East Timor – a case for intervention

In recent years the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dampened enthusiasm in the west for overseas military interventions. East Timor reminds us there are occasions when sending in outside troops doesn’t simply fan the flames of an intractable, entrenched conflict, but can have a lasting positive effect. Indeed it is arguable that without a United Nations led intervention in 1999, the country almost certainly wouldn’t exist in its current form, and might not even exist at all.

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Grave of Sebastiao Gomes in Dili, East Timor, whose funeral triggered the 1991 massacre of more than 200 protesters. Photo by Scartol, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By the mid 1990s, it had become clear to many within the Suharto regime that Timor was not about to knuckle down and accept its status as a province of Indonesia, and the costly process of subjugating the East Timorese people was not bearing fruit.

Several changes turned the tide. The first was advances in communications technology. It was simply no longer possible to exclude the world media as it had been after the 1975 invasion, and keep news of atrocities and human rights abuses from seeping out. A massacre of several hundred protestors at a funeral in 1991 triggered broad international condemnation. This in turn resulted in both the United States and Australia, hitherto covert but staunch supporters of Indonesia’s cause, distancing themselves from Indonesia’s claims on East Timor.

At the same time Indonesia’s sagging economy led many within the country to question the massive cost of continuing to occupy East Timor. Furthermore, the old communist bogeyman had been rendered largely irrelevant by the end of the cold war. Indonesia’s resolve was wavering, and with new president BJ Habibie succeeding Suharto, the prospect of East Timorese independence became a real possibility.

However welcome that might have been across large parts of East Timor, separation from Indonesia also threatened to throw up some losers. Most significant of these were the militias who had been trained by the Indonesian army to enforce Indonesian rule. The prospect of independence, and with it some settling of old scores, terrified them, and they vowed to do whatever they could to prevent it. This took the form of setting out on a rampage of destruction following a vote eventually offered by Indonesia in favour of independence. Their rationale was as simple as it was brutal – if they couldn’t have the country, no one would.

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Australian members of International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) on the streets of Dili in 2000. Photo by Dan Mennuto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It became clear that unless order was forcibly restored, East Timor would soon slip into anarchy and civil war. A multinational peacekeeping force, led by the Australians, effectively created an arena in which a new government could function and begin to create the independent state of Timor Leste. This force was able to disarm the militias, train and support the local military and police, and provide a framework around which the new nation’s infrastructure could be created.

The Timorese people have much to be thankful for to the Australians, New Zealanders and other nations contributing troops to INTERFET. For the Australians, stepping in at this critical moment in East Timor’s history was perhaps the least they could do to atone for the cynical manner in which Gough Whitlam’s government in the 1970s put economic and political relations with Indonesia over any concern for the plight of the Timorese people.

Invading East Timor. What was Suharto thinking?

East Timor Grunge Flag, powerful symbol of a quarter of a century's resistance. Image courtesy of domdean/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

East Timor Grunge Flag, powerful symbol of a quarter of a century’s resistance. Image courtesy of domdean/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There is no doubt that when Indonesian troops invaded East Timor in December 1975, it was a deliberate decision taken at the highest levels of the Indonesian government and personally approved by President Suharto. The question remains, why did he do it?

Suharto was notoriously inscrutable, capable of hiding his true thoughts from all around him. He was also highly skilled at playing different factions off against each other. Aloof and impenetrable, his true motives were never easy to discern. However, it is possible to isolate a number of reasons why Indonesia might have chosen to annexe East Timor. Here are the main ones:

1. Oil. Indonesia was blessed with massive reserves of oil, and there was good reason within the geological community to suppose similar reserves lay under the Timor Sea. Incorporating East Timor into Mother Indonesia would give the country control of these potential reserves and access to the wealth they promised.

Having said that, Indonesia had never made any territorial claims on East Timor, and certainly not while Portugal was in control. Whilst Suharto was a tough dictator, he was no Saddam Hussein, and didn’t have a history of aggressive expansionism. He was also sensitive to his reputation in the West and was scrupulous about ensuring he would not upset the United States before embarking upon any foreign policy adventure. Besides, he had enough on his hands controlling the 3,000 or so islands that made up Indonesia without taking on additional troublesome commitments. Indonesia was already mineral rich, Suharto’s problems lay elsewhere.

2. Fear of Communism. Suharto loathed communism, and presided over the 1965 bloodbath that effectively extinguished communism as a political force in the country. The idea of a socialist state setting itself up on his doorstep would have been anathema to him; taking decisive action to crush it would have been a fairly easy sell to the Americans, still reeling from defeats in Vietnam and Cambodia.

3. Opportunism. The collapse of the Salazar regime in Lisbon created a power vacuum in East Timor, and although the socialist leaning Fretilin attempted to fill it, they were no match for the economic or military might of Indonesia. Neither was Portugal, despite their protests, in a position to do anything. With the covert blessing of the United States and the reluctance of Australia to stand up to Indonesia, Suharto could be excused for seeing East Timor as a gift handed to him on a plate. All he had to do was turn up and march in.

No doubt each of these factors played a part in Indonesia’s decision to go ahead and take East Timor for themselves. What is harder to ascertain is the relative importance each factor had in the equation. To do that one would have to get an insight into the workings of Suharto’s mind, something few, if any, individuals ever came close to achieving.

Francesca – Genesis of an idea

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It’s easy to forget just how different the world was back in the mid 1970s, when Francesca was set. No mobile phones, no internet, no Starbucks on every street corner. Easier, too, for dictators to keep a lid on their shenanigans. You could take out a town, empty a region of its population without any fear of pesky demonstrators posting evidence of your atrocities on youtube for all the world to see and condemn.

So it’s hardly surprising the Indonesian invasion of East Timor passed me by, even though I was living in the region at the time, an expat teenager whose father worked in the oil business. The local media was strictly censored, whilst foreign correspondents who might have kicked up a fuss were for the most part unable to access the place. Besides, who was interested in what was going on in a backwater most people had never heard of?

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I encountered East Timor again. I was doing some volunteer work for Amnesty International in London, and kept coming across all these cases from the conflict. The more I looked into them, the more shocked I became, compounded by the more shocking revelation that I had been in Indonesia when this tiny country was gobbled up by its neighbour and large parts of its population annihilated.

Several hundred miles away our lives continued in their cocooned luxury, oblivious to what Suharto’s soldiers were doing. No one mentioned it, no one spoke out, no one did anything that might upset the cosy relationship between the Indonesian government and the western oil companies. Everyone was making money, and besides Indonesia was on our side, a bulwark against communism.

It was the discovery of these parallel worlds that inspired me to write Francesca. In particular, I was interested in people who straddled both, the ones with the fullest picture. Naturally, they would all be invented characters, but that is the freedom and the joy of fiction. As they took on their own lives, they created their own dramas, sorrows, joys, tragedies and triumphs. Out of all this Francesca was born.

Francesca will be published in September 2013 by Betimes Books

www.betimesbooks.com