The Coastal Post - November 1999

The Timor Story

By Kerry B. Collison

When the first Europeans discovered Timor they were immediately confronted with the terrifying spectacle of head-hunters standing along the beach proudly displaying their victims remains atop long, bamboo poles, waving these in warning as the blue-eyed visitors waded cautiously ashore to claim the island for Portugal. The year was 1511.

Bitter competition between the Dutch, Portuguese and English to dominate the spice and sandalwood trade resulted in widespread conflict between the colonial powers, and the annihilation of entire ethnic groups across the great archipelago which would become known as Indonesia.

Timor is but one of the 13,677 islands within the Republic which boasts 336 different ethnic groups with more than 250 dialects. The inhabitants are religiously and culturally different, the colors of their skins varying from yellow to brown and coal black. The Pribumi, or aboriginal Indonesians, can trace their history back through the millenniums, recalling great kingdoms which stretched from New Guinea in the East to Cambodia and Vietnam in the North and across to Madagascar in the West. But there are two Timors.

Before Chinese traders paved the way to Timor for the Portuguese, the island was controlled mainly by two warring tribes, the Tetum head-hunters who retained control in the East, and the Atoni which today predominate in West Timor. Although strongly influenced by Hinduism prior to European influence which brought Catholicism with it, both groups practiced animism and believed in spirits and ancestor worship. Many still worship the fertility god and the crocodile. When one of the reptiles is killed in self-defense, it is often accorded a human burial.

The Atoni people are basically Melanesian, short in stature with dark brown skin and frizzy hair, similar to the New Guineans. They live in hamlets in the hills, many in simple bamboo framed dwellings with nothing more than hand-woven mats to cover the primitive mud floors.

The Timorese had become a most vulnerable people. Colonized by the Portuguese and the Dutch, in 1911 the island was formally divided between these two nations, the East becoming a Catholic enclave while the West fell under the influence of the Protestant faith. When the Japanese were finally defeated in 1945, the Dutch, British, French and Portuguese hurried back to reoccupy their former colonies in Asia. The Indonesians resisted fiercely; their war against the British-supported Dutch forces finally resulting in their independence being recognized in 1949. At this time West Timor fell to the Indonesians, although East Timor remained intact as a Portuguese colony until 1974 until this sleepy little backwater was suddenly thrust onto the world stage when a number of officers effected a coup d'etat in Lisbon, on the other side of the globe. Within weeks the new Portuguese military junta relinquished their colonies, and Angola, Mozambique, Macau and East Timor all suddenly found themselves adrift in a maelstrom of international politics, self-serving interests, and indifference.

In the months that followed, tensions in Asia grew. The Javanese-dominated Indonesian military feared that the East Timorese had fallen under the influence of left wing elements and immediately initiated a campaign code-named Operasi Komodo to destabilize the fledgling political movements formed to ease East Timor through the vacuum created by Portugal's abandonment, and lead the East Timorese to independence. The Indonesian ploy was strongly supported by the United States and, embarrassingly, Australia. During the Second World War, the Timorese had given more than 40,000 lives fighting against the Japanese in their efforts to protect Australian commandos. Betrayed, the people of East Timor were left at the mercy of a brutal invasion force which was predominantly Moslem.

In 1975 the American-trained, American-equipped Indonesian Special Forces commenced its plan to "cleanse" the annexed colony, the word "genocide" not powerful enough to describe the atrocities carried out against the poorly-equipped, agrarian-based inhabitants of this faraway, isolated land. Squadrons of sophisticated American fighter aircraft were secretly delivered via Israel to Jordan, where American-trained, Indonesian pilots took delivery and flew these aircraft through Moslem nations until arriving in Indonesia at a time when the United States Congress had vetoed delivery of such weaponry. It seemed that the oil lobby in Houston needed reassurance that the U.S. Government would, through the Indonesians, provide protection against any possible intrusion by Soviet-backed Vietnamese IL-28's into the world's largest known natural gas deposit, the island of Natuna in the South China Sea.

The inherent rights of the East Timorese were never once considered, their plight clouded and forgotten, overshadowed by the prospect of a $15 billion gas extraction bonanza. The U.S. Congress was bypassed and, amidst winks and nods, nobody cared. Suharto's clique, obsessed with amassing an even greater fortune than most could imagine, sent their killing machine into the unprotected colony and commenced slaughtering tens of thousands, knowing that they had the Pentagon's approval.

Time after time, the United Nations passed resolutions demanding that Indonesia withdraw, but as the United States was keen to see the East Timorese people absorbed into their new ally's nation, Indonesia, these calls for member nations to take action went unheeded. Simply, it was just not in the United States' interests to have East Timor independent at a time when, in a period of but a few months, the superpower not only lost the war in Vietnam and influence over all of Indochina, but was also in danger of losing its bases in the Philippines. Then Pol Pot commenced his campaign of terror in Cambodia and to add to regional instability, Indira Ghandi declared a State of Emergency in India as the Soviets poured into Vietnam following the American-led forces' withdrawal from that theater.

