TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS, JUNE 10 -- Honduran Miskito Indians have started to agitate for some form of self-rule in an informal movement that is worrying government officials in eastern Honduras, according to diplomatic and relief-agency sources.
The Miskitos have grown so dissatisfied with the Honduran authorities in recent months that some of the nearly 30,000 Indians are even beginning to prepare for the possibility of armed rebellion, the sources said.
The agitation comes as leaders of Miskitos from neighboring Nicaragua are gathering today at a remote refugee community in eastern Honduras to discuss unifying their ranks in hopes of renewing their fight against the Sandinista government in Managua. The gathering is part of a U.S.-sponsored effort to unite the various factions fighting the Sandinistas into one cohesive rebel force.
One foreign observer familiar with the meeting said up to 1,200 Nicaraguan Miskito and Sumo Indians, as well as blacks, from the Nicaraguan Caribbean coast are to hold the four-day conference in Rus Rus, Honduras, a community of thatched huts about eight miles from the Nicaraguan border.
So far, Honduran military authorities have refused to allow journalists to travel to Rus Rus to cover the meeting. The refusal appeared to reflect Honduran sensivities about allowing Nicaraguan rebel leaders to meet publicly in Honduras. There was no immediate indication of whether the new agitation by the Honduran Miskitos was a factor in the military's decision.
The roots of the Miskitos' problems with the Honduran government go back centuries. Indians along the eastern coastline, which is known as the Mosquito Coast, originally identified with English sailors rather than the Spanish who colonized the rest of the Central American isthmus. Over the centuries the two cultures have developed separately, and each side mistrusts the other.
The current autonomy sentiment appears to be at an early stage and evidently has not yet coalesced into an organized movement, diplomatic and relief sources indicated. So far, they said, the Honduran Miskitos have not produced any formal autonomy program or made any specific demands of the Honduran government.
"They feel so abandoned by the government that they feel only with autonomy can they better their lives," said Frank Goff, a Honduran Miskito who represents the department of Gracias a Dios in the Honduran Congress. The department is part of an area called the Mosquitia, in which most Honduran Miskitos live.
There are no high schools, no national hospitals and few jobs for those who live there, Goff said.
In the early 1980s, Miskitos across the border in Nicaragua were the first to take up arms against the Nicaraguan government after a series of clashes with Sandinista troops. Miskito leaders have accused the Sandinistas of carrying out massacres of their people. As a result, about 20,000 Nicaraguan Indians crossed into Honduras, where they live as refugees, mixing freely with the Hondurans.
In an effort to stop the insurrection, the Sandinista government now is offering residents limited autonomy, and more than 3,000 refugees reportedly have already returned to Nicaragua.
"The Honduran Miskitos have been made aware of what their Nicaraguan cousins have been winning from the Sandinistas, and they are preparing to ask the Honduran government for the same thing," said a western diplomat who recently visited the area. "If they don't get it, they fight."
The Miskitos have been pushed toward violence by the rule of Lt. Col. Erik Sanchez, who was assigned as the military commander of the area early this year, according to the diplomatic and relief sources.
Sanchez is known to jail Miskitos, especially Nicaraguans, for minor offenses and to hold them for long periods without trial. A 16-year-old refugee boy was recently held for six weeks for violating curfew, a refugee official said.
The refugee official said Sanchez was cracking down in an effort to stop the Nicaraguan Miskitos from setting fires that in the past have burned thousands of acres of fragile savannah. The Miskitos burn to prepare the land for planting.
A Honduran Miskito who asked not to be named said Sanchez's crackdown also was aimed at Nicaraguan Miskito fighters who spend their time in Honduras rather than fighting in Nicaragua.
The diplomatic and relief sources said that since Sanchez's arrival, some Honduran Miskitos have been stockpiling weapons received from the Nicaraguan Miskito rebels based in the region. Those Miskito fighters have been armed by the United States.
One of the relief workers, who has served in the region for years, said those preparing to fight were Honduran Miskitos who had fought with the Nicaraguan rebels against the Sandinistas. He said he did not know how many were preparing to fight but said that no military training had taken place and that the Indians looked at armed rebellion as a last resort should their efforts for autonomy fail.