International Solidarity After Independence

On May 22, 2002, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the government of East Timor hosted a half-day seminar and reception with about 100 international solidarity activists from around the world entitled “The Role of International Solidarity for an Independent East Timor.” The meeting was addressed by President Xanana Gusmao, Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, each of whom answered questions from the audience. The meeting was also attended by a number of East Timorese NGO activists, as well as several government ministers including Ana Pessoa (Justice), Armindo Maia (Education), Domingos Sarmento (Justice vice-minister), Jose Luis Guterres (Foreign Affairs vice-minister), and many other officials of the new government. The President of Polisario (Western Sahara independence movement) also addressed the meeting.

Bella Galhos spoke to the gathering on behalf of East Timorese civil society, and her musical group of young women added a little East Timorese culture to the event. At the end of the meeting, people formed a large circle and introduced themselves and told a little about their activities, and the Foreign Ministry treated us all to a reception afterwards. This afternoon, there will be another meeting (4:00 pm at Yayasan HAK) between solidarity activists and East Timorese NGO activists to discuss ongoing collaboration.

The following is the talk given by Charles Scheiner of the International Federation for East Timor (formerly of ETAN/US, now working at La’o Hamutuk) at yesterday’s seminar. We hope to have the talks given by the government officials, and the Q&A, available soon.


Honorable President Xanana Gusmão, Foreign Minister Dr. José Ramos-Horta, Ambassador Constâncio Pinto, honorable leaders and citizens of the independent Democratic Republic of East Timor, members of the global movement in solidarity with the people of East Timor,

We in the international solidarity movement are privileged to be on this journey with the people of East Timor, and to join the celebration of your victory. Parabens! As you know, the supporters of East Timor around the world are a diverse group. My comments are personal, but I believe they reflect the views of activists both in East Timor and internationally.

As our voyage together enters a more complex era, we share East Timor’s excitement and trepidation in trying to preserve your hard-won independence in an interdependent world. For although East Timor has finally been accepted into the family of nations, there are still many who would exploit your resources and oppress your people for their own material and strategic gain.

An Australian aboriginal woman once told a would-be supporter: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time … But if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.”

We thank the people and leaders of East Timor, as your victory has advanced our common goal of human liberation. We will continue to strive for global justice, including the right to live in peace and the right to determine one’s own government. East Timor is now a democratic, self-governing nation whose constitution guarantees basic human and political rights. We look forward to the day when all peoples of the world will enjoy those freedoms.

Many of us come from countries whose governments have been complicit in the oppression of your people, and we apologize for that. Although we worked hard to resist and reverse those policies, we and our fellow citizens share responsibility for the many years of suffering and struggle forced upon the people of East Timor. We are gratified to share in your victory, but we cannot begin to comprehend the price East Timor’s people paid for your independence.

I don’t need to tell this audience that East Timor solidarity activists are a stubborn and cantankerous lot. Who else would take up a fringe cause which the experts said was unwinnable, and stick with it for so many years? Although East Timor’s people had no choice but to oppose the Indonesian invader, we from other places joined this struggle voluntarily. We are idealists who refuse to accept the truth and don’t know when to give up. And today, as East Timor enjoys its first peaceful and independent Wednesday, our shared delusion has become reality.

Over the years, many of us have become close to our comrades in struggle, some of whom now lead the government of the Democratic Republic of East Timor. Although we will continue our friendships, your ascension to power requires some redefinition of roles. We are in solidarity with all the people of East Timor, including those in government, those working with NGOs and cause-oriented groups, and the broader base of civil society.

As leaders of a sovereign nation, East Timor’s governmental leaders must now consider diplomatic and political realities, developing cordial relations with neighboring governments and global powers who conspired to kill your people only a few years ago. You are responsible for leading your people out of poverty, into a globalized economic system which serves wealthy nations and transnational corporations. You will relate to other governments as peers, no matter how illegitimate or oppressive they may be. With independence, East Timor has been thrown into the swamp of realpolitik that enabled the international community to facilitate your oppression for so many centuries.

As solidarity activists, our role has changed less. We remain in solidarity with the Timorese people, to see our liberation and yours as a common struggle. We are still stubborn optimists, insisting that the U.N. General Assembly implement its 1960 resolution that all people have the right to self-determination. We insist that the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be kept.

In this new phase of the journey, international solidarity for East Timor means helping to ensure that East Timor’s independence is more than legal that you have the economic, political and diplomatic space to develop your nation in the interests of all its people. We will support people-centered, sustainable, ecologically responsible development, through human support and direct material aid. Some of us will live and work with you here; others will advocate for East Timor in our own countries. Partnerships between East Timorese communities and their counterparts in global civil society will multiply, becoming a channel of material, political and human support that flows in both directions.

