East Timor: Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

East Timor Independence Day
Dili, East Timor, May 20, 2002: A man in traditional costume celebrates East Timor's independence (Photo: AFP).

It was not hard to imagine why Dominggos dos Santos Mouzinho was so petrified as she took the stand, under heavy guard, in Jakarta District Court on May 28. Only after five requests from Chief Justice Cicut Sutiarso did she lean forward into the microphone to say her name, speaking in a barely audible whisper.

The first civilian witness in Indonesia's East Timor human-rights tribunal clearly had much on her mind: listening closely was an audience peppered with the same Indonesian military (TNI) officials and militiamen who orchestrated the massacre of as many as 200 people—including three priests—at a church in Suai in September 1999. Mouzinho’s hometown was caught up in a tidal wave of violence set off when, in a U.N.-led referendum, Indonesia's 27th province voted overwhelmingly to split from Jakarta's rule.

Key Events
1695: Portuguese colonize eastern side of Timor. The western side becomes part of the Dutch East Indies.

January 1942: Japanese occupy Timor. Timorese support Australian commandos. Japanese reprisals kill 60,000 civilians—13 percent of the population.

August 1945: Portuguese rule resumes.

December 1949: Dutch East Indies gain independence. Western half of Timor island is incorporated into the new nation of Indonesia.

April 1974: Left-wing army officers stage a coup in Lisbon and vow to dismantle Portugal's overseas empire.

August 1975: Pro-independence left-wing group Fretilin—Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor— takes control after brief civil war against conservative Democratic Union of Timor, or UDT.

October 1975: Indonesian troops cross border.

November 1975: Fretilin declares East Timor independent. Francisco Xavier do Amaral appointed country's first president.

December 1975: Indonesia invades.

April 1976: U.N. urges Indonesia to withdraw and continues to regard Portugal as the administering power.

October 1989: Pope John Paul II visits Dili and appeals for human rights amid a massive pro-independence demonstration.

September 1990: Amnesty International says as many as 200,000 East Timorese—a third of the population—have died since 1975.

Nov. 12, 1991: Troops kill about 200 protesters in Dili's Santa Cruz Cemetery, drawing international attention.

November 1992: Rebel leader Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmão is captured by Indonesians and sentenced to life in prison.

December 1996: East Timor's Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo and exiled leader Jose Ramos-Horta share Nobel Peace Prize.

May 1998: Indonesian president Suharto quits following protests in Jakarta.

January 1999: His successor, BJ Habibie, announces plan to hold East Timor referendum on self-determination under U.N. auspices.

Aug. 30, 1999: Referendum results in 78 percent vote for independence.

September 1999: Troops and militias kill hundreds, herd 250,000 refugees into West Timor. Australian-led peacekeepers arrive, forcing Indonesians out.

October 1999: U.N. takes over administration of East Timor. Gusmão, Horta and other leaders return to heroes' welcome.

April 14 2002: Gusmão wins presidential elections.

May 20, 2002: East Timor becomes an independent state. 

Sources: John G. Taylor, East Timor: The Price of Freedom, Zed Books, 1999; AAP.

She was lucky to escape alive.

The ad-hoc trials, the first of their kind in recent memory in the sprawling archipelago nation, have drawn their share of criticism. International observers have protested that the trials have failed to produce sufficient evidence to prove state-sponsored violence against civilians. The TNI, which wields considerable power in the government, has protested that its efforts to hold the country together have been besmirched by the trials and that its sacrifices have not been appreciated.

Either way, President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesia seems preoccupied with other priorities these days—few of which appear likely to ease East Timor's lingering trauma anytime soon. These include placating domestic opinion while reviving military relations with the United States. Relations between the two countries peaked with U.S. military aid to support Indonesia’s bloodstained annexation of East Timor in 1975 but ebbed 24 years later, when rampaging militias, led and organized by the TNI, burned most of the former Portuguese colony to the ground and killed 1,000 of its people.

A few weeks after May 20, 2002, when thousands celebrated late into the night beneath the glitter of celebratory fireworks commemorating their independence—with dignitaries like U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former South African President Nelson Mandela, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard smiling in approval—the 800,000 people of East Timor are still groggily awakening from what the Economist Intelligence Unit recently diagnosed as "the morning after."

