Still recovering from the famine which struck only a few years ago, the small former Portuguese colony of East Timor may now be facing new food shortages.
In January, it was learned that Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, the Roman Catholic bishop of East Timor, sent an urgent appeal to nearby Australia, calling for aid. He said that a major Indonesian military operation on the Southeast Asian island territory had disrupted planting, causing food shortages.
In Australia, Indonesian embassy officials denied there was a critical need for food on Timor, but the Australian government said that it would give 1000 tons of corn to help avert shortages. Australian aid officials have been requesting direct access to the island territory, which has been largely shut off to the outside world since Indonesia annexed it after invading more than six years ago.
In the United States, Senator Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts has drawn attention to East Timor. Last December, Tsongas referred to early accounts from Timorese Catholic sources reporting possible food shortages and an alleged massacre of Timorese civilians. On Feb. 8, Tsongas cited additional information from Monsignor Lopes. The Senator noted that there are no international relief agencies working on East Timor on a full-time basis and urged that Australia's Catholic Relief organization be permitted to enter the island to supervise the distribution of the newly promised Australian aid.
''To the best of our knowledge, the food situation is not critical,'' said a US State Department official. The official said that his information was based on reports from diplomats and members of international organizations who visited Timor over the past several months.
As a precautionary measure, however, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helped late last year to fill several warehouses in Timor with food.
American interest in East Timor stems from close US ties with Indonesia, the world's fifth most populous nation. The Indonesians used American weapons in their Dec. 1975 invasion.
The US has contributed heavily to international aid efforts on Timor, providing a good part of the food which was shipped to counter the widespread starvation which followed the Indonesian invasion. In the view of US officials, the Timorese, who have their own distinctive identity and language, never stood a chance of forming a viable separate state. Critics of US policy dispute this assertion.
In its recently issued annual reports on human rights, the US State Department mentions East Timor about a dozen times, and states that much of the current interest in human rights in Indonesia is focused on allegations of abuses in East Timor. These include allegations of killings, disappearances, and large-scale detentions. The Indonesian government denies that abuses have occurred. The State Department says that it is ''difficult to independently confirm or deny'' the allegations.
What the State Department does say, however, is that the Indonesians restricted access to the island to foreign observers more in 1981 than in 1980. It also says that East Timorese have left the island more slowly during the past year. Indeed, according to the department, only six of the families in an ICRC program and 47 in an Australian program have been allowed to leave Indonesia since Oct. 15, 1980.
One indication that all is not well on East Timor came last year from an unlikely source. Members of the Indonesian-installed East Timor provincial assembly, in a report to Indonesia's President Suharto, warned that members of the Indonesian military were behaving on Timor like ''conquerors towards a conquered people.'' They said the assembly was continually receiving complaints from the Timorese about corruption and mistreatment by the military, including torture. In November, the two assembly members who signed the report were arrested. The State Department says the best available evidence indicates that they were released by the end of last year.
According to the Reuters news agency, the document prepared by the Timorese assemblymen was similar to a secret report compiled recently by Catholic priests in Timor for the Vatican.
Sen. Tsongas said this and other information confirmed his belief that an international presence is needed in East Timor to help protect the civilian population from violence and to distribute food.