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Souryal offers unique perspective on East Timor turmoil

By Michelle C. Lyons/The Huntsville Item

As the world turns a watchful and sympathetic eye to the bloodshed in East Timor, one Sam Houston State University professor is able to shed a unique perspective on the unrest - he recently returned from the area after a six-month United Nations appointment to monitor human rights violations.

One of Sam Souryal's main tasks was to help support a national election for Indonesia president - something the country had never before had. In fact, since 1948, Indonesia has had only two presidents, one of which remained in office for more than 30 years until he was forced from office in 1998 amid economic crisis.

The current bloodshed stems from a decision in January by new Indonesian President B.J. Habibie to give East Timor independence if it decided against autonomy within Indonesia.

The Timorese voted overwhelmingly on Aug. 30 for independence, with about 78.5 percent of the 450,000 voters in East Timor and overseas rejecting Indonesia's proposal for autonomy - results which triggered a round of attacks from pro-Indonesia paramilitaries.

Although about 5,000 Australian soldiers have moved into the territory, already many East Timorese were killed by pro-Indonesians.

Souryal said he believes one reason so many people are interested in the events in East Timor is simply that they sympathize with the Timorese and their plight for freedom and democracy.

"(People of the Western World) are moved by the human rights and freedom movement," he said.

While he was in Indonesia, Souryal met with opposite extremes at many turns. He met with presidents and leaders in areas known as havens for the educated powerful elite, and observed areas so poor and primitive that its inhabitants roamed the countryside half-naked with homemade spears in hand.

One of Souryal's most touching experiences was the friendship he developed with a man named Jose Alexandre ''Xanana'' Gusmao. Gusmao was under house arrest at the time Souryal was in Indonesia, although he since has been released and was forced to flee to Australia, fearing for his life.

Souryal explained that Gusmao, who has worked for years for democracy and freedom in East Timor, likely will be elected president of East Timor.

The story Souryal most fondly recalls is when he left his friend.

As Souryal embraced Gusmao, he told him, "When you become president of East Timor, I will drop everything in my hands and come visit you," and Gusmao reportedly agreed and wept.

While in Indonesia, Souryal noted many areas needing reform. For one, the country's military has perhaps too much power, even being given the opportunity to appoint people to serve within the government.

"It's a great army for show ... and a great army for oppression," Souryal said, adding that the military is sent wherever the government believes there is a need for a "heavy hand."

Souryal said because he had no actual authority over the Indonesian government, his job was to observe possible human rights violations and then nicely make recommendations.

"All I could do is politely meet with the (governmental leaders) and say, 'Wouldn't this be good to do it this way?'"

Souryal added that some leaders became frustrated at the suggestions because they felt they had more important things to worry about - worries such as feeding the Indonesian people and repairing the country's economy - than being polite to the Indonesian people.

Before he could journey to Indonesia, Souryal was given three weeks of training in human rights violations and how to differentiate between human rights and civil rights violations and other injustices. He also was trained in how to instill democracy and watch for "good" government.

Souryal has been an SHSU criminal justice professor for about 25 years. He received his master's degree from the University of New York at Albany and his doctorate from the University of Utah.

Souryal said for many years, his biggest interest has been not in the justice system itself, but rather how justice is served - and whether it is served fairly.

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SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
September 23, 1999
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