Several months after the terrible violence that accompanied East Timor's vote to separate from Indonesia, conditions are beginning to improve in the new island nation. But progress will be slow so long as large numbers of East Timorese refugees remain in the neighboring Indonesian territory of West Timor.
In the wake of the August 30th independence vote, hundreds of thousands of East Timorese were forced by pro-Indonesian militias to flee into West Timor. In recent weeks, more than one-hundred thousand refugees have returned home. But according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than one-hundred thousand others remain in West Timor. Many appear to be staying in refugee camps because of intimidation by remnants of the militias.
When the militias began their rampage in East Timor, they were supported and sometimes even directed by elements of the Indonesian military. But East Timor's independence is now an acknowledged fact - backed up by U-N peacekeepers. Moreover, Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia's new president, has pledged to support the East Timorese as they struggle to take charge of their own affairs. This leaves the remaining members of the militias increasingly isolated. Nevertheless, they still appear capable of terrorizing many refugees and preventing them from returning home.
Clearly, more needs to be done by the Indonesian government and military to wrest control of the refugee camps from the militias. And as that is accomplished, Indonesia must do everything possible to facilitate the return of refugees to East Timor, so that they can rebuild their country and their lives.
In November, Richard Holbrooke, United States ambassador to the U-N, visited refugee camps in West Timor. He stressed that such camps must not be allowed to become permanent and that the money being spent on them should instead be spent on helping East Timorese to return home. Indonesia is at a crossroads, said Ambassador Holbrooke. And the way it deals with the camps may well show the direction in which Indonesia is moving.