DILI – After 23 years of brutal Indonesian rule, President B.J. Habibie has offered East Timor independence if people reject autonomy in return for accepting Indonesia’s permanent sovereignty. The announcement, setting a July vote, took the international community by surprise. But rather than expressing relief, pro-independence supporters in East Timor remain skeptical.
After Habibie’s announcement, right-wing militia groups, armed by the military, led assaults on sympathizers of Falintil, the pro-independence guerrilla forces. Hundreds have died during recent attacks, and over 18,000 people have been displaced since last November.
In April, Indonesia agreed to let UN monitors supervise and police the July referendum. But many East Timorese plan to continue defending themselves. Tere Bulak, a guerrilla commander, says they’re "ready to fight to the last" for freedom.
Habibie’s autonomy offer is widely viewed as a ploy, an ultimatum designed to woo international support and remove an obstacle to desperately needed foreign aid. Critics claim he knows that East Timor isn’t ready, politically or economically, for independence.
"The government is trying to scare us into accepting autonomy," says exiled Timorese activist and 1995 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta. "They knew that for us to be given independence now would be suicide. The Indonesians have divided us. We need time to placate the people, time in which we can prepare a peaceful environment for a referendum on our future."
Xanano Gusmao, the former rebel commander jailed in 1992, backs a long period of autonomy – up to 15 years – followed by a vote on independence. But Jakarta rejects that. Either the Timorese accept autonomy as a final solution, says the government, or they’re cut adrift.
Indonesia annexed the former Portugese colony in 1975, a move never recognized by the UN. War and famine have killed more than 200,000 Timorese, almost one-fifth of the population. A quick transfer of power could easily lead to a blood bath, similar to the civil war just before Indonesia’s invasion.
Despite civil strife and economic pressures, Timor’s most influential leaders are unlikely to accept autonomy without the guarantee of a future chance for self-determination. If Jakarta continues to refuse, the territory may become independent as early as mid-2000, no matter how difficult the future might be.
back to top of page
NEW YORK – Two Pacifica Radio journalists rejected honors from the Overseas Press Club in April after being stopped from interviewing Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the event’s keynote speaker, about US policy toward the Balkans. They also protested the club’s praise of the Indonesian regime for issuing an apology concerning harsh treatment of journalists.
"At a time of war, when hundreds of bombs are dropping on Yugoslavia and Ambassador Holbrooke gives a policy speech in front of hundreds of journalists, his refusal to answer questions, along with the acquiescence of journalists present, makes a mockery of the concept of free press," said Amy Goodman, host of the Pacifica show, "Democracy Now."
Pacifica reporter Jeremy Scahill tried to interview Holbrooke before the ceremony, while he talked with other reporters. But when asked about the terms he set for President Milosevic before the bombing, the ambassador refused to answer, saying: "You have the wrong person."
Scahill tried again as Holbrooke stepped off the podium. Refused again, he turned to his colleagues, specifically calling on Master of Ceremonies Tom Brokaw for support. Instead, Brokaw ordered Scahill to "sit down."
Taking the stage later next to Brokaw, Goodman announced that she and Scahill couldn’t accept the award for their documentary "Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship." She also criticized the club for singling out Indonesia’s government for praise at a time when journalists are being brutalized and expelled from East Timor.
back to top of page
LIMA – On April 10, within hours of visiting her daughter in Socabaya prison, Rhoda Berenson heard on the news that she was dead. But it was merely another false rumor, the second in less than a month. In March, TV stations announced that prison security was being beefed up after discovering a rebel plot to attack the prison. Peru’s president later dismissed the report.
In the US, President Clinton, along with most of the US Senate and 180 congresspeople, have requested an open, civilian retrial of the US activist, sentenced to life in prison in 1996. But her parents have given up hope of a fair trail in Peru. "We wanted a trial because we’d like the public to see if there’s anything there," said her mother. "But after all this time and suffering, we think enough is enough."
