Military


EAST TIMOR : HOW IT HAPPENED
By : H.W. Arndt


In 1494 Pope Alexander VIdivided the world, granting to Spain all land to the west and to Portugalall land to the east of a line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Over the years, all of Latin America except Brazil became Spanish and mostIberian colonies in Africa and Asia Portuguese.    By l960 all that was left of the Portuguese empire in Asia were three remnantsof past glory: a piece of India called Goa, a piece of China called Macaoand a piece of Indonesia called East Timor.  (Indonesia, of course,until World War II was not a state, only a geographical expression; butthe same was true of India.)

In l962, Nehru ordered theIndian army to occupy Goa.  The operation took two days.  Goawas incorporated into India as a Union Territory.  A United NationsSecurity Council resolution to condemn the invasion was  vetoed bythe Soviet Union, friendly to Nehru.   (Fifteen years later,a similar resolution condemning Indonesia's invasion of East Timor wassupported by the Soviet Union, unfriendly to Suharto, and passed.  It forms the basis of the present UN stand on the East Timor issue.)  The administration of Macao came effectively under Peking control in thel960s.

What might have taken theform of a peaceful transfer of East Timor to Indonesia at some future time,similar to the transfer of Pondicherry to India by France in l962, developed into a tragedy after the revolution in Portugal in April 1974. As Lisbon drifted from army to socialist and by mid-1975 for a time tocommunist rule, the Portuguese colonies in Africa were taken over by avowedlyMarxist regimes, in the case of Angola only after bitter fighting withSoviet and Cuban help.   In Mozambique, Frelimo (the RevolutionaryFront for the Liberation of Mozambique), after a civil war in which some600,000 people are estimated to have been killed, established a 'Marxist-Leninist"state, with economic consequences which have not yet been overcome.

 In Dili, the capitalof Portuguese East Timor, the tiny urban elite,  mostly members ofa few middle-class Catholic families of partially Portuguese descent, splitinto three factions: a leftish group which, inspired by the model of Frelimoin Mozambique, called itself the Revolutionary Front for the Liberationof East Timor (Fretilin));   a conservative group which, underthe title Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), initially favoured continuedPortuguese rule with gradual progress towards independence; and a handfulwho called themselves the Timorese Popular Democratic Association (Apodeti)and favoured incorporation in Indonesia.

A struggle developed betweentwo so-called 'Red Majors', Motta and Janatas, whom the Government in Lisbonhad sent out to support Fretilin, and the military Governor of the colony,Colonel Lemos Pires, who supported UDT.   A UDT 'show of force'in early August snowballed into a probably unintended coup and provokeda counter coup  by Fretilin which, because the colony's army and arsenalhad been put at its disposal, was completely successful.   ThePortuguese Governor precipitately abandoned the colony.     Fretilin proclaimed its independence.   Several thousand Timoreseare believed to have died in the brief civil war.  An estimated 40,000East Timorese fled from the war across the border into Indonesian WestTimor, many more into the hills.   

For decades after independence,Indonesian governments had been content, like the Dutch before them, toleave the poverty-stricken and neglected enclave in their archipelago inPortuguese hands.   But when Fretilin overran the colony by force,the Indonesian Government became thoroughly alarmed. This was the heightof the Cold War.  Saigon had fallen in April l975.  Communistinsurgencies were active in the Philippines and Thailand.   There were fears in the West that the dominoes would fall in southeastAsia.  

It is arguable that, hadIndonesia sent the army into East Timor before its abandonment by Portugal,as Nehru had done in the case of Goa, the enclave might have been incorporatedpeacefully.    But  the Indonesian Government was extremelyreluctant to intervene and took a year to make up its mind. The statusquo suited Indonesia.  The Suharto Government had no wish to saddleitself with another backward province and was anxious to maintain the imageof a good neighbour which, in conscious contrast to the military adventurismof the Sukarno regime, it had sought to create at home and abroad. Nor was  Suharto  confident that its armed forces,  whichhad had no combat experience for twenty-five years and had received nomilitary hardware for a decade, could handle a military campaign in thedifficult terrain of East Timor.  For several months Suharto heldback, against the advice of some of his generals,  but urged to doso by international opinion, especially the Australian Government. (The secret letter to Suharto by the then Prime Minister, Mr. E.G. Whitlam,counseling restraint has recently been published (1)).   Butwhen Fretilin overran the colony by force and appealed to Peking and Hanoifor help, the Indonesian Government, fearful of a "Cuba on its doorstep",decided on military intervention.

