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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suharto Meets Nobel Laureate, Dodges Independence Question

DILI, Indonesia -- Indonesia's President Suharto met East Timor's Nobel laureate bishop Tuesday and defended his rule in the territory but never mentioned the bloody, 21-year-old fight to crush its independence movement.


Suharto, visiting East Timor to inaugurate a giant statue of Jesus Christ as a gesture of religious tolerance, shook hands briefly with Bishop Carlos Belo and took a helicopter ride with him.


But Belo said later that the two men spoke little and the president didn't mention the Nobel Peace Prize that Belo shared Friday with resistance leader Jose Ramos-Horta for their opposition to Indonesia's domination of the former Portuguese colony.


Indonesia annexed East Timor in 1976, a year after invading during a civil war that ended four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule.


As many as 260,000 people were killed by military action, disease or starvation during the first five years of Indonesian rule. Human rights groups say Indonesian troops have tortured, beaten and killed civilians in a bid to stifle separatist aspirations.


Armed Forces Commander General Feisal Tanjung was the only Indonesian official at the ceremony inaugurating the statue who mentioned the Nobel prize.


"Congratulations for the award,'' he told Belo at the inauguration ceremony for the statue, shaking his hand and taking a seat beside him on the stage.


Ramos-Horta, Belo's co-recipient, accused Suharto of misusing religion, calling the Christ statue "an affront to the East Timorese people ... and a joke in poor taste.''


Suharto's visit "is a publicity stunt to signal Indonesian sovereignty of East Timor,'' Ramos-Horta told reporters in Sydney, Australia, where he lives in exile.


Ramos-Horta also said he had received "three or four" death threats over the Internet since March but believed they were merely meant to put "psychological pressure" on him.