Unbeknown to those outside the Intelligence World, for several decades the United States Navy had depended on access to a deep, relatively unknown and uncharted ocean trench within the Ombai-Wetar Straits. U.S. nuclear submarines sailed, undetected, through this trench, saving up to eight days steaming time for submarines moving between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

As the East Timorese struggle today to understand, none have any appreciation that their fate had been sealed to protect the passage of the U.S. Navy's assets. Had East Timor become independent under a Leftist regime, there was every possibility that the Soviets would influence the new nation's leaders to prevent further transit by American submarines, well armed with nuclear missiles.

In short, successive American administrations have permitted the Indonesians to continue with their brutal occupation of another country to preserve the integrity of a strategic military arrangement, one which eventuated in the East Timorese population being decimated, with more than 200,000 lives lost under the cruel Indonesian occupation. President (General) Suharto had come to power in 1966 and subsequently oversaw the slaughter of more than half a million of his own people just nine years before under the guise of a Communist-cleansing campaign. Domestic media was strictly controlled; brain-washing techniques implemented at village level throughout the country soon removed any question that Indonesia's annexation of East Timor had been in the interests of all. Churches were systematically destroyed, the total reaching 400 in those years Suharto led the nation. In all, more than one million people were slaughtered to maintain the brutal Suharto regime's deadly grip over the republic. Over the past months, graves revealing evidence of mass executions in such determined provinces as Aceh and Irian have been discovered. There is irrefutable evidence that these atrocities were committed by the American-trained Special Forces (KOPASSUS); there is further evidence to support that American advisers visited these areas, including East Timor, to document evidence of their successful training programs.

The Javanese Indonesian generals had developed an expertise in ethnic cleansing. Outlying provinces were attacked, the people transported to distant islands while Javanese moved into their lands as the new tenants. Minority ethnic populations were deliberately diluted, their cultures and language discarded, their religions discouraged by what had become the world's largest Moslem country.

And then, 18 months ago economic disaster struck Asia, precipitating the beginning of the end to the Suharto era. Ill-advised IMF officers imposed restrictions on the corrupt Indonesian government which pushed the 200 million population to the brink of despair. Suddenly, there was no kerosene for cooking or lighting, no money for even the most basic staples, no money to pay the corrupt officials and soldiers who controlled every aspect of their lives. Students throughout the country hit the streets demanding that the enormously wealthy President resign. They occupied Parliament and defied the President's 300,000-strong military. The people of Indonesia had had enough. Stories in Western tabloids and magazines openly accused the Indonesian President, his family, cronies and friends of stripping the nation's wealth. Charges that the First Family had amassed wealth in excess of 30 billion American dollars drove the near-starving people into a frenzy, the ensuing riots destroying most commercial property throughout major city centers, many of which were owned by the President's over-zealous children who to this day maintain wealthy estates in California, cattle stations and hotels in Australia and a plethora of country residences in most major capitals around the world.

During the student demonstrations, President Suharto's ambitious and cruel son-in-law, General Prabowo, an American-trained Special Forces officer, secretly arranged for the KOPASSUS troops to open fire on the Trisakti University students, killing and wounding many. The country erupted into violence, the wealthy Chinese families and businesses taking the brunt of the attacks. Young Chinese girls were dragged from buses, trains and cars by soldiers, then beaten and raped while the indigenous population cheered them on. In three days more than 400 such attacks were documented; over the following months more than 27 of these girls took their lives, unable to cope with the memory and stigma which had enveloped their lives.

Finally, recognizing that the country was on the brink of civil war, the military forced Suharto to step down and surrender power. In his last gesture of defiance, the Smiling General, President Suharto, passed the Presidency to his Vice President, B.J. Habibie, believing that by doing so he could punish the Indonesian people through the man's incompetence. Immediately, the interim President announced that there would be elections, this news warmly greeted by the international community which then approved a bailout package totaling more than 71 billion American dollars, even though President Habibie had been an integral part of the deposed Suharto's quest to accumulate enormous wealth. Within weeks of his appointment it was established that the new leader had also accumulated more than 200 million dollars in assets during his term as the Minister for Research and Technology. But the West was satisfied that they had accomplished enough, having orchestrated for the powerful General Wiranto to take effective control over the country. Elections were held and for several weeks it appeared that Indonesia had survived its crisis and would once again provide great opportunities for foreign investors. The American CINCPAC Admiral maintained regular contact with General Wiranto, confirming the United States' support for the man who today is responsible for the Indonesian military's abhorrent behavior prior and subsequent to the recent Referendum which once again has accounted for so many innocent lives.

Finally, as part of a rapprochement with the West and in order that the world believed Indonesia to be sincere with the democratization process, the interim leadership agreed to a UN-sponsored referendum in East Timor to establish whether the people there wished to remain a part of the Indonesian Republic.