Since such intervention wasclearly against international law, the Government was not willing to admitit openly and initially resorted to the clumsy and dishonest device ofreferring to its troups as "volunteers".   In the face of sporadicFretilin resistance, the military operation was long drawn out.      In 1976, the Indonesian Government  convened an assembly of Timoresespokesmen, who assented to integration of the former colony in Indonesia, and established a Provisional Government of the new province.   But it was not until 1978 that the Indonesian army achieved full controlover the whole territory.

In February l976, the headof the Provisional Government, Mr. Francisco Dacruz, was quoted in theworld's press as saying that  60,000 people had been killed in Timor.  He immediately issued a statement saying he had been misreported.  What he had said was that some 60,000 had "lost theirlives or homes" and  this included the 40,000 or more who had fledinto West Timor to escape the civil war before the Indonesian involvement.  Testimony presented to a congressional sub-committee early in 1977 by theUS State Department indicated that, on the evidence available to the USauthorities. a more accurate count of the numbers killed would be "a fewthousands, most of whom would have been fighting men on both sides" duringthe Fretilin and subsequent Indonesian military takeovers.

Charges that Indonesia hadcommitted "genocide" in East Timor became a major weapon in the propagandawar waged ever since by what came to be called the East Timor Lobby, consistingmainly of Timorese refugees and spokesmen of the political left in Portugal,Australia and elsewhere but enjoying widespread support in  westernmedia.   The  Committee for an Independent East Timor (CIET)repeated the wild figure of 60,000 killed and, in a process of mutual quotation,without any corroborative evidence, escalated it.    Whatbegan with "up to 60,000" became "at least 60,000", "60,000-100,000", "atleast 100,000", and what began as "victims of the fighting in Timor" becamevictims of the Indonesian Government which is "clearly the criminal aggressor,having killed at least 100,000 East Timorese" (2).   By l979,an Australian left-wing politician, Mr. T. Uren, asserted that "the populationhas been more than halved;  over 350,000 people have died"(3) andProfessor Naom Chomsky, well remembered as an apologist for Pol Pot, claimedthat "the deaths from war,  starvation and torture equalled or relativelyexceeded those in Kampuchea"(4)    

In 1979,  an Australianjournalist, Peter Rodgers, attempted a careful assessment of the evidenceon the population of the province.  He confirmed the estimate of some25,000 refugees still in West Timor and some 5,000 in Portugal or Australiaand agreed that "it is more than likely that some East Timorese have yetto reappear from the jungles and mountains to which they retreated afterthe outbreak of violence in the territory in 1975".  He concluded:"The East Timorese have been the tragic victims of violence and neglect. The end result of the upheaval in the territory of the past four yearsshould not be confused with deliberate intent on Indonesia's part". (5)

In the past two decades,the Indonesian Government has expended great effort and much money to improvethe economic and social infrastructure of  East Timor which had beengrossly neglected during 300 years of Portuguese rule.   In l975East Timor had only ten schools.   There are now over 1,000 anda substantial University.    There has been similar improvementin  medical  services,  in transport and communications.
In l975, the economy ofEast Timor consisted almost entirely of subsistence farming.   In the past twenty years a substantial private sector of commercial farming,wholesale and retail trade and  some professions,  has been developed,almost entirely by immigrants from other Indonesian provinces, mainly Buginesefrom Sulawesi and ethnic-Chinese from Java and elsewhere.

