GLOBAL DIALOGUE Volume 3 ● Number 1 ● Winter 2001óThe Dialogue of Civilisations

Book Review

East Timorís Bloody Road to Independence


John G. Taylor is professor of politics at South Bank University in London. He is the author of several books on East Timor, including East Timor: The Price of Freedom (Zed Books, 1999).


The East Timor Question: The Struggle for Independence from Indonesia
edited by paul hainsworth and stephen mccloskey
London, I. B.Tauris, 2000. 222 pages
Paperback: £12.95


In the aftermath of the August 1999 referendum in East Timor, several books have been published in Europe and Australia describing the United Nations’ supervision of the event and assessing the Indonesian army’s desperate and brutal attempts to overturn a result in which 78.5 per cent of the population voted for independence and an end to twenty-four years of Indonesian occupation. Only some of these texts succeeded in situating these events in a contemporary historical context. A more analytical approach is provided in The East Timor Question: The Struggle for Independence from Indonesia, a collection of articles examining most of the relevant issues which arose in the 1990s and influenced the outcome of the referendum.


The preface by Nobel peace laureate and Timorese resistance leader, José Ramos-Horta, was written before the referendum but is hauntingly prescient in its fears of a violent Indonesian reaction and its emphasis on the importance of international support to uphold the outcome of the vote. A succinct introduction follows by co-editor Stephen McCloskey, who manages both to summarise the volume’s contents and accurately describe the background to the Indonesian occupation.


Historian Peter Carey provides a detailed, graphic account of the operation of the Indonesian security system in East Timor. Local sub-district military command troops, village “guidance officials”, intelligence agents, mobile police brigades, infantry battalions and the army’s special forces unit (Kopassus) subjected the East Timorese to constant surveillance. I recall interviewing in the early 1980s East Timorese refugees who told me of military punishment for speaking the indigenous language, Tetum, not only in the street, but in their homes. They said their lives were repeatedly punctuated by night visits from police and soldiers who would detain people for their activities earlier in the day. Carey exposes the workings of the system that made this possible, particularly in relation to the surveillance initiatives launched by the son-in-law of former President Suharto, Major-General Prabowo, who viewed East Timor as his personal fiefdom. Similar insights are given by journalist Hugh O’Shaughnessy, who visited East Timor on several occasions, most notably in 1997, when his published reports of seeing Hawk jets flying low over the capital finally gave the lie to British government denials of their use in the territory.


Maureen Tolfree gives a moving account of the murder of her brother, Brian Peters, by Indonesian troops and pro-integrationist militias in the border village of Balibo on 16 October 1975 prior to the full-scale invasion of 7 December. Peters was slaughtered, together with four of his colleagues from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, while reporting on a major Indonesian border incursion at a time when both the Indonesian government and the West were denying that any Indonesian troops were present in East Timor. Tolfree’s account of the attempts to conceal the reality of these events is particularly disturbing. Australia has released some documents on the journalists’ deaths, but Britain has failed to do so despite repeated calls from Tolfree’s family and from the family of the other slain British journalist, Malcolm Rennie.


Carmel Budiardjo, the founder of Tapol, the London-based Indonesian human rights group, has provided the outside world with detailed and accurate accounts of the situation in Indonesia and East Timor since the late 1960s. In this volume, she presents a full analysis of the legacy of the Suharto period. Focusing on human rights abuses in Indonesia, she discusses the military’s domination of the state, the endemic corruption fostered by the Suharto family and its cronies, and the impact of centralised rule on areas such as Aceh and West Papua. Her contribution enables us to understand the rapidly increasing support for independence in these two (as yet) provinces of Indonesia, and also the emergence in Java of opposition to the regime.


Estavao Cabral sheds light on the many and varied ways in which the Indonesian government systematically disseminated false information during the 1980s and 1990s about its occupation of East Timor. He notes the complicity of academics in this process, and the extent to which various governments were prepared to accept and propagate the Indonesian version of events despite knowing that it was patently false.


The trial in the United Kingdom of members of the international peace group, Ploughshares, for disarming a Hawk ground attack aircraft in 1996 at a manufacturing plant near Liverpool was vitally important in bringing East Timor to British public attention. Support for the group’s deed—they beat the plane’s nose-cone with household hammers—grew massively once it became known that the Hawks were being used for repressive purposes in East Timor. The chapter “Seeds of Hope” is an account of the Ploughshares action by three of the main participants—Andrea Needham, Jen Parker and Jo Wilson.