Twenty four years of oppression, genocide and dilution, 24 years of Javanese brutality and intimidation could only, Jakarta believed, guarantee that the East Timorese would remain within the Republic, tempered also by the offer of greater autonomy.

To ensure that the vote would be made along Jakarta lines, selected Indonesian soldiers were instructed to discard their uniforms and form militant bands to begin a campaign of abuse and intimidation against those who were openly supporting the "no" vote.

Ironically, the simple peasants and remaining city dwellers believed that, should they rally and show the courage to stand up to the Java-based bullies, then the UN, particularly the Americans and Australians, would rectify the wrongs of more than 20 years before. The East Timorese trusted the United Nations and the tide changed. Immediately, pro-Jakarta or Pro-Autonomy bands swept across East Timor threatening, coercing, beating and even killing as the historic opportunity approached.

At 0630 on Referendum Day, tens of thousands of raggedy, near-starving East Timorese showed their mettle, bravely emerging through the early morning mountain mists to cast their vote. There was an unbelievable 95% turnout. When counting had been completed, it was revealed that almost 80 percent of the East Timorese had voted against remaining with Indonesia. Rightfully, they then demanded that Jakarta and the West keeps their word and permit the people to have their independence.

In Dili, the streets exploded with joy. In Jakarta, Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese leader fought back tears when he was advised that he would be released after seven years in detention, to return to his native soil. Nobel Laureate, Bishop Belo called a special mass for his followers while his fellow laureate Jose Ramos Horta moved quickly to secure commitments from the United Nations that a peace-keeping force would be dispatched to oversee the transition from Indonesian control to a UN-sponsored election. The Referendum had become a catalyst for change throughout the Republic.

Dismayed by the outcome, the Indonesian government immediately went into damage control, fearing that Aceh, Ambon, Irian and even other provinces might also then demand independence. Soldiers bolstered the number of so-called militants and these men effectively demonstrated the Javanese Generals' scorched-earth policy not just to the East Timorese, but as a warning also to other potential breakaway provinces. Within hours, the sleepy backwater exploded into violence as pro-Jakarta forces torched homes, cars, churches and schools. Women and children were beaten to death on the streets, foreign journalists were targeted and the United Nations compound became a refuge for thousands fleeing the slaughter.

East Timorese leaders called for assistance and, while those very nations which had encouraged the East Timorese to bravely vote for independence vacillated, scores of East Timorese were murdered by Indonesian soldiers dressed in civilian attire. In the days that followed, as diplomatic dialogue failed to secure support for the neglected people, the militant groups burned and pillaged, killing as they went, under the smiling eyes of the Indonesian police and army. Trucks appeared and thousands of East Timorese were trucked across the border into West Timor where many were butchered, others taken to detention centers and camps from where they would be shipped to distant islands, never to be seen again.

Australia continued to seek President Clinton's support, reminding the United States that Australia had responded to every call made by the U.S. in the past; however, incredibly, nothing was done to intervene. A week passed and Indonesia suddenly found itself faced with economic isolation, the possibility of suspension of IMF and World Bank loans in no way deterring Jakarta from its obstinate refusal to permit a foreign peace-keeping force into East Timor. Smuggled video footage showed terrified children's faces as they fled the now-unsafe UN compound, but still world leaders failed to act. At the end of the eighth day it was already too late. The country had been deliberately destroyed and its people herded into concentration camps where many faced an untimely death.

It would seem that the East Timorese were to be abandoned yet again. The people remained confused as to why the United States would do nothing except offer rhetoric to prevent its Indonesian allies from implementing a program of ethnic and sectarian cleansing on a scale much greater than that in Kosovo and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Today, I was asked by one distressed refugee what it would take to secure American intervention. I had no answer as I too felt the helplessness and shame, wondering why we in Australia so quickly volunteered to join with the United States on their many expeditions such as Vietnam, Korea, Kosovo, the Gulf and other areas of conflict, yet now feel the necessity to wait for approval from Jakarta before going to East Timor's aid.

Although an ill-advised Australian Prime Minister Whitlam secretly approved President Suharto's invasion in 1975, and Prime Minister Malcolm Frazer recognized Indonesia's right to annex the ill-fated territory just months later in 1976, the Republic of Indonesia still does not have any legal claim over the former Portuguese colony. It is totally unacceptable for Western leaders to insist that Jakarta must first "invite" a foreign peace-keeping corps before action may be taken to save those who are left. The hypocrisy of both the Australian and American leaderships' positions in this matter can only bring shame.

It would seem that existing alliances are of little value and the current situation should be considered by all Australians as a most clear "wake-up call" with respect to which allies can be counted upon in the future.

At the time of writing, 10,000 East Timorese are being "trucked" daily, across the border, destined, if there is no immediate intervention, to disappear forever.

Only our consciences can now save what is left of the brave, East Timorese people.

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Readers who are interested in pursuing further information regarding this subject or other topics relating to Indonesia and other Asian countries are invited to visit the author's website at:

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