IT IS A BIT ungracious for 100 congressmen and the press to tax visiting President Suharto with the question of East Timor, as though nothing else mattered much in Indonesian-American affairs. When and how else, however, can attention be drawn to this tiny, miserable former Portuguese colony, which the Indonesian army swallowed in 1975? Portugal regularly raises the issue of Indonesia's aggression at the United Nations, but the Moslem club -- Indonesia is the most populous Moslem nation -- bats it down. The administration, not unwisely, has centered its Indonesia policy on political and strategic considerations. It hesitates to fuss over East Timor.
Geographically and politically, the place is far off the beaten track, and a case can be made that nothing can be done to restore the right of self-determination that Indonesia took away. The might-makes-right implications of this case make it an embarrassing one for an American official to press in public. Still, no one has a good idea how Indonesia can be forced to turn back the clock. All the more reason, then, that Indonesia be prodded to care for the people of East Timor. If the Timorese are not to be included in that small, arbitrary and lucky company of disenfranchised peoples whose political cause is approved by international consensus, then they have a special claim to the protection of their human rights.
Reliable reports from East Timor are few and far between. Still, Indonesia's refusal to countenance reasonably open access by relief agencies, journalists and other observers makes it hard to rebut critics of its policy. Over a period of time, accounts tell of army brutality, persecution of real and imagined political opponents, and malnutrition and hunger so widespread that deaths are estimated in six figures. Such conditions are an embarrassment to the American relationship with Indonesia. Why should Mr. Reagan not tell Mr. Suharto, in his fashion, that he does not understand why Indonesia lets it go on?