But this economic and socialdevelopment  has done nothing to allay the continuing  hostilityof Fretilin and its armed guerillas,  the continuing barrage of CIETpropaganda abroad or, for that matter, the harsh rule  by the Indonesianarmy.  There is no doubt that  atrocious behaviour by some ofthe  Indonesian military, acts of brutality and corruption, has antagonisedTimorese who were initially not unfavourably disposed.   Denunciationof  Indonesian army rule reached  a peak over the "Dili massacre"of 12 November l99l, when Indonesian soldiers, fearful that a Timorese demonstration was getting out of hand, panicked and killed a substantialnumber, 51 according to the official Indonesian report, perhaps more. The army culprits were court martialed and punished;   but the incident gave an enormous fillip to the CIET propaganda storm.   
 
Condemnation of Indonesia'sannexation of East Timor brought together widely different sections ofworld opinion.   Besides the Fretilin fraction in East Timoritself,  and Portuguese imbued with imperialist remorse, there wasthe political left in Australia and other western countries virulentlyhostile to an army regime that had destroyed the Indonesian communist party.     There was, in surprising concord with the left, the Catholic Church whichregretted the absorption of so many Christians, the fruits of centuriesof missionary effort, in a  predominantly Moslem country.  There was also in many western countries an intellectual fashion of idealisticsympathy for irredentism, freedom for ethnic minorities, whether Kurds,Basques, Tibetans, Chechens or Cosovo Albanians.    In Australia,the CIET could also draw on dislike of Indonesia among some sections ofthe population whose attitudes hark back to the White Australia policy.  The fact that public opinion in Europe and America was unbiased by anyknowledge of the facts of the East Timor problem made it readily susceptibleto the CIET version.
How else can one explainthe conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize on Ramos Horta, a Marxist guerillaleader - an Asian Che Guevara - and as such with personal responsibilityfor the deaths of countless  victims of the civil war in which hehad a major role?   (How much more appropriate it would havebeen had the Peace Prize been conferred on Bishop Belo, a moderate spokesmanfor Timorese opinion, and Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Mr. Ali Alatas!)

So long as the Indonesianeconomy boomed under Suharto, with an average of 6 per cent economic growthover 30 years, extensive industrial development, a marked decline in poverty,the rise of an influential middle class and great improvements in education,health and other social services, the Indonesian Government was able tofend off the clamour for change in East Timor.    While prepared to offer a measure of  local autonomy to the provincialgovernment in Dili, it was determined to refuse independence, concernedthat it would encourage similar demands by separatist groups elsewherein the archipelago, such as the West Papuans in Irian Jaya, the islamicfundamentalists in Aceh or the Christians in Maluku.   But whenIndonesia, already severely troubled by political instability,  arisingfrom resentment of Suharto's cronyism and demands for political reform,was overwhelmed by the financial and economic crisis in 1997/8, resistanceto East Timorese demands weakened.

Influential voices urged the Government to let East Timor go.   On 8 January 1999, Mr. Ali Alatas said in New York that Indonesia had agreed in principleto UN consultation of East Timor's population on autonomy or independence and a few days later President Habibie declared that Jakarta would liketo be rid of East Timor by  1 January 2000.    Noteveryone concurred.   As in l975, Timorese opinion was splitbetween advocates of independence and of continuing integration in Indonesia. (Among the former, a loud voice was that of Timorese university students,like students everywhere radical in politics;  in promoting universityeducation in Dili, the Indonesian Government may be said to have dug itsown grave!)

 It was reported (butofficially denied) that the Indonesian military was supplying arms to theintegrationists.  Fearful of another civil war, thousands of Bugineseand Chinese immigrants, the mainstay of the province's private sector,fled to West Timor and elsewhere, leaving the business sector of the territoryin severe economic difficulties.    Bishop Belo  urgeda substantial transition period of autonomy - he has suggested fifteeenyears - because much political and economic development would be neededbefore an independent East Timor could stand on its own feet.
 
This is where matters standat the time of writing.    Some say we should forget thepast and look to the future.   Certainly, one must hope thata peaceful and sensible resolution of the East Timor problem will be found. But history matters. To overcome the problem one needs to know how it happened.   
 

Notes 

(1) The Australian, 5/3/99.  

(2)  Canberra Times,3/12/78.  

(3)   Hansard,Parliament of Australia, 10/10/79.

(4)   CanberraTimes, 28/10/79. 

(5)    SydneyMorning Herald, 1/ll/99.


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