And with good reason. In terms of human suffering—even by the gruesome standards of modern history—East Timor’s independence came at the end of one of the costliest struggles the world has seen. Only after centuries of conflict and suffering did the East Timorese win independence.

The deck has been stacked against them since colonial times. Thanks to Portuguese indifference, the tattered island languished for centuries atop vast, largely untapped natural resources in the middle of sea route considered vital to traders.

“The Portuguese government in Timor is a miserable one,” lamented British author and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1891. “Nobody seems to care the least about the improvement of the country—all the government officials oppress and rob the natives as much as they can.”

The TNI moved in after a peaceful 1974 coup in Lisbon ignited a reckless wildfire of de-colonization in Portugal’s communist-leaning overseas outposts. Suharto, Indonesia’s president at the time, bemoaned the possibility of a Marxist state at his nation’s doorstep, comparing the situation in East Timor to that of Cuba and the United States.

From then on, the obscure island enclave was swept up in the cynical calculations of Cold War politics and opportunism that had swept Southeast Asia in the months after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975.

In fact, recently declassified documents at the nonprofit National Security Archive in Washington now reveal that former U.S. President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, approved Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor and doled out extensive military aid to make it possible. Kissinger and Ford were not alone. Most of the world supported, ignored, or pretended to ignore the onslaught.

Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra, a book by Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald, for instance, claims that Australian intelligence knew of the invasion well in advance. The agency’s silence on the matter cost the lives of five foreign journalists: two Australians, two Britons and a New Zealander posthumously dubbed the “The Balibo Five” after they were executed by Indonesian soldiers when the town of that name collapsed before the Indonesians.

East Timorese and bystanders were not the only ones to suffer when Indonesian forces first rolled in on Dec. 7, 1975. Some estimate that as many as 10,000 Indonesian troops died—many under the mistaken impression that the whole operation was a kind of training exercise rather than a real invasion.

After 1975, the East Timorese continued to fight back, through a potent mixture of peaceful resistance on the streets, hit-and-run guerrilla warfare in the jungle, and skillful diplomacy abroad.

Ultimately, though, attention from afar tipped the scales. A savvy network of lobbyists, human-rights activists, and Timorese expatriates helped East Timor gain its independence, but not before 250,000 East Timorese died from starvation, disease, and murder under Jakarta's rule.

When peacekeeping soldiers arrived from Australia—and later, New Zealand—to restore order after the bloodbath of 1999, it seemed nothing short of a miracle for most East Timorese.

Despite the Herculean task before it, the United Nations transitional administration (UNTAET), which followed the troops, wisely took a cue from previous U.N. mistakes in Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, and Cambodia by setting forth a vigorous mandate for itself. This empowered peacekeepers with the muscle needed to fend off incursions by militiamen who had fled to Indonesian West Timor and hidden among 200,000 East Timorese herded into squalid refugee camps.

At the same time UNTAET, under the stewardship of Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, worked to help the nascent nation to rebuild its infrastructure from the ground up—helping with everything from telephones to electricity, waste disposal, and a new postal network. In many ways, this effort was lauded as "nation building" at its very best: a word used so often to such derision by various Western—and, in particular, American—politicians to avoid overseas commitments in recent years.

Much work remains. After the departure of UNTAET, for example, there were no e-mail links to the country: Most of the country’s computers quietly left with the U.N. officials.

Worse yet, the legal corpus necessary to run a country is still incomplete. Property rights and a criminal code, for example, have yet to be established.

Meanwhile, a political fight may be brewing between East Timor’s Portuguese-speaking elite—many of whom lived in exile in Portugal and other Lusaphone countries during the Indonesian occupation—and Timorese who lack the same affinity for their former colonial masters. Although Portuguese is spoken by roughly 9 percent of the population, Tetum is far more prevalent after decades of a heavy-handed Indonesian presence. More than a few, however, wish to see English and Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian tongue, predominate, given the economic realities in the region.

International aid, and the influence it can buy, is also playing a part. Along with Washington and Canberra, Lisbon is enthusiastically providing aid and assistance as a means of parlaying its own influence— recalling an era when the now-sleepy nation ruled the seas from South America to Africa and Asia.

