M. Anne Brown
Search for other papers by M. Anne Brown in
Current site
Google Scholar
East Timor

East Timor was forcibly incorporated into Indonesia in 1975 and managed to become independent almost twenty-five years later. Now the territory, poised on the edge of statehood, is undergoing transition, but also flux and confusion. At the time of writing, the United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET) is effectively the Government of East Timor, with elections for a constituent assembly to determine a constitution expected in August 2001. This chapter examines the immediate background to Indonesia's violent process of incorporation and the pattern of abuse that characterised it. To emphasise human rights promotion as grounded in exchange with the actual patterns of social practice involved casts a different light on the apparent self-evidence of that polarisation, as the story of East Timor suggests. Effective self-determination and effective international understanding of and response to East Timor's evolving circumstances may be anything but simple. Answers to questions around how to build a reasonably peaceful political order that East Timor's circumstances pose for its own population and leadership, and for others, may be fundamental to how we understand political community.

EAST TIMOR WAS forcibly incorporated into Indonesia in 1975 and managed, through a confluence of circumstances that was at once remarkable and yet another example of a suppressed people snapping back like bent but unbroken twigs (to use Isaiah Berlin’s phrase), to become independent almost twenty-five years later. Now the territory, poised on the edge of statehood, is undergoing transition, but also flux and confusion. At the time of writing the United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET) is effectively the Government of East Timor, with elections for a constituent assembly to determine a constitution expected in August 2001.

The following discussion looks in broad terms at the immediate background to Indonesia’s violent process of incorporation and the pattern of abuse that characterised it, and touches briefly some of the issues facing the new state. It does not focus on East Timor’s political struggles or the development of its contemporary political forms. As told here, the story of East Timor’s occupation underlines what in conceptual terms is a very simple point, if difficult to grasp in practice: that is, the significance of approaching questions of rights and abuse not only through convictions about what must be done, or the dealings of international diplomacy, but through attentiveness to and engagement with the social practices, circumstances and perceptions of the people directly involved in the situation. This is the work of listening to the parties and the people involved and creating conditions where they can be more clearly heard.

Directions taken in the period leading up to the invasion of East Timor were shaped within a preponderantly realist understanding of international possibilities. The polarisation of pragmatics and principle – a polarisation that shapes much study of international relations as well as much rights talk – was a distinct feature of this approach. To emphasise human rights promotion as grounded in exchange with the actual patterns of social practice involved casts a different light on the apparent self-evidence of that polarisation, as the story of East Timor suggests. Now the territory is administered by the liberal internationalism of the UN, an orientation that can be expected to outlive the passing of UNTAET. It is perhaps too early to write a considered account of UNTAET’s term of office (although analyses are emerging), while the work of the range of UN agencies and other international organisations upon which East Timor will be to a significant extent dependent will become clearer only over time. Nevertheless, the story of East Timor’s occupation offers a warning of the dangers of inattentiveness to those now, directly and indirectly, shaping the new state.

East Timor occupies half of a small island at the outlying western rim of the Indonesian archipelago. For Indonesia, it was its most recent and twenty-seventh province, incorporated in 1975. For many others, it was a small nation awaiting self-determination, a de jure colony of Portugal, illegally and violently occupied by its powerful neighbour. Caught in what proved to be a long, draining conflict over its status, East Timor was also enmired in deeply ingrained patterns of abuse – ‘a tense, tightly controlled territory … where arbitrary detention and torture are routine and where basic freedoms of expression, association and assembly are non-existent’ (Human Rights Watch, 1994: 21). East Timor was one of those questions seemingly cast up and left stranded by the receding tide of colonisation, decolonisation and twentieth-century state building. As has happened with other sites of protracted conflict, the pattern of events in East Timor became a burden to nearly all of those directly involved, with the crucial exception of the interests benefiting from the monopolies that gripped much of the territory’s economy. Nevertheless, it was a burden that for the key parties in Jakarta weighed less than the task of unravelling it.

While under Indonesian occupation, the case of East Timor had a more conventional geopolitical dimension than either of the other two case studies considered here. As will be discussed later, international acquiescence in Indonesia’s invasion had much to do with the politics of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War then undermined the currency of Indonesia’s status as bastion of anti-communism and eased the strategic pressures which could still demand overriding tacit support from many states for official Indonesian positions. At the same time the US was seeking to establish new channels to define its role as a remaining superpower, including (for much of the 1990s) active promotion of a range of liberal democratic and free-market values and postures. For the US, on-going violence in East Timor was an embarrassment which shadowed the standing of one of its leading regional allies. The Santa Cruz massacre in late 1991, in particular, made an international spectacle of the brutality of which Indonesia’s management was capable.

International attention to East Timor, however, was not given substance by the commitment of any major players to a resolution of the dilemma other, perhaps, than slow burial. Its problems were not seen to threaten others and it was packaged as a tragedy – another sad account of the cruelty of geopolitics. The UN at least served as a forum for keeping somewhat alive the issue of self-determination. Most states did not recognise Indonesia’s claim to de jure sovereignty over the territory. Because the process of decolonisation from Portugal, begun shakily in 1974, was overturned by Indonesia’s invasion the following year, East Timor was widely regarded internationally as a case of interrupted decolonisation, thus offending norms the fulfilment of which has been one of the major achievements of the UN. The UN facilitated meetings between representatives of Indonesia and Portugal and among East Timor’s political groupings. The European Union, spurred on by Portugal and Ireland, also adopted an increasingly activist position in the late 1990s. But East Timor remained largely isolated from interaction with the outside world. Despite UN resolutions, it made sense to call East Timor ‘one of the world’s great secrets’ and to register the sharp disproportion between the scale of deaths in the territory as a consequence of Indonesian annexation – estimated as proportionately comparable to Cambodia under Pol Pot – and the largely ambiguous and restrained international reaction (Pilger, 1994: 1).

