East Timor: On the Road to Independence

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EAST Timor will become the 190th member of the United Nations when it achieves independence sometime this year. It is currently governed by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and there is a Cabinet of the Transitional Government in East Timor. The East Timorese are almost free at last. But freedom has had a high price tag and East Timor has many problems ahead.

The Lessons of History

East Timor was a Portuguese colony for over three centuries. When the military dictators were overthrown in Lisbon in 1974, the Portuguese colonies in Africa and East Timor had to prepare themselves for independence. Portugal was appalling as an imperial power and it was also appalling in setting its colonies on the road to independence.

Meanwhile, Indonesia decided that it could not risk an independent country in the middle of its island chain and so it invaded East Timor in late 1975. The Indonesian Government feared that an independent East Timor would somehow be an example to other parts of the sprawling country to stimulate a campaign for their independence. Whether that would really have been the case will never be known. After all, East Timor was never a part of the old Dutch Empire (as was the rest of Indonesia). The war in East Timor 1975-99 was, in per capita terms, one of the world's most violent wars since 1945. About 200,000 people were killed (the population in 1975 was about 600,000 people).

The Indonesian Government from 1975 onwards under-estimated the desire of the East Timorese for independence. Despite 24 years of war and suffering, the Indonesians never broke the resistance of the people. The East Timorese showed that a well-organized, well-motivated guerrilla group fighting on its own terrain, with the support of the local people, is almost impossible to beat. The East Timorese guerrillas had no military support from the outside world because Indonesia sealed off the island following the 1975 invasion. The fighters had to rely on homemade equipment and weapons taken from Indonesian soldiers. But they successfully resisted one of the largest defence forces in the world.

Ironically, the way that East Timor resisted the Indonesian aggression for 24 years - and it is now being set on the path to independence - provides an inspiration to the more independent-minded parts of Indonesia. The East Timorese have proved that it is possible to defeat Jakarta. Thus, Jakarta invaded to stop East Timor from indirectly providing a model for parts of Indonesia to try to break away. But its defeat in East Timor has provided an inspiration for parts of that increasingly turbulent country to try to break away (such as Aceh at the western end of the country and West Papua at the eastern end) because the East Timorese have shown that the Indonesian military are not invincible.

Western countries (such as Australia and the US) have also played an appalling role. They have consistently helped Jakarta and so have colluded in one of the worst violations of human rights in the twentieth century. I have been interested in East Timor since just prior to the 1975 invasion, when I got to meet the world's youngest foreign minister: Jose Ramos Horta. The Portuguese colony had just declared its independence and Mr Horta was visiting Australia to get Australian support for the new country. Mr Horta failed to get any governmental support (or support from the opposition) and so he was visiting non-governmental people such as myself. I have maintained my opposition to the Indonesian invasion. I have therefore clashed with every Australian foreign minister since 1975 over this issue. Each one claimed that East Timor was a lost cause and that we ought to forget about it. Each one has now been proved wrong. Australia's Whitlam Labour Government did nothing to stop the Indonesian invasion in 1975 -- a nd may even have encouraged it. This pro-Jakarta policy was followed by all the subsequent Australian governments. …