East Timor: A Child Is Born

by Michael W. Stowell

June 3, 2002


It wasn't a stillbirth -- I was concerned about that for a while -- fortunately, the international public assisted and the world now has a brand new baby who survived a traumatic, almost tragic, gestation period. The child is in remarkably good health though quite frail and tiny, and the parents are relieved yet subdued.

Happy Birthday, East Timor! Just about the time I lose faith in humanity something happens that inspires the mind and gives confidence to the soul. I hope the whole world is watching!

It was a very long gestation period. During the 17th century the colonialists of the Netherlands and Portugal fought over Timor, a small island in the Asian Pacific slightly larger than the state of Maryland. In time, the island was divided into two colonies, the west belonging to the Netherlands' Dutch East Indies and the east to Portugal. When the Dutch East Indies gained independence after World War II and became Indonesia, East Timor remained separate and under Portuguese governance.

Thus the people of the two colonies developed different languages, cultures and identities through several centuries of time and, though they shared the same island, were quite different in spirit and allegiance.

More ominous influences have also come into play.

American policy for European colonies was consistent through numerous presidencies, it has never tolerated territories that are leftist and would rather European allies maintain control until suitable subordinates are placed in cooperative positions. Early Indonesian nationalists were a bit too independent so, in typical fashion, the US and its proxies began a covert campaign to return Dutch troops as peacekeepers. In 1948, 'friendlier' elements were found and employed to establish control of resources for the burgeoning capitalist hegemony. Sukarno became Washington's man on the scene.

But not for long.

The Eisenhower administration found Sukarno lacking in capitalist fervor and sought to subvert the government of Indonesia through the CIA's first major operation. The Indonesian military was beefed up and a military coup was incited in 1965. We'll never know exactly how many died in that holocaust, somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people, but Sukarno was finally deposed and replaced by a real military man, someone who knew how to take orders without question, General Suharto. The remnants of resistance were then quickly dispatched in what the CIA calls "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century."

The people of East Timor were, at that time, still under Portuguese rule and were witnesses to the ruthless slaughter of their neighbors waged on behalf of Western capitalists. When Lisbon finally decided to end its colonial rule in 1975 (overt colonialism had become unpopular and the hegemony too powerful to resist), East Timor was left in the bull's eye; a seemingly easy target for assimilation by Indonesia.

But old tricks don't always work, so when an Indonesian-backed military coup failed to shake East Timor's resolve for independence, Jakarta launched a full-scale invasion, a 'peacekeeping mission,' in an area engaged in 'civil war.' For 25 years, the East Timorese endured Indonesia's peacekeeping mission.

US taxpayers furnished about 90% of Indonesia's military arsenal and because use of it for offensive purposes was illegal, a little 'wink and nod' was necessary for enforcement of the capitalist hegemony. President Gerald Ford and his sidekick, Henry Kissinger, were happy to accommodate and throw in whatever covert 'counterinsurgency' equipment Suharto deemed necessary. Meanwhile, at the UN, US ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan neutralized the opposition and kept Jakarta in good stead, for a while. Who could have known those East Timorese people would be so darned bull-headed?

Even America's sweetheart, the ever-so-neo-liberal Jimmy Carter, threw in his lot and increased military aid to the Suharto regime. Since 1975, the US government has authorized the sale of more than $1 billion worth of firepower to Indonesia, quite the tidy supplement for Uncle Sam's military/industrial complex!

And it only cost the East Timorese people 200,000 of their own. People, that is; friends, relatives, parents and children. Heck, there were about 800,000 citizens of East Timor when this peacekeeping mission started, so they won't have to worry about birth control for a while. Right?

Because the Indonesian peacekeepers were so clearly in violation of international law, the UN's Security Council eventually condemned the invasion and rejected Indonesia's assimilation of East Timor. Only Australia has recognized Indonesian sovereignty over the people of East Timor. Can you guess why? Why has Australia provided weapons to Indonesia? Britain recently became the most generous weapons supplier, though Canada has provided aid and weapons and the Netherlands and Germany have thrown in some firepower, too.

Why? We'll come back to that.

The most inspiring point of this dark and 'evil' tale is the courageous struggle against impossible odds carried out through non-violent protests and steadfast, passive resistance. There's been some grassroots guerrilla warfare, too (for a minute I thought we were in Cuba).

And for much of the way, East Timor was alone.

My first recollections of the discussion are of Noam Chomsky and his revelations. Arnold Kohen was in the thick of it early. After the massacre in Dili in 1991, we heard from Amy Goodman and Alan Nairn. Charlie Scheiner organized the East Timor Action Network. Not many voices, really. Then the mainstream media took a peek; organizations grew, and their congressional lobbying intensified. In 1996, Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. About that time, the voice of humanity rose above the din of complacency and global consciousness was changed. East Timor exemplified the human struggle against inhuman odds and therein lies the lesson we are all living to learn.

Suharto, and the massive corruption he employed, reaped financial crisis and overwhelming civil unrest in Indonesia; he finally got his civil war. In 1998, B.J. Habibie replaced Suharto and new elections were held for Indonesia. A referendum was called for the future of East Timor. One might have expected more civility from the Indonesian military and paramilitary forces, considering that the UN and much of the rest of the world were watching; but no, large-scale terrorist violence and brutality intensified to intimidate the East Timorese population to vote for incorporation within Indonesia. Bill Clinton delayed election monitors and the referendum was postponed several times, but on August 30, 1999, virtually the entire population turned out to vote and four out of five voters declared their independence.

Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and thousands were 'disappeared' by a furious Indonesian military. Homes and businesses were burned and the capital, Dili, was all but completely destroyed. Still, the people held on.

See any patterns here?

How many people must die before the massacres end?

Are we, as a people, here in the United States of America, so coarse, so ruthless, so inhuman, so lost in our own little world, the playground of life, that we cannot and will not stop the most destructive and vile force of corruption and horror ever in the history of human existence?

It will be stopped, you know; somewhere, sometime, somehow.

On May 19, 2002, on its first day as an independent nation, East Timor warned the government of Australia of a long and dedicated fight for a fair share of Timor Sea oil and gas revenue. The Chief Minister, Mari Alkatiri, in his first speech, cited international law and stated that the East Timorese government "will use all available instruments and international mechanisms to search for a solution."

So there you have it. Oil. Money. Power.

Will East Timor end up as the aggressor? Has this all been about greed and not self-determination and fairness and civility? I don't think so.

The East Timorese have endured the 'fires of hell' and are tempered in their commitment to freedom from repression and exploitation. They have resisted. They are a people, and now a nation, evolved. The spirit of the hope of humanity and this earth, our home, rests upon them. And all those who support them.

Happy Birthday, to all.

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Sydney Morning Herald, May 20, 2002

ZNET, "East Timor Questions and Answers," http://www.zmag.org/CrisesCurEvts/Timor/qanda.htm

Democracy Now!


Michael W. Stowell is chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Arcata Library in Arcata, CA. He is the producer/editor/videographer of numerous public access television programs; he is a naturalist, a gardener, a bicyclist and a Swans' columnist.

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