Public discussion of occupied East Timor in Western states often cast it as a simple issue. The fact of the suffering of the East Timorese was simple. The ‘answer’ to the ‘question’ of East Timor was independent statehood, and indeed Indonesia’s violence probably left no other answer available. Effective self-determination, however, and effective international understanding of and response to East Timor’s evolving circumstances may be anything but simple. Answers to questions around how to build a reasonably peaceful political order that East Timor’s circumstances pose for its own population and leadership, and for others, may be fundamental to how we understand political community.

The history

This brief retelling, drawn from secondary sources and from sometimes conflicting accounts, cannot do justice either to the complex events leading up to Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor or to the varying interpretations of those events.1 Moreover, the changed conditions in East Timor and Indonesia may, over time, allow a more complex history to emerge. This section will briefly discuss Timor’s colonial period and aspects of the positions of the Portuguese, the United States, and the Australian and Indonesian Governments leading up to the annexation.

East Timor’s principal ‘difference’ from Indonesia lies in its colonial history – its approximately 450 years of Portuguese influence and control, in contrast to Dutch colonisation of other territory in and around the archipelago. Given the highly heterogeneous nature of Indonesia, with approximately 13,000 islands and hundreds of different ethnic and cultural groups, other forms of difference, of which there are many, find their weight within this overarching context. The East Timorese are ethnically diverse. They speak a number of distinct languages, the most common of which is Tetum. But while ethnically and culturally distinct from Javanese Indonesians, they nevertheless share many similarities with Indonesians in the western half of Timor or in nearby islands, except for the effects of the Portuguese presence, including some intermarriage over many generations. The East Timorese have had a largely subsistence lifestyle, in contrast to the cultivated court and the ‘feudal’ cosmologies of the Javanese, but again similar to that of many other Outer Island Indonesians. Contemporary East Timorese identify as largely Catholic, in contrast to the religiously mixed but predominantly Muslim Indonesians. This Catholicism reflects in part the bequest of Portuguese colonialism, but more potently stands as a rejection of an Indonesian identity.

It is sometimes suggested that the period of Portuguese rule was one of benign neglect. The neglect is indisputable – little effort at development or the provision of services was made until the 1950s. By 1973 the illiteracy rate of the East Timorese was estimated at 93 per cent, and infant mortality in the 1950s (1960s’ and 1970s’ figures seem unavailable) was around 50 per cent. Since the East Timorese were used as ‘free’ labour for the coffee and copra plantations, ‘benign’ is perhaps a more questionable description. ‘Forced labour under the whip goes on from dawn to dusk, and the Portuguese colonists … live with the same mixture of civility and brutality as they had 350 years ago’ (1947 account, quoted in Schwarz, 1994: 199). There were numerous small wars in the colony during Portuguese occupation, some clan and regional feuding, some rebellions against colonial rule, or a combination, with the most recent occurring in 1959. Often local in scope, they were put down, at times with considerable loss of life. It was following a long period of unrest (1894–1913) that the Portuguese in the east and the Dutch in the west decided to settle their colonial borders, creating East and West Timor in 1913. Although there had been two indigenous ‘spheres’ in the eastern and the western parts of the island, the defining boundaries of East Timor were thus, as is common to much of Asia and Africa, a product of colonial administrative bartering.

In contrast to the later Indonesian presence, however, Portugal did not maintain a large garrison in the territory. With some significant points of exception (the addition of Catholicism to local animist practices, the co-opting of local power structures, taxation of certain activities), Portugal left the social and cultural structures of the East Timorese relatively intact. In part, this is to say that as a coloniser Portugal did not try to ‘modernise’ or ‘develop’ East Timor, or to undertake the level of economic activity that in many other colonies hammered out, painfully and destructively to traditional society, the elements of a protostate. Coffee was a productive cash crop, but in this case the highly dispersed pattern of indigenous social and political life and the self-supporting native economy were suited well enough to the purposes of the colonisers.

Portuguese administration returned to East Timor after being displaced by the Japanese during the Second World War. The Lisbon Government was an authoritarian regime, and the character of its colonial administration reflected this. Portugal had been neutral during the war and was outside the ambit of the reconstruction programmes for the devastated victors or vanquished. Portugal was also one of the poorest countries in post-war Europe – ‘the South of the North’ – and so clung to the economic potential of its colonial territories, particularly those in Africa, and to the dreams of imperial greatness they symbolised. East Timor itself, however, offered little economic benefit. The half-island had been devastated by the battle between occupying forces during the war (with 40,000 East Timorese dead and extensive destruction of agriculture and infrastructure) but, officially hidden from view by its status as part of Portuguese neutrality, received no post-war reconstruction assistance. Portugal joined the United Nations in 1955 but, despite international pressure, resisted efforts to lock it into UN-sponsored processes of decolonisation until 1974.

The Dutch, like the Portuguese in East Timor, returned to reclaim their colony of Indonesia after the war. But the Indonesian independence movement had gained momentum and organisation during the Japanese occupation. Two days after the Japanese surrender in 1945, leaders of the nationalist movement proclaimed independence. After four years of battling for control over the colony, the Dutch were forced to relinquish their grip, allowing the agglomeration of disparate islands, united to some extent by the patterns of colonial administration, to emerge as an independent Indonesia. During the struggle the independence movement, after considering whether to include East Timor within its ambit, instead focused on ousting the Dutch and, in accordance with emerging norms of decolonisation, on uniting and asserting the independence of those areas that had been held under Dutch control (the ‘successor state’ principle). For a time the Dutch retook and held the outer islands of the archipelago and successfully managed ‘a federation of puppet states’ there (Reeve, 1996: 151). Some areas of the archipelago made it clear that they preferred Dutch rule to the new leadership, dominated by Javanese. While the Dutch were eventually expelled, for the emerging Indonesian leadership this puppet-state experience profoundly compromised any consideration of a federal arrangement – as one mechanism for managing questions of regional diversity and local autonomy – emerging in the archipelago (Reeve 1996: 151). Survival of and resistance to Dutch colonisers and Japanese invaders, and the final fight for independence against the Dutch forces, became the basis of a powerful legacy and symbolism of respect, even reverence, for the Indonesian nation and nationalism. Mirroring this reverence, however, and growing from the same roots, was a deep unease about the fragility of the Indonesian State and the loyalty of the outer islands.

