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Lost and found - how did the world rediscover the ‘lost cause’ of East Timor?

6 October 1999 Geoffrey Gunn

East Timor was for long viewed as an unfortunate lost cause. Despite remaining on the agenda of the UN Decolonisation Committee, it appeared to most of the world that Indonesia’s 1976 annexation of the territory was a fait accompli. Paradoxically, only East Timor’s sister colonies Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Angola stood behind the former colonial power Portugal to keep the issue flickering. The ‘law’ that says legal niceties are always subsumed to political realities worked to make Indonesia’s occupation an ‘irreversible’ case. As former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans once said about East Timor, ‘the world is a pretty unfair place’.

Yet today, in a remarkably short time, the pendulum has swung back more into line with international norms. On 5 May 1999 Portugal, Indonesia and the United Nations Secretary General hastily cobbled together a New York Agreement. This paved the way for UNAMET - the United Nations Mission in East Timor. Its task was to conduct a poll to ascertain the views of East Timorese on the question of whether they wished to stay with Indonesia under an autonomy agreement, or reject that option, thus leading to independence.

Even six months earlier such an outcome would have seemed improbable. How can we explain this turn-about in fortunes for supporters of East Timorese independence? Upon reflection, the Evans ‘closed case’ view is easier to explain than the current change in the tide of international opinion.

The West always conspired with Indonesia to cover up the brutalities of its bloody occupation. True, the method of Indonesia’s annexation was never condoned, and ‘excesses’ were criticised. But few challenged the shocking mythology Indonesia sold to its public, to some naive East Timorese and to ASEAN allies: that Jesuit Fretilin were about to turn East Timor into a Cuba-like People’s Republic. The views of the East Timorese on their own destiny were irrelevant.

From 1976 to 1989, the year when Suharto declared East Timor an ‘open province’, very few witnesses were allowed to verify first hand what transpired to be a bloodbath proportional to that then unfolding in communist Vietnam and Cambodia. Few academics or media practitioners, and especially Western media proprietors, thought self-determination for East Timor was anything other than unrealistic. The two major political parties in Australia simply closed ranks. East Timor was portrayed in mainstream discourse as a radical or fringe issue potentially damaging to the then emerging doctrine of Asia links.

For the Jakarta lobby which emerged under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, lucrative business links, including the newly negotiated Timor Gap Treaty with Jakarta, could not be held hostage to even an embarrassing human rights crusade. Inside Indonesia and in most ASEAN countries, the media were simply gagged. Even while the stench emerging from the dictatorship became unbearable, Jakarta’s foreign backers in Tokyo, Washington, and Bonn did not flinch, indeed went into damage control covering up for their client. Only the Netherlands dropped out honourably.

Santa Cruz

The Dili (Santa Cruz) massacre of November 1991 galvanised international outrage at Indonesian human rights abuses to a new level. But the UN body made only pro forma protests. The grisly event brought no serious reproach to confront the legality or morality of Jakarta’s vice-like grip over the territory. Senator Evans unhelpfully described the event as an ‘aberration’.

The demonstration at Santa Cruz preceding the massacre exposed to the world the rekindling of Timorese nationalism by those actually schooled by Indonesia. Yet the capture in November 1992 and subsequent trial of armed resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, who had led the struggle from the mountains, appeared to be a public relations victory for Jakarta. The fall of the Berlin wall three years earlier may have been epochal, but for the Suhartos, the Mobutus, and the Ronald Reagans of the world, this was vindication of authoritarianism and the iron fist.

Nevertheless, disquiet grew at another level, or rather multiple levels of what might be called a new emerging international society. In Australia, the US, Europe and Japan, vociferous East Timor solidarity and advocacy groups mushroomed, some with church contacts. In Portugal, a mixture of guilt and saudade or longing for the East Timor tragedy welled up. It was symbolised in the heroic but doomed cruise to the Timor Sea of the Portuguese ship, Lusitania Express, in March 1992. Portugal also found new empowerment in European councils as a member of the European Union.

Inside Indonesia, meanwhile, the pro-reform forces that were to drive Suharto to resign on 21 May 1998 were incubating. They were abetted by the non-violent daring of East Timorese activists in Jakarta itself.