One of the most challenging tasks any society faces is to treat its most powerless members with justice. We stand in solidarity with East Timor’s women and children, who shared the burden of repression and have become the victims of its violent legacy. We support the rights of religious, political and ethnic minorities, of immigrants, of the disabled, of the illiterate, of people with different sexual orientation, of young and old people, of the rural and urban poor. As we strive to overcome social injustice in our own countries, we will also work to empower all East Timorese to participate in the independence of your nation.

For more than a quarter-century, activists in this room have lobbied, pressured and harassed governments which violated the rights of East Timor, their own people, or their neighbors. In this new era, sometimes the government of East Timor will be among our targets. I am encouraged that virtually all of East Timor’s leaders have emerged from the struggle, and that you understand the critical role public pressure on the Indonesian, Australian, United States and other governments played in helping East Timor achieve its independence. You know the importance of idealistic advocacy of marginal positions, and that such advocacy expands the margins, allowing political leaders to move closer to the ideal. And although we recognize that compromise is necessary for practical government, we will continue to demand the impossible, hopefully enabling you to take principled positions instead of being constrained by externally-defined, so-called realism.

On behalf of my colleagues in solidarity, both East Timorese and international, I’d like mention a few of the most important issues:

* People who conspired to commit crimes against humanity in East Timor from 1975 through 1999 must be held accountable if East Timor is to overcome past trauma and achieve reconciliation and justice. This includes not only the military and civilian leadership of the Suharto regime, but officials in Washington, Canberra and elsewhere who provided military, diplomatic and economic support for the occupation of East Timor. We, together with the people of East Timor, continue to demand an international tribunal to end impunity, especially since the Indonesian and UNTAET governments have little will to do so. We urge East Timor’s leaders to listen to your people and actively pursue justice against foreigners who violated your rights.

* Many TNI officers who committed crimes against humanity in East Timor are repeating those crimes. We continue to demand an end to escalating violations of human and political rights in West Papua, Aceh and Indonesia. We are in solidarity with those struggling for justice, peace and independence everywhere. At this critical time, we offer support to the people of Burma, Palestine and Western Sahara. Just as activists around the globe campaigned for the release of Xanana Gusmão and other imprisoned East Timorese leaders, we call for full freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Tian Chua in Malaysia, and other supporters of East Timor punished for nonviolent advocacy.

* One of the most important international pressures to end the Indonesian occupation here came from grassroots-driven limitations on foreign support for Indonesia’s military. In particular, United States restrictions on military training and weapons was key to weakening TNI’s political power. As Indonesia’s military reasserts control over Jakarta’s government, we are concerned that the governments of the United States, Australia and East Timor, among others, are moving to legitimize that brutal, undemocratic force. Over the past few days, activists from Indonesia, East Timor, and the United States have been discussing a common campaign to push our governments to act to stop TNI’s re-ascension to power. The flotilla that accompanied Megawati’s visit here last weekend must not be an advance force for another invasion, and East Timor’s government must not allow diplomacy to erase or rewrite the history of Indonesia’s crimes against your people.

* We recognize that East Timor needs economic support, but we are wary of getting into bed with such giants as the World Bank, the IMF, and the Asian Development Bank. When governments around the world have engaged with these institutions, their people almost invariably suffer. As East Timor enters the global economy, we will campaign against debt, and against selling hard-won sovereignty for financial support. We also encourage you to resist pressures to privatize or charge for essential services like education and health care.

* Foreign investors come to East Timor to extract profit, not to provide humanitarian aid. In the oil and gas industry, particularly, there is so much money at stake that morality, legality, good will, sovereignty and democracy are readily discarded. We demand that the government of Australia respect East Timor’s territorial rights under Law of the Sea principles, and we encourage East Timor’s government to claim those rights as quickly and forcefully as possible. We also caution that this industry almost invariably damages global and local environments, disrupts local communities, and transfers wealth from the poor to the rich. We hope that East Timor can be a rare exception to this pattern.

The issues I’ve just mentioned are a few where civil society’s principles may diverge from the realities that government officials feel constrained by. But as activists from many countries, we will continue to redefine reality.

For people all over the world, East Timor’s quarter-century of resistance symbolizes their own striving for freedom and human rights. As junior partners in your successful struggle, we in the international solidarity movement will continue to work together with the East Timorese people and your government to help make this nation truly independent a model of democracy, justice, human rights, and equitable economic development that can continue to provide hope.

Obrigado. A luta continua.

*********************************************************** Charles Scheiner International Federation for East Timor P.O. Box 88, Dili, East Timor (via Darwin, Australia) Telephone:+61-417-923273 or +670-390-325013

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