By contrast, within the decentralised society of East Timor there was no organised independence movement. Any sign of political activism was quickly repressed by the Portuguese authorities. In the end progress towards decolonisation of East Timor was the result neither of internal nor of international pressure. It was rather the consequence of Portugal’s inability to sustain, economically or politically, that form of government of which its ‘colonial follies’ were an expression. A coup by left-wing groupings in the military, dissatisfied with the draining and unwinnable wars of independence in Portugal’s principal African colonies, toppled the Caetano dictatorship in April 1974, and there quickly followed a further shift of power to the left within the Portuguese military and government. The new socialist leadership in Lisbon wished to rid ‘Portugal of its former colonial liabilities as soon as possible’ (Dunn, 1983: 83). But the coup that for East Timor opened the door so abruptly to independence from the colonial power also plunged that power into an on-going political crisis. The administration whose task it was to implement the slow and complex business of decolonisation, preoccupied with internal crisis and events in its African colonies, had little attention to spare for the circumstances of this distant, small and seemingly quiescent community with a population seen as illiterate, underdeveloped and politically inactive.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric of the new left-wing government in Lisbon was one of self-determination. The Timorese were to elect an assembly to determine the future status of the territory. In accordance with UN norms, there were three options – full independence, some form of association with Portugal or integration with Indonesia (or another independent state). The decision was to be the responsibility of the Timorese. ‘It is part of our policy that the wishes of the population will be respected’, said the minister responsible for East Timor (quoted in Dunn, 1983: 82). However, two approaches to decolonisation were becoming evident in Lisbon, reflecting shifts in factional dominance. The first emphasised gradual devolution of power; the second, an ascendant position, associated with the younger officers and the Government of Costa Gomes, wanted radical decolonisation as rapidly as possible. Doctrinal enthusiasm combined with administrative inattentiveness, a lack of resources and the desire to avoid the costly open-ended process of participating in the reshaping of East Timor’s political life to dictate Lisbon’s approach to their colony’s direction.

On Timor itself, three main political parties emerged: Apodeti, UDT and Fretilin. Apodeti, by far the smallest group, was strategically significant as it received significant backing from Indonesia and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Timor. Apodeti sought eventual integration with Indonesia, after a transitional period of some years during which the people of the two regions could ‘become acquainted with each other on the basis of freedom’ (Aditjondro, 1994: 2). UDT was a centrist party that began by favouring loose federation with Portugal, but also canvassed gradual transition to independence and finally proposed full autonomy within Indonesia, followed by an act of free choice. It was supported by tribal heads and the small urban bureaucracy. Fretilin, drawing on a mix of Catholic radicalism and Marxism, favoured full independence, also after a period of transitional government. Fretilin developed a significant profile within rural Timor, largely through mounting literacy programmes and conveying its political ideas through the local language and culture, thereby generating ‘a new language of independence’ (Taylor, 1995: 36). Increasingly, the young radicals leading Fretilin came to see themselves as the ‘sole representative of the Timorese people’, leading them to ‘denigrate negotiations with other parties’ (Taylor, 1995: 39). It is perhaps hardly surprising, given the centuries of colonial rule, that independent statehood was seen by Fretilin not as a complex, negotiable and historical form of political structure, but rather as an absolute moral good and a natural expression of ethnic community, with Fretilin itself as the sole interpreter of this good. In the words of the young Jose Ramos-Horta, then a leading figure in Fretilin:

Independence is a fundamental right of every nation in the world. So the position of Fretilin is quite clear – Independence or Death! Nobody should ask a slave if he wants to be free or not. After 500 years of colonialism, oppression and exploitation of the people, we don’t accept any interference from foreign powers in our internal affairs. … Independence … is not to be negotiated between the people of East Timor and the dominating power or other vested interests … The people … always wanted independence. But only due to the war superiority of the enemy, all their efforts of resistance failed. (Aarons and Domm, 1992: 11)

In Lisbon the Timorese political parties were assumed to have shallow roots and were given little weight. Meanwhile, Lisbon’s own position appeared elusive. In late 1974, Santos, the Portuguese minister responsible, held discussions with the Indonesian and Australian Governments, and in Timor. ‘Santos managed to leave both the Indonesians and Australians with the impression that Portugal favoured Timor’s integration with Indonesia, but told the Timorese that Timor would continue its ties with Lisbon and ruled out integration’ (Viviani, 1976: 204). Whatever the reasons for this outcome, it engendered the suspicion in Jakarta (and Canberra) that Portuguese commitment to the processes of decolonisation could not be relied upon, ‘that Portugal could precipitately offload Timor, and would not take pains to avoid playing the interested parties off against each other’ (Viviani, 1976: 204). In Dili, the Portuguese officers running affairs on the ground were responding to the gathering pace of local events with little reference to Lisbon. Thus within Timor ‘the roles played by conflicting Portuguese expatriate factions, principally in the civil administration and the army, were of more importance than any far distant metropolitan attitude’ (Viviani, 1976: 198). While the governor may have supported integration with Indonesia, the colonels actively promoted Fretilin.

In January 1975, UDT, at that stage supporting eventual independence, entered a coalition with its rival Fretilin. The overwhelming weight of opinion within the popularly supported parties favoured independence. In March the local Portuguese administration, after talks with the Timorese parties, arrived at a plan of a three-year devolution of authority to a Timorese government. Visiting Australian delegations at this time noted their belief that full independence would be the choice of the majority of the Timorese (Dunn 1983; Taylor 1995). However, the coalition between the leading parties collapsed, reflecting the differences between them but also pressure and disinformation from the Indonesians. In June Portugal held a meeting in Macau to bring together parties interested in the decolonisation of the territory (including Indonesian representatives as ‘observers’). But, in a crucial move, Fretilin refused to attend the meeting, making an authoritative outcome impossible. Identifying itself as the ‘true voice’ of the Timorese and distrustful of UDT, Fretilin would not negotiate with those East Timorese favouring different platforms.

