramos Horta Interview

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