Another big donor, perhaps stirred more by a guilt-laden past, is Japan, which inflicted its share of punishment on the island for resisting the Imperial Army’s march through Asia during World War II, and for housing “Sparrow Force,” an Australian special commando unit during the war.

At the same time, East Timor, once known for its sandalwood, is negotiating—at times heatedly— with Australia over oil exploration rights to the Timor Sea. This is perhaps one of the paramount issues facing the world's 192nd nation. It is believed that the offshore areas in dispute, part of what is considered "Greater Sunrise," contain petroleum reserves worth more US$30 billion.

It is a fight that officials like East Timor’s Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri have strongly suggested might belong in an international court. The government, said Alkatiri in an address to Parliament, “will use all available instruments and mechanisms to search for a solution,” according to the centrist Sydney Morning Herald.

And while security issues are being addressed by a police force and territorial defense force trained under the aegis of the United Nations, and while most of the refugees in West Timor have returned home, for the East Timorese, coming to terms with a blighted history and reconciling with their Indonesian neighbors may well prove a tougher challenge than winning independence. President Xanana Gusmão has made repeated overtures to former militiamen to return home for the sake of peace.

President Gusmão is receiving little help from the generals and politicians in Indonesia. A trip to Jakarta scheduled for May 29 by the former guerilla fighter—who lived in a prison cell there from 1992 to 1999—was abruptly postponed the day before. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry told Agence France-Presse last week that Gusmão’s first foreign visit must wait until “a mutually suitable time and date can be arranged.”

This politicking chips away at the soul of East Timor even today. Back in the courtroom of Indonesia’s East Timor human rights tribunal, its specter hangs in the air and threatens to poison the trials.

Mouzinho’s harrowing tale began in the dining room of the Ave Maria Catholic Church, near the border with West Timor, where the housewife hid with her five children. When one of them was shot in the arm, they fled to an army barracks nearby, no doubt praying for mercy.

They received none. Once at the barracks, she testified, a group of militiamen sexually assaulted one of her children. A group of TNI soldiers stood by and did nothing. "The military allowed this to happen," the 44-year-old told the tribunal, according to the Australian Associated Press. "The soldiers were there, but they did nothing."

Given her nervous descriptions of marauding TNI officers, some toting American-made M16 rifles at the church, it was not surprising that Mouzinho did not feel at ease in their presence. She was not alone in her discomfort. On June 4, three other Timorese witnesses failed show up for the trial, citing fears for their safety. The trial has since been postponed until June 11.

By bringing lower-ranking members of the military, rather than their superiors, to task for their role in episodes like the slayings at Suai, Jakarta is exhibiting its preference for exonerating itself in the court of Indonesian public opinion rather than that of the world community, says Sidney Jones, Indonesia project director for the International Crisis Group, an international human-rights advocacy group.

"In Indonesia, domestic interests are almost always more important than international pressure—and when it comes right down to it, there's not much international interest in these trials," said Jones. "There are important domestic political interests involved in conveying a basic sympathy for those who are seen here as defending the unity of Indonesia."

This may have been a motivating factor for President Megawati—herself the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first post-colonial leader—and her entourage when they arrived in the East Timorese capital, Dili, for the Independence Day festivities of May 20.

Whether bowing to political pressure or marching to the beat of her own drummer, she did her best to remind the 21st century's newest nation of its painful past, when she was whisked into Dili amid a detail of no fewer than 100 soldiers and bodyguards—in the ominous shadows of six battleships.

It was quite a show: Thousands of troops were mobilized strategically—if not discreetly—from all over Indonesia’s 17,500 islands to areas neighboring what is now officially known as Timor Loro Sa'e.

The multimillion-dollar exercise even provoked animosity among the soldiers who were reassigned, according to the Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s English-language daily. Those fortunate enough to accompany the head of state were compensated to the tune of US$150 per day; the rest were paid 100,000 rupiah, or about US$10, the Post reported.

In the end, it was much ado about nothing. For the only security threat in sight was from a handful of silent protesters who greeted her when she went to visit a graveyard for fallen Indonesian soldiers.

They had taped their mouths shut.