Meanwhile, in Lisbon the leadership were unconvinced that East Timor’s complete independence was feasible. Nor was it in favour of long-term association with this economically dependent and logistically taxing territory. According to an Indonesian account of a meeting between President Costa Gomes of Portugal and Indonesia’s General Murtopo, ‘there were not three options [facing Timor] but two: joining Indonesia or independence under the Portuguese umbrella. Full independence was described by [Gomes] as “unrealistic”. Even Timor remaining with Portugal did not accord with the policy of his state’ (in Dunn 1983: 84). In effect, by mid-1975 Lisbon was inclined to believe that there was only one ‘option’ for Timor.

Thus Lisbon’s ‘position’ on East Timor was that the East Timorese must be able to choose their own direction and, at the same time, that the only ‘real’ option was integration with Indonesia. To establish this as a coherent possibility rather than refuse to face inconvenient realities would have required encouraging, over a considerable period of time, the growth of relations of trust between the various Timorese groups and the Indonesians. It would have required efforts towards a more consensual politics within Timor, and developing a working, but not overbearing, relationship with the mundane realities of village politics. Most of all, it would have involved taking the East Timorese seriously. None of these endeavours would have guaranteed integration. But Lisbon was unwilling and perhaps unable to play any long-term role in a transition process. At the same time, in Dili, elements of the Portuguese administration were encouraging the quite different aspirations of Fretilin.

The Portuguese Government wanted ‘to respect the wishes of the people’ of East Timor, but the people were characterised as politically illiterate. Respecting their wishes did not count as respecting the wishes of people taken to be serious interlocutors. Distinctions could be drawn here between a community’s ability to manage its own resources and community life and its preparedness for the quite specific tasks of governing a modern state and choosing in a reasonably informed way the form of sovereignty the community, on balance, desired. The questions of self-determination faced by the East Timorese at the time involved the interrelationship of all three elements, but centuries of Portuguese rule had left the Timorese with few tools with which to engage the latter two. Gaining sufficient of these tools would have required some time and international effort. Lack of the specific arts of modern government, however, can too easily be equated with a lack of political life (as the discussion of Aboriginal Australia makes clear). This equation allowed the relative unfamiliarity of the East Timorese with the institutions of the modern state to be read, in Lisbon and other capitals, as a blank sheet upon which the determinations of others could simply be written.

Lisbon’s judgement that full independence for its colony was ‘atrociously unrealistic’ drew also on doubts about East Timor’s ability, as a potential micro-state with few economic resources and a population unskilled in modern commerce and industry, to pay its own way in the world or to defend its own strategic interests. It would not have been the first micro-state to have been in this (indeed vulnerable) position, but Portugal, struggling with its own economic crisis, was unwilling to face the prospect of an economically dependent state with moral claims on its former coloniser. Again, Lisbon was scarcely alone in these concerns. Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam commented to Indonesia’s President Suharto in November 1974: ‘An independent East Timor would be an unviable state, and a potential threat to the area’ (Taylor, 1995: 28).

Geostrategic and security concerns were a dominant factor shaping Timor’s options. Indonesia is by far the most populous state in Southeast Asia. Within the region, encouraging the stability of Indonesia was a significant priority for all those who had been affected by the earlier, more turbulent, foreign policy of their largest neighbour. There was concern, too, that a radical or potentially argumentative micro-state perched at the tip of the Indonesian archipelago would be open to manipulation by interests outside the region, whether Soviet, Chinese or American (Viviani 1976: 205). In the broader context of the Cold War, the US, recently withdrawn from Vietnam, still harboured anxieties about communist power in Southeast Asia, while a number of regional states struggled with, or had recent memories of, communist-backed insurgencies. The complex patchwork of East Asian states appeared vulnerable, or worse, in the global patterns of the Cold War. The island of Timor is situated at a strategic point on a crucial deepsea shipping lane – the only lane in the area capable of providing safe access through the region to US submarines. Within Timor, the leading party was a nationalist, anti-colonialist and broadly socialist spectrum which contained, and was perhaps in 1975 increasingly dominated by, Marxist elements – moreover one which took a posture of non-negotiable idealism. Within the prevailing preoccupations of the Cold War, dominated by the strategic trajectories of the superpowers, and not too burdened by the local concerns of small players, this registered as cause for serious alarm.

Fretilin was characterised, in the powerful dynamics of ‘us and them’, simply as Marxist. But for policy makers in Washington and other capitals perhaps as important as Fretilin’s possible political inclinations was the insignificance of this tiny, distant, supposedly immature population, powerless by all the criteria of international hubris. Timor was seen as a potential Cuba, perched perhaps malevolently or simply chaotically on a major strategic sealane. Whatever the composition of Fretilin, for many governments it was an unknown and unpredictable quantity thrown into an already tense equation – and therefore essentially undesirable. In its unwillingness to negotiate with other parties to the situation, Fretilin itself contributed to this characterisation. Instability was itself seen as a permanent asset to, and an object of infiltration by, the ‘other side’. Mopping up sites of unpredictability was thus a standing goal in the Cold War polarities that underpinned American foreign policy. And the staunchly anti-communist Suharto Government was a bulwark against such instability.

