East Timor protests fuel backlash fears

September 24, 1999

Australia's National Union of Students is worried about a backlash against Indonesian students in the wake of the widespread protests about the Indonesian military's action in East Timor.

The union has stressed that its protests were against Indonesia and not the Indonesian people. Indonesian vigilante groups, backed by military, went on the rampage in East Timor when the population overwhelmingly voted for independence last month.

NUS president Jacob Vargheese said: "The target of the students' anger should not be Indonesian students and others living in Australia. Our quarrel is with the government and the military, not the people."

Union education officer Evelyn Loh added: "One of the things we have been careful to stress in our campaigns is how a lot of people in Indonesia are not happy with the system of government."

Rallies in Sydney and Melbourne have attracted up to 50,000 people. Across the country students are involved in vigils at Indonesian consulates and protests against business interests.

The involvement in the rallies and vigils is, according to one lecturer, the biggest Australian student mobilisation on a non-student issue since the Vietnam war.

"There is a high level of awareness about Indonesia and East Timor," said Michael McKinley, senior lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University in Canberra.

There is a sense of outrage about the Indonesian invasion of East Timor after the Portuguese pull-out in 1975 and Australia and the United States inaction.

Ms Loh said: "There is a very strong feeling that this is the right thing to do. The fact that the UN never recognised Indonesia's annexation of East Timor differentiates it from other areas. It should never have been considered the territory of Indonesia."

Some students have first-hand experience of the violence in East Timor. Melbourne University student Mandy Coulson, , was in one of the last groups to leave Dili this month after eight weeks in East Timor as a UN observer.

"This is an issue that has captured the imagination and hearts of Australian students," she said. Ms Coulson worked with the East Timor Student Solidarity Council, a group of students who explained to villagers about democracy and how to vote.

"The military killed many of the students involved," she explained. "All the statements we took said the military were firing on the students. Students were at the forefront of their attacks."

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