March 11, 1992

Article at Reuters

Returning East Timor activists claim success

By Wilson da Silva

DARWIN, Australia – Human rights activists turned away from East Timor by Indonesian warships on the high seas on Wednesday said their voyage had focused the eyes of the world on the former Portuguese colony.

Activists on the Portuguese ship Lusitania Expresso wanted to lay wreaths in the cemetery in East Timor’s capital Dili where Indonesian troops killed between 50 and 180 people at a memorial service for an independence activist last November.

But Indonesian warships ordered their converted ferry to halt only two miles from the 12-mile territorial limit claimed by Jakarta.

The activists from several countries, most of the students, threw their wreaths into the sea in an emotional ceremony after the vessel turned back toward the north Australian port of Darwin.

Despite stark images of students confronted by warships, international reaction to the incident appeared muted. Mission officials, however, claimed success.

“It has reminded everyone that East Timor is not part of Indonesia, that the United Nations says so. And shows them that Indonesia can illegally and without just cause expel a peaceful vessel from waters which do not belong to it,” said mission adviser Captain José Manuel Cabral.

“They in fact had no right to treat the Lusitania Expresso in the way they did in international waters, just as they have no right to occupy East Timor as they do,” he said.

The 540-tonne vessel had set sail from Darwin on Monday taking 130 activists and journalists from 19 countries towards East Timor, which Indonesia invaded in 1975.

Jakarta’s 1976 annexation of the territory, which lies at the eastern end of its tropical archipelago and north of Australia, is still not internationally recognised.

Portuguese radio reporting live from the Lusitania Expresso said one Indonesian warship twice threatened to use force if the vessel did not withdraw.

The ferry then turned slowly to starboard as weeping passengers cast their wreaths into the sea.

As the ferry headed back to Darwin, there were long faces among officials and local Timorese in the mission media centre in the Australian port.

They had hoped the ferry would drift in international waters for days, creating a media event as the activists repeatedly demanded Jakarta conform with U.N. resolutions recognising Portugal as East Timor’s administering authority and let the ship pass.

Lisbon expressed its “indignation and concern” after three frigates closed in on the ferry and ordered it to turn back.

Australia said it was happy with the way Jakarta dealt with the ship. Japan said it had worried the voyage might trigger unrest while United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali urged both sides to show restraint.

Organisers said they were not surprised by the mild reaction to the incident. The mission was merely the first step in an international campaign to force Indonesia to halt human rights abuse and leave East Timor, they said.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Canadian student Peter Monet.

The mission caught the attention of the world, at least momentarily. There were 14 television groups represented on board, 11 radio networks, and 16 newspapers and magazines.

The organisers, the Lisbon-based student group Forum Estudante, raised US$1.13 million to fund the venture, mostly from unions, businesses and private sources in Portugal, Australia and countries with big Portuguese emigre populations.