The Indonesian Government’s position was more complex. Since the struggle for independence in the 1940s, Indonesian governments had been preoccupied with keeping the state, and its highly diverse population, together. The archipelago did not form a ‘natural’ or pre-colonial unity or a traditional state. Nevertheless, the region’s history under colonialism was often anachronistically cast as a struggle with disunity, with disunity blamed for the vulnerability of the kingdoms of the central islands to a small European power (Reeve, 1996). During the independence struggle, the archipelago and the independence parties were deeply split and factionalised. In the following decade ‘several regions rebelled against the unitary state of Indonesia and the dominance of Java … [These] rebellions were strong enough to raise the possibility that the country might fall apart … [and] were finally defeated by the use of force’ (Reeve, 1996: 135). The intense instability of the last years of Sukarno’s ‘Guided Democracy’ culminated in 1965 in an incident interpreted as a communist coup attempt. This sparked, or was used to mount, a counter-coup in the wake of which hundreds of thousands of Indonesians – Marxists, sympathisers and others – were massacred in waves of violence across the country. It was this counter-coup which brought the regime of Suharto, a general in the Indonesian army, to power. A profound and ruthlessly enforced anti-communism was seared into the Indonesian polity. In the same move, the army was entrenched in its role as essential to the survival of the state, primarily against threats from within, the common thread holding the disparate parts of the state together. It was against this complex knot of intense but fragile national pride, a driving fear of national disintegration and the consequences of chaos, and violent anti-communism that the problems posed by East Timor’s changing status were considered.

It is not surprising, then, that references within Indonesia to self-determination for the East Timorese were often focused not on the East Timorese but on the Indonesian State, and evoked the kind of nationalism for which the nation state as transcendent idea or organic whole comes to be imagined as the self that determines. Thus appeals were made before and especially after the annexation to a putative Indonesian unity preceding the division imposed by colonisers and justifying this belated reunion. An Indonesian parliamentarian for example, speaking in 1974, called for Indonesia to ‘Work out a special policy on East Timor so that finally the area will once again return to Indonesian control’ (in Taylor, 1995: 25). The East Timorese themselves evinced little sense of sharing a ‘common destiny’ with the Indonesians.

In 1974, there was a range of opinion on Timor within the Indonesian Government. One strand, of which the then Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik was the leading proponent, drew in a way quite different from that of the anonymous parliamentarian quoted above on the traditions and goals of Indonesia’s own anti-colonialist struggle against the Dutch. In his famous letter to Fretilin leader Jose Ramos-Horta in June 1974, Malik stated that ‘the independence of every country is the right of every nation, with no exception for the people in Timor … that whoever will govern in Timor … after independence can be assured that the Government of Indonesia will always strive to maintain good relations, friendship and cooperation for the benefit of both countries’ (Ramos-Horta, 1987: 43). Malik later stepped back from this position. The apparent unreliability of the Portuguese and what was understood to be the increasing Marxist dominance of Fretilin may have made Malik’s position difficult to sustain within Jakarta.

The second strand of opinion was promoted by the Indonesian intelligence service BAKIN and powerful elements within the military. BAKIN, focused on Indonesian strategic and domestic security concerns, was alarmed at the possibility of an unpredictable and potentially rogue micro-state within the archipelago. BAKIN had a long-standing commitment to the consolidation of territory within the archipelago to deny a beach-head to any forces potentially subversive of Indonesia’s unity. For BAKIN, three potent concerns intersected in Timor. The anti-communism, of which they and the military stood as guarantors (where communism was seen as the catch-all domestic threat to Indonesia’s unity and sovereignty), interlocked with their commitment to the broader strategic dynamics of the Cold War. At the same time, the prospect of Timor standing outside the Indonesian State touched off anxieties about the unravelling of this mosaic of disparate islands.

Moreover, debate over Timor was occurring in a context of political crisis for Jakarta, marked by intense semi-public struggles within the leadership and serious rioting. According to Benedict Anderson, ‘the “team” which had helped bring Suharto to power and to consolidate his initial dominance was falling apart’ (1995: 141). The sense of crisis, the sudden change of personnel and the competition for position and favour, not least within BAKIN, encouraged adventurism. In an important distinction, those favouring integration themselves divided into supporters of a policy of gradual persuasion and supporters of what was believed would be a short, sharp and decisive military intervention. And weaving through these debates was the cautious position, apparently adopted by President Suharto, of waiting to see what developments might bring.

President Suharto and other key figures in the Indonesian Government put considerable effort into testing the opinion of governments internationally on acceptable solutions to the problem of East Timor. The Indonesians needed to establish what the limits of acceptable behaviour were; in particular, what would be the cost of a military operation in terms of their regional and international standing and bargaining power, aid and crucial exchanges. Indonesia consulted the United States, and Soviet opinion was also made plain. Jakarta talked, naturally, with Portugal, with governments in the region, including Australia, Timor’s other nearest neighbour, the ASEAN states, Japan and India, and with the European Community. All these governments supported, either mildly or with vigour, international principles of self-determination. But, with the notable exception of the small island state of Singapore, for varying reasons none of them placed much significance in practice on enabling a solution to emerge from the East Timorese themselves, in consultation with the other party principals, such as Portugal, Indonesia and the United Nations. The cost of committing resources to the open-ended and hence unpredictable processes of transition – that is, the cost of engaging in the process of self-determination – plus global and regional strategic preoccupations were the dominant concerns.

Within East Timor Jakarta attempted heavy-handedly to pressure the East Timorese into embracing the benefits of integration through sabre-rattling propaganda broadcasts into the territory and by active support for the otherwise marginal Apodeti. It exacerbated tensions and suspicions between the two major parties, Fretilin and UDT, endeavoured to bribe support within UDT, and caricatured all those not supporting integration as communists. Reports in early 1975 of Indonesian troop movements along the Timorese border suggested preparedness to take Timor by force and spurred both Fretilin and UDT to call for independence. In August 1975, UDT – fearing that Fretilin was planning to take over the decolonisation process, and with the encouragement of Jakarta – staged a coup. While the Portuguese governor came out in support of UDT, Fretilin managed access to the Portuguese armoury. In a crucial move, the Portuguese army presence withdrew during the ensuing battle for the capital, not only abjuring a policing function but effectively clearing the way for Indonesian intervention. Confusion and violence ensued. Fretilin defeated UDT but the conflict cost around 3,000 lives and involved torture on both sides. UDT supporters fled to West Timor, where they were manipulated for propaganda purposes, trained for military action and used as a cover for increasingly active Indonesian covert military action within East Timor. Within the Indonesian Government, President Suharto now supported those favouring direct intervention. Internationally, Jakarta claimed that the chaotic developments in its neighbour were leading to destabilisation, while Indonesian news agencies carried to the world unfounded stories of PRC and Vietnamese veterans training Fretilin troops. In November, Fretilin declared Timorese independence.

