Battling brutality

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 September, 1999, 12:00am

Journalists are observers not combatants. Even the most repressive regimes normally recognise this and protect reporters, who are just doing their job in covering news from the world's trouble-spots.

But not in East Timor, as shown by the murder and mutilation of Sander Thoenes, who worked for Britain's Financial Times. Far from respecting the neutrality of the press, the Indonesian-backed militias, some dressed in army uniforms, are targeting journalists.

Their brutal actions once again show how far what is happening in East Timor transgresses the norms that govern behaviour in the civilised world; and that Jakarta remains unable or unwilling to rein in those who are doing the dirty work for it on the streets of Dili.

With Indonesian soldiers opening fire near international peace-keepers yesterday, it would be no surprise if the militias felt they had been given the green light to take still more direct action.

Their forces are reported to be massing in the border areas of West Timor and maps have been drawn up showing a partition of the eastern half of the island, so that some areas would remain with Indonesia.

Aid efforts are still being averted. A truck carrying baby food was turned back by rogue army elements. Desperately needed rice sits unused in a Dili warehouse, as it is too dangerous to distribute it.

Rather than help prevent starvation, the military seems most interested in bolstering its power. This was shown yesterday when a controversial bill provoked demonstrations in Jakarta as it was debated in parliament.

The bill gives the army powers to ban such protests and ignore human rights safeguards when a state of emergency is declared.

The world must make clear it will not tolerate any efforts by conservative elements in the military to roll back the progress made towards a more democratic and freer Indonesia over the past year.

Efforts to establish an international tribunal to try those responsible for the brutality in East Timor need to be accelerated. So too should the deployment of more peace-keepers, even if this provokes outrage in Jakarta.

The international media must also continue courageously to condemn the militias and the armed forces who have connived with them to commit barbaric acts, whatever the risks.