Tag Archives: Timor Leste

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.

East Timor – Background to an invasion

Imagine you are a mid ranking official in the Portuguese diplomatic service in the early 1970s. One Christmas after a few too many drinks at the office party, you make a pass at your boss’s wife, then allow yourself to be overheard telling the new receptionist how your department is run by a bunch of incompetent halfwits.

Come the new year, if indeed for you there is a new year, you might expect a posting to the colonial administration supposedly running East Timor. Career oblivion follows. Such was the lack of importance attached to this far flung colony by Lisbon, who had far more pressing matters to occupy their thoughts, namely the unravelling of their resource rich territories Mozambique and Angola. Overlooked and under resourced, East Timor continued its sleepy existence, ignored by most of the world with the possible exception of neighbouring West Timor, now part of Indonesia.

Palacio do Governo, flying the East Timorese flag. Photo Alex Castro

Palacio do Governo, flying the East Timorese flag.
Photo Alex Castro

The source of Timor’s division lay in the way the European colonial powers carved up the region in their pursuit of spices and other commodities. The western half of Timor ended up in Dutch hands, the eastern half in Portuguese. At the end of the second world war, when Indonesia gained its independence, West Timor became part of the new nation along with the rest of the three thousand or so islands making up the Dutch East Indies. East Timor, meanwhile, continued as a colonial outpost, internationally still recognised as part of metropolitan Portugal.

By the early 1970s Portugal had serious problems. To add to the burgeoning independence movements in Africa, the Salazar administration was on the verge of collapse. An authoritarian right wing regime modelled along the lines of Mussolini’s Italy, it was replaced in a 1974 coup by a socialist government with a completely different set of priorities and views on its far flung colonies. The new government was quite happy to wash its hands of East Timor, which it saw as an irrelevance and a financial drain.

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Map of Timor-Leste (formerly known as East Timor)
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This turned out to be not quite so simple as they thought. Opinion in East Timor was sharply divided, between a wealthy minority who favoured integration with Indonesia, and those who wanted to create their own independent state, with or without Portugal’s involvement. This latter group, broadly socialist in disposition but by no means Marxist, were highly distrustful of Indonesia’s intentions for their country.

Whilst Indonesia claimed to have no designs on East Timor, the generals running the country saw a potential Trojan horse in their midst from which a socialist revolution could be launched. Having spent the past ten years rooting out communists in their own islands and watching both Vietnam and Cambodia succumb to the hammer and sickle, they were in no mood to take an indulgent view of left leaning movements for national self determination.

The stage was well and truly set for a conflict of catastrophic proportions…