The policies of Australia, the United States and Europe towards East Timor are assessed by Jim Aubrey, Charles Scheiner and co-editor Paul Hainsworth. Australia’s record deserves special condemnation. Australia gave de facto and de jure recognition to the Indonesian occupation in the interests of exploiting East Timor’s valuable oil resources jointly with Indonesian state-owned companies. Human rights abuses were repeatedly downplayed or denied outright. The actions of former foreign minister Gareth Evans were particularly reprehensible. He toasted the signing of the “Timor Gap” treaty for oil co-exploration with his Indonesian counterpart Ali Alatas as they flew over East Timor in 1989. Nine months prior to the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre (in which Indonesian troops killed at least 270 people) Evans claimed that “the human rights situation in East Timor has, in our judgement, greatly improved under the present military arrangements”.1 This was at a time when informed observers, both inside and outside the territory, were stating precisely the opposite.


The importance of US arms supplies and military training in facilitating Indonesia’s invasion and prolonged occupation of East Timor is highlighted by Scheiner. His analysis is complemented by an excellent article by Hainsworth, showing the limits of the “ethical foreign policy” of Britain’s “New Labour” government. The continuity of approach with the previous Conservative government on arms sales and trade is clearly established. An egregious example of New Labour’s refusal to allow humanitarian issues to cloud relations with Indonesia was provided in 1998 by then defence minister George Robertson, who described General Prabowo as “an enlightened officer, keen to increase professionalism within the armed forces and to educate them in areas such as human rights”.2


Eilis Ward reviews the European Union’s stance on East Timor during Ireland’s EU presidency of 1996. She traces the evolution of policy in Dublin, describing the influences on the decision-making process. Concluding the volume, Pedro Pinto Leite assesses East Timor’s right to self-determination through a comparison with the Western Sahara case, and Adrian Guelke sees important lessons in the South African example for East Timor’s transition to independence.


In a postscript, Hainsworth reminds us of developments in Indonesia after Suharto’s downfall. He focuses on the Indonesian policy shift that permitted 1999’s independence referendum in East Timor, and on former president Habibie’s role in producing this shift. Concluding paragraphs summarise the reconstruction difficulties in East Timor following the paramilitary rampage which plundered the country, destroyed its infrastructure and led to the displacement of most of its population. At the time of writing, approximately eighty thousand East Timorese remain in camps across the border in West Timor, controlled by the same paramilitary commanders responsible for the post-referendum nightmare.


Broad as is the scope of the book, some issues have been omitted which analysts and commentators might have liked to see included, especially in light of the changing nature of East Timor in the post-referendum period. Regarding human rights abuses, perhaps more detail could have been given about the Indonesian military’s drives in the 1970s and early 1980s to pacify and control the population. In the “Encirclement and Annihilation” campaign (1977–9), people were forced from upland to lowland areas before being either killed or resettled in camps. In the “Fence of Legs” operation (1981–2), males aged eight to sixty were forced to march in front of Indonesian soldiers as they encircled and flushed out areas of resistance. Most of the two hundred thousand deaths resulting from the occupation occurred during these years, and we need fuller accounts of this period.


It was during this period, also, that most of the armed resistance to the Indonesian occupation was eliminated. Charismatic leaders such as Nicolau Lobato and Mau Lear were hunted down, captured and killed. Despite the slaughter, some groups managed to survive, most notably, of course, those led by the current president of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao. Their regrouping and resurgence during the 1980s was absolutely crucial. It allowed the development of a “second generation” of youthful protest in East Timor’s main towns and villages in the late 1980s and 1990s, and was vital to the maintenance and growth of international support. These issues could have featured more prominently in the book under review.


The cover-up in the Balibo slayings could also have been examined in greater depth. Obfuscation by the British and Australian governments dates back to the deaths of the five journalists in 1975. Continual obstruction by officialdom has hampered all attempts at investigation to this day.


The significance of the lobbying on behalf of East Timor by groups in Portugal and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s could also have been given more emphasis, as could the Portuguese government’s systematic support for East Timor from the mid-eighties onwards.


On the East Timor question, two issues still demand further investigation. First, how can we explain the sheer levels of brutality by the Indonesian military during its occupation? By any standards, these were truly terrible. The world caught merely a glimpse of the Indonesian repression when the post-referendum paramilitary rampage was televised in early September 1999; much worse had preceded that. As with Cambodia, Indonesian human rights abuses need to be documented fully, their causes analysed and the perpetrators put on trial.


Second, what accounts for the dramatic change in the stance of both Indonesia and the West in 1999? Why, having fought to deny East Timor self-determination for twenty-three years, did Indonesia suddenly agree to a referendum? Why, having acquiesced diplomatically in the Indonesian occupation and supported it militarily, did the world’s leading governments suddenly change tack and endorse self-determination so strongly? Why back the right of self-determination for a small territory of 811,000 people in its conflict with a strategically important ally in Southeast Asia, with its important resources and population of 210 million, particularly when you have done everything possible to block this for over two decades?


This book, with others published in recent years, provides the material necessary for addressing these two central issues.


1. Indonesia News 10, no. 2 (February 1991).


2. Observer (London), 26 July 1998.