On 10 December 1996 two sons of East Timor were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This calculated move by the Norwegian Committee did more than any event since the Dili massacre to raise international consciousness of East Timor to a new level. Yet the Tokyo government snubbed one of the laureates, Jose Ramos-Horta, out of respect for the wishes of Suharto, whose regime continued to villify him. Handling of the other laureate was not so simple however, as portrayed in a recent book by his unofficial biographer Arnold Kohen entitled ‘From the place of the dead: The epic struggle of Bishop Belo of East Timor’. There is no doubt that the church in East Timor has played a staying hand through the Indonesian occupation.


The advent of the reformist Habibie regime in May 1998 created a new space for the East Timorese. Habibie acted in tandem with a new UN push on East Timor that had been unveiled by incoming UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in December 1996. Kofi Annan tasked Pakistani diplomat Jamsheed Marker to find consensus between Portugal and Indonesia. The UN viewed Habibie’s offer on 11 June 1998 to grant ‘wide ranging autonomy’ to the territory as the necessary breakthrough to extract compromises from both Indonesia and Portugal.

At the same time, however, in an event little reported in the Western media, East Timorese youths from July to September 1998 ran a free speech campaign in rallies across the territory that demonstrated in no uncertain terms to Indonesia and the UN their unequivocal rejection of ‘autonomy’. They called instead for a UN-supervised referendum.

There is no question that when he placed autonomy on the table, Habibie was answering international opinion. More importantly for his government, he was seeking international approval for desperately needed funds. IMF funding for his devastated economy had been halted because of the unrest that brought down his predecessor. He did the same thing even more dramatically on 27 January 1999, when he conceded a popular ‘ballot ’ on the question of autonomy or independence for East Timor. He was at the time desperately formulating a national budget. For Portugal meanwhile, the UN ballot would mean an historic ‘foot-in-the-door’, since a rejection of Indonesia by the East Timorese would formally see the former colonial power working with the UN (and Indonesia) in a transitional administration.

Late in 1998 Prime Minister John Howard sent a letter to President Habibie indicating a rethink on the irreversibility of East Timor’s status. This letter might also have been an influencing factor. Canberra ’s interest in abetting the gathering UN process may have been less out of morality than expediency. The looming possibility that Indonesia would simply dump East Timor or that a new economically vulnerable state would somehow emerge out of the chaos of an Indonesian departure, demanded a radical rethink of the situation by Canberra.

Meanwhile economic meltdown in Indonesia, the fear of instability or even secessionism across the archipelago, the ugly ethnic conflicts that beset Kupang and Ambon in late 1998, galvanised the defence establishment into making contingency plans. Chaos arising from a Timor ballot or, even more likely, post-ballot chaos weighs heavily in these considerations. The relocation of two rapid response battalions to Darwin underscores this concern.

However, it is difficult to imagine that Habibie could have conceded so much without the direct approval of his military. Doubtless implicit in the Wiranto-Habibie pact was the understanding that Jakarta could fix (influence if not determine) the outcome. At least subsequent events demonstrated as much. The full import of Indonesian concessions leading to the New York Agreement began to become apparent with the knowledge that sections of the military, even members of Habibie’s Cabinet, were backing murderous militia groups inside East Timor through money and arms, in a campaign to either derail the vote, win the vote through terror, or destabilise the outcome.

By mid-July 1999, with UNAMET fully in place, the Indonesian government, the militia leaders, and the UN appeared to be on a confrontational course. UN officials in New York (not to mention governments in Lisbon, Canberra, Washington and even Tokyo) were beginning to query Jakarta’s motives. UNAMET delayed the start of pre-ballot registration once, pleading inadequate security. But with most of the parties wishing the ballot to continue, registration commenced on 16 July. The flaws in the UNAMET mandate and mission were showing, namely the contradiction between holding a free ballot and leaving Indonesia in control of security.

July 1999, Geoffrey C. Gunn - teaches at Nagasaki University in Japan and is author of a 1997 book entitled ‘East Timor and the United Nations: The case for intervention’ (Red Sea Press).

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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