Despite Indonesia’s significant involvement in encouraging conflict within East Timor, that conflict cannot be reduced to Indonesian instigation. Nor, however, was Indonesian invasion the only feasible response to the circumstances. Presumably knowing the likely response, Jakarta approached the Portuguese to either intervene or to condone Indonesian intervention. Portugal, unwilling to accept either of these options, attempted unsuccessfully to organise an international peacekeeping force. Half-hearted efforts to organise negotiation among all parties collapsed in mutual suspicion. Meanwhile, UDT and Apodeti called for integration with Indonesia. ‘The Indonesian propaganda campaign reached new heights … and Indonesian ships blockaded East Timor while Fretilin struggled to consolidate and improve its military position and make a beginning of civil administration’ (Viviani, 1976: 216). Fighting, involving the significant but unacknowledged presence of Indonesian troops, intensified. Fretilin appealed unsuccessfully for international support. After final tacit approval from US President Ford, Indonesia invaded Timor in December 1975.

After the violence of Indonesia’s invasion, occupation of and departure from East Timor, the option of ‘integration’ with Indonesia amounts to near-heresy to most non-Indonesians. But prior to the Indonesian invasion, integration may not have seemed in principle any less promising than the legally ambiguous but politically constructive incorporation of the formerly Portuguese Goa by India. It would certainly have appeared no less unworkable or strange as a form of decolonisation than the questionable, but internationally legitimised, incorporation of Irian Jaya. Intermediate arrangements, with Indonesia managing external powers and East Timor having domestic independence, canvassed by Indonesian Foreign Minister Malik and Fretilin in 1974, were a potentially workable option but would have taken time and the gradual development of trust. To those in geographically or culturally distant capitals considering ‘what to do’ with East Timor, the shift from an alien European administration, particularly one with a long history of fascist dictatorship, to a neighbouring, ethnically less dissimilar, Asian administration which had itself engaged in a successful self-determination struggle could seem both in the rational interests of all parties and to almost pass as decolonisation. More importantly, if the Timorese had accepted integration with Indonesia, it would have been decolonisation.

But there was no effort to recognise the East Timorese as real participants in the process of determining their own community directions. ‘Participants’ is used here, rather than calling for the Timorese to be accepted as sole sovereigns of their future, because the international dynamics within which the Timorese were operating (and the dynamics which established ‘self-determination’ as a formal option in the first place) involved the interests and vulnerabilities of a range of parties – interests which also needed to be negotiated if a viable arrangement were to be achieved.

What is notable in the events leading up to Indonesia’s invasion is not that principles of decolonisation and self-determination were ranked a poor second to the contemporary strategic preoccupations of a number of states. One does not have to be a realist to accept that security, however defined at the time, is a powerful concern. It is striking, rather, that no government’s actions indicated acknowledgement that the wishes of the East Timorese were a significant practical factor in the dynamics of the situation. This is a statement about how power is understood, not about post-war international principles per se – although these principles emerged not from some supposedly ethereal moral universe but came most immediately out of the hard experiences of the First and Second World Wars. But despite the experience of ‘the power of the allegedly powerless’ afforded by these and other conflagrations, the gamble was taken that because the East Timorese were marginal players they were without power, or were no real players at all (Carroll, in Pettman, 1991: 60).

Thus the failure to engage with the East Timorese was not primarily a ‘moral’ failure, where the moral is regarded as essentially ‘elsewhere’, far from the requirements of political life. It was rather a failure of the most practical kind to deal with, to spend the time to understand or communicate with, the concrete life situations of the people at the core of the matter. As a result, and in the name of ‘pragmatics’, the spectrum of possible outcomes was in effect never effectively weighed by any of the governments involved in discussing the fate of the East Timorese. Thus the possibility that the East Timorese would refuse to accept integration with Indonesia if it were forced upon them, or that they may be capable of obstructing the wishes of all the more ‘weighty’ powers around them, was slipped, along with the counsels of self-determination, into the box of ‘principle’, and so ignored. It proved a very costly error.

This ‘overlooking’ of the East Timorese produced persistently contradictory policies upheld by governments seemingly unprepared to face even the possibility of a serious conflict between self-determination and integration. As was the case with Portugal, key decisions seem to have been made and attitudes formed in a haze of ambiguity. Official statements indicate a kind of wishful thinking that geopolitical concerns and obligations to support aspirations for self-determination would happily coincide. The Australian Government’s position on East Timor is instructive here. The approach was to hope for no inconvenience – for all the desired outcomes: regional stability, reassurance to Indonesia, decolonisation, and self-determination for the East Timorese, to fall effortlessly together. Prime Minister Whitlam made it clear to the Indonesian president that he supported East Timor’s integration with Indonesia. The Australian Government has often been criticised for placing first priority on the relationship with Indonesia and for its emphasis on regional security. But a workable resolution to East Timor’s status would have to have been acceptable to Indonesia. A good relationship with a significant and near neighbour is a staple of international relations. And regional security is a necessary context in which to consider the potential implications of each one of the region’s shifting elements. These priorities in themselves were not problematic (although there is considerable room for debate over the character of a ‘good relationship’ and regional security). All of these priorities would have been consistent with quite different policy orientations regarding East Timor.