A treaty between the two countries allows US prisoners to serve part of their sentences in the US. But so far Berenson hasn’t requested a transfer, saying it would be an admission of guilt, and new legislation may eliminate that option, making foreigners convicted of terrorism ineligible.
back to top of page
ITAJU DA COLONIA – A doctor-turned-congressman, famous for providing free health care in exchange for votes, is accused of genocide for sterilizing women in rural Brazil. Prior to the 1994 elections, hundreds of women were sterilized at hospitals owned by Roland Lavigne in a district about 430 miles from Rio de Janeiro.
Most of the women apparently welcomed the operation and returned the favor by helping Lavigne win re-election. Last May, however, a health census revealed that all but one of the 10 women of childbearing age at the Baheta village were sterile as a result of Lavigne’s offers. The situation was similar at nearby Caramaru village.
"Lavigne is only the most notorious of the politicians who trades sterilizations for votes," says Luiz Chaves, lawyer for the Indigenous Missionary Council, "It’s something of a tradition in the region."
Tribal leaders say 58 Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae women were sterilized before the 1994 elections and three others were sterilized in 1998. They claim the future of their tribe is in jeopardy. Although prosecutors are investigating, proving genocide will be difficult. Instead, Lavigne may be charged with committing bodily harm.
According to Baheta chief Alcides Francisco Filho, the real issue is land. "Lavigne is allied with the big ranchers who are occupying our land," he claims. "Free sterilizations mean only one thing – fewer Indians – and that’s better for them." Over 50 Indians have died in land-related conflicts.
After the 1994 campaign, one of Lavigne’s two hospitals was shut down after he charged the government for surgeries that weren’t performed. Last year, he used a converted truck to distribute health care, including sterilizations. Still, many residents see him as a victim – a well-meaning if unorthodox politician picked on by Indians with political savvy.
For years, the Pataxo Ha-Ha-Hae have pushed land claims through Brazil’s courts. While their leaders remain confident the land will be returned, they have little hope Lavigne will be punished. "We know that nothing’s going to happen," says Chief Wilson Jesus de Souza. "But at least we hope that by raising the alarm now, not he or any other politician will ever do it again."
back to top of page
SEATTLE – Following the example of other US cities, Seattle – site of a December 1999 World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting – has declared itself an MAI Free-Zone. In a unanimous resolution, the Seattle City Council has expressed support for the city’s right to regulate its own procurement spending, support local development, and pass laws protecting the environment and fair labor practices, while opposing provisions of the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) that could restrict these abilities.
Such resolutions, passed in various cities, don’t have legal force in US law or international rules, but add to the growing opposition around the world. Cities and groups that have taken a similar stand include Olympia, Turnwater, San Francisco, Oakland, Houston, Boulder, Berkeley, Vancouver in Canada, the Western Governors Association, Association of Washington Cities, Washington State Association of Counties, and National Association of Counties.
To cover the cost of holding the WTO meeting, the US government established a host committee, chaired by Microsoft’s Bill Gates. He and other corporate tycoons support the MAI approach – an international trade regime that enhances the property rights of foreign corporations and investors at the expense of host country governments.
back to top of page
GENEVA – At least one of every eight plant species in the world – and nearly one of three in the US – is threatened with extinction, according to the first comprehensive worldwide assessment of endangered plants. The result of a 20-year research project by botanists and conservationists around the world, the survey added nearly 34,000 plant species to the World Conservation Union’s growing Red List of imperiled organisms.
Among the plants most at risk are 14 percent of rose species, 32 percent of lilies and irises, 14 percent of cherry, and 29 percent of palms. Coniferous trees and many species found in island nations are also especially vulnerable.
While endangered mammals and birds command more public attention, many scientists say plants are more fundamental to nature’s functioning. They undergird most of life by converting sunlight into food. They also provide the raw material for many medicines and the genetic stock from which agricultural strains of plants are developed.
Nine of every ten plants on the list are found in only one country, making them especially vulnerable to local economic and social conditions. Many species are found only on a few islands, which consequently have disproportionately high numbers of threatened plants.
The US situation may look comparatively grim because plants are better surveyed there. With 4,669 species threatened, it ranks first for the total number at risk – 29 percent of 16,108 species.
The Switzerland-based conservation union has been maintaining its Red List since 1960. Two years ago, it added nearly a quarter of all known mammal species and 11 percent of birds. It also added marine species for the first time.