The official Australian position was problematic because, in ignoring the potential conflict between two of its goals (self-determination and integration), it dealt itself an impossibly narrow hand of options, it failed to acknowledge frankly what its position was and, as a result, it did not properly assess the potential consequences of that position. The whole policy turned for its success upon integration with Indonesia being voluntary (or at least grudgingly accepted). A voluntary union would have been an internationally acceptable form of self-determination, would have served the interests of stability and also the well-being of the bilateral relationship. But despite the fact that this was a vital hinge in the whole enterprise, little weight was given to the possible consequences of the East Timorese not accepting, or even resisting, integration. Such an approach was therefore incapable of evaluating likely outcomes to courses of action, or of generating alternative strategies to protect its own key goals if events unfolded other than as expected. The goal of such a policy, consciously or not, becomes to get away with what you can; this opens the door to being captured by events. Despite calls to Jakarta not to use force, forcible integration operated as either an implicitly acceptable option (as with the United States’ ‘big wink’ to Jakarta) in direct contradiction to what was being explicitly stated, or it became a form of self-deception – an eventuality secretly grasped without being fully acknowledged or properly assessed. However, the outcome of forced integration, welcomed in by the back door, served none of Australia’s goals – not stability in the region, not decolonisation and certainly not the promotion of the bilateral relationship. Australia’s course of action was the outcome not of an inevitable tension between pragmatics and principle, as it was portrayed by some significant actors at the time, but of poor management.

No doubt, all of the many governments with which Jakarta discussed East Timor would have preferred a non-violent integration of the half-island with its neighbour. Some surely imagined a replay of the almost entirely non-violent integration of the Portuguese colony of Goa with India a decade earlier – another case where the norms of the successor state were dispensed with. Some decision makers were undoubtedly reassured by the belief of the Indonesian army that it would all be over quickly, with no or few casualties. In not engaging with the East Timorese, but designating them as a determinable blank sheet or empty agency, participants in these events entered upon a path of unpredictable cost.

The effort to understand and learn from Indonesia’s violent incorporation of East Timor has been bedevilled by the polarisation of debate. The emphasis of much of the international legal argument around the invasion has been to find Indonesia the ‘guilty party’. And Indonesia is, of course, guilty, but it is a guilt in which many governments that later became accusers were complicit. Many governments were faced with the option of directly or indirectly assisting East Timor’s decolonisation process. They were faced, that is, with spending the resources – of time, effort, money, patience, engagement – that the prevention or resolution of particular patterns of abuse may routinely require, but they did not take that direction. Instead, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor was allowed to sweep out of sight what was the cause of an incipient headache for a number of states. Changing geostrategic balances have allowed what were once put aside as unfortunate necessities, badly handled on the ground, to be weighed differently. It is not surprising that in the gatherings of states’ representatives, Indonesia resisted condemnation – and may continue to resist condemnation of the original incorporation – so vehemently.

East Timor in Indonesia: the human rights situation

The Indonesian military originally considered that the operation to forcibly annex East Timor would be quick and relatively painless. Perhaps this reflected a genuine belief that they would be welcomed by sufficient numbers of East Timorese, or that the Timorese were too politically passive to resist the annexation so obstinately, or too militarily inexperienced to pose any serious problems to Indonesia’s superior numbers and equipment. Encounters with the fighting wing of Fretilin preceding the full invasion led to a re-evaluation of this assessment, however (Kingsbury, 2000). And whatever the feelings across East Timor prior to the invasion, the death and torture of many people carries its own powerful logic. The advance of Indonesian troops was marked by widespread slaughter. East Timor was indeed annexed by Indonesia but, almost twenty-five years after the original invasion, the campaign to integrate the territory had essentially failed. Major counter-insurgency operations to destroy resistance forces were phased out in 1978, but organised insurgency was never quashed. Civilian unrest was met by violent military response but resistance of various kinds was common. Over 20,000 troops were routinely stationed in East Timor to maintain ‘stability’, somewhat under 1,000 of which were East Timorese.

Some patterns of rights abuse in East Timor were consistent with problems elsewhere in the archipelago and, more broadly, with the problems of poor areas in rapidly developing post-colonial economies. Beyond this, however, the contested status of East Timor was the ‘key to understanding the human rights violations that take place there’ (Human Rights Watch, 1994: 21). It is widely estimated that 60,000 East Timorese were killed in the first year of Indonesia’s ‘pacification’ programme, which included mass executions of villagers, women, the elderly and children. To wipe out Fretilin’s mountain bases, in 1978 Indonesia launched a counter-insurgency programme of ‘total encirclement and annihilation’, using fragmentation bombing, strafing, chemical weapons and napalm, supported by ground troops. To eradicate Fretilin’s support in the villages, the army adopted a strategy of mass relocation of the population of largely subsistence farmers. About half the population was transplanted to more visible ‘designated hamlets’ away from the better farming land. Food production collapsed. These two operations, and the agricultural devastation that followed, led to a quick escalation of the death toll: ‘thousands simply died of hunger’ (Ramos-Horta, 1987: 2). Relief organisations were not allowed in. Summary executions continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the worst of them the massacre of an estimated 1,000 people at Creras. It is thought that over 200,000 Timorese died as a result of the Indonesian occupation, out of a population in 1974 of 700,000. Approximately 15,000 Indonesian soldiers were killed there.

In principle, Jakarta pursued a two-track carrot-and-stick policy in East Timor – encouraging economic growth, improving infrastructure and services and pumping in aid money while maintaining tight security. The Indonesian Government did endeavour to develop its most recent province. Per capita income rose from US$40 in 1974 to US$90 in 1990. During the 1990s (according to Indonesian figures) economic growth in the territory was approximately 10 per cent per annum, higher than elsewhere in Indonesia. Education became more available and illiteracy was reduced from 93 per cent in 1974 to 53 per cent in 1990. By 1998 schools had been built across two-thirds of East Timor’s populated areas. Hospitals, mobile clinics and public health infrastructure were provided. Although higher than for nearly all other areas of Indonesia, infant mortality rates dropped; general infrastructure and services were improved. Much of the infrastructure, of course, was necessary to sustain military operations, while the direction of the economic development suited Javanese and military business interests. According to Lansell Taudevin (2000: 109), despite the destruction of an estimated 70 per cent of East Timor’s built environment by the departing Indonesian troops in 1999, more remaining infrastructure remains in place than there had been during the Portuguese era. Excluding security operations, the annual costs of government and services were in the range of US$100 million (Taudevin, 2000), a higher figure per capita than any other province. A major development programme was initiated in 1998.

However, the campaign to integrate the territory with Indonesia was in practice dominated by ‘the security approach’ of the Indonesian military. Immensely powerful in the fabric of political, social and economic life throughout Indonesia, the security forces, as guarantors and icons of national unity, took a free hand in this recalcitrant province. Despite the activities of local governors, management of the territory was essentially a military operation which, despite actual economic growth and massive infusion of aid, was characterised more by punitive brutality and repression than by efforts to win trust. ‘The armed forces, and in particular the military intelligence services, have ruled East Timor since 1976 almost as an institutional fiefdom, accountable neither to the law nor to the political apparatus in Jakarta’ (Schwarz, 1994: 197).

The army’s operations exhibited the kind of careless savagery that can mark occupation by a rival ethnic force. Unarmed Timorese boys and men were used as human shields when moving through guerilla territory. Torture, killings, arbitrary cruelty used as a ‘warning’, and rape appear to have become routine practices of soldiers. As Monsignor Belo noted to the Indonesian Bishop’s Conference, ‘the military, perhaps because of the anger in their hearts, do not seem to have a sense of humanity in them’ (in CCJDP, 1993: 15). Nevertheless, various reports suggest that the army generally believed it was providing a good to East Timor, bringing the benefits of Indonesia and the nation to the territory and protecting Indonesia from fissiparous pressures (see e.g. Crouch, 2000). The army and the intelligence services, rather than the police and the judiciary, dominated the legal and policing mechanisms, rendering them in effect unaccountable.

The security approach had a particular economic twist. For example, indicative of the level of control believed necessary to manage the population, until 1989 the Timorese were required to have a travel permit for movement within the territory. But the relocation of villages had necessitated travel to arable and seasonal land. The need for travel permits helped keep local agriculture depressed, which in turn contributed to unemployment, so that basic foodstuffs had to be imported at high cost. This increased the territory’s dependence on financial support from Jakarta. Through patterns characteristic of Indonesia but more pronounced in East Timor, the army dominated the territory’s economic activity. One conglomerate in particular, intimately associated with army interests, maintained a monopoly on the export of coffee, which accounted for approximately 90 per cent of all East Timor’s exports, and so artificially depressed the incomes of numerous local producers. As the team of Indonesian academics sent by some leading Indonesian financial bodies to investigate the causes of Timor’s poor performance delicately pointed out, Jakarta ‘repaid its moral debt for the financial support that … [a company associated with the general who directed the invasion] had given during the war of integration by awarding large concessions to this company … [enabling it] to monopolise the economic and trade network in East Timor’ (Gadjah Mada Research Centre, 1991: 47). The monopoly system dominated all dimensions of the East Timorese economy, including rural employment, to the systematic disadvantage of the indigenous people. Corruption was deeply entrenched. Thus the carrot of economic development, apparently offered by the central government with one hand, was whittled away by other hands. The territory was the army’s prize.

The Indonesian administration system undermined traditional village authority structures. ‘The war of integration drastically changed the social hierarchy in East Timor, while the establishment of a new administrative system has given rise to problems in the pattern of decision making and in the way development is conceived, particularly with regard to the aspirations of the local community’ (Gadjah Mada, 1991: 45). Moreover, ‘[m]ost key positions in the provincial government are occupied by newcomers who … have not obtained even a basic understanding of the social and cultural life of the East Timorese’ (Gadjah Mada, 1991: 4). Local political control, as well as service delivery, was overwhelmingly dominated by non-Timorese as well as by the monopolised trading interests. This meant that there was a lack of any authority accepted throughout the community as legitimate.

During the 1980s, the Timorese resistance movement, led by Xanana Gusmao, changed emphasis from a guerilla campaign to civilian resistance. Believing that armed Timorese opposition to the Indonesian army had been contained, in 1989 Jakarta moderated the intensity of the security approach. There was some relaxation of travel restrictions, for local people and for those travelling in and out of the territory. Opposition increasingly took the form of civil protests, identification with the Portuguese elements of their culture being one avenue for the expression of local resentment. The most internationally explosive indication of the failure to successfully integrate East Timor or to pacify resistance – the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre – erupted from the civilian resistance. Young East Timorese, testing the limits of the post-1989 policy of ‘moderation’ and sharply disappointed at the cancellation of a planned visit of Portuguese parliamentarians to their former colony – ironically intended as a display of the success of integration – held a funeral march commemorating the death of a pro-independence youth. After a scuffle Indonesian troops opened fire on the marchers as they approached the Santa Cruz cemetery. Troops followed and bayoneted many of those wounded and seeking refuge within the cemetery walls, leading to about 240 deaths. In Jakarta, the Armed Forces Commander Sutrisno defended the army’s actions: ‘Delinquents like these agitators have to be shot and we will shoot them’ (in Schwarz, 1994: 213).

Within East Timor, the massacre further ‘radicalised a new generation of East Timorese’ (Human Rights Watch, 1994: 22). Those marching and killed had grown up after Indonesian annexation and were the beneficiaries of Jakarta’s two-track policy, with access to better education and some of the fruits of economic growth in the territory. The very public killings also intensified pressure on Jakarta. Internationally, the Santa Cruz massacre reinvigorated discussion of East Timor within the United Nations and led to Indonesia being censured in the Human Rights Commission, with the United States, a staunch ally of Indonesia, joining the censure motion. Within Indonesia itself, the 1975 invasion had always been portrayed – and accepted – as an operation welcome to the overwhelming number of the East Timorese. Fretilin (which continued to spearhead the resistance) was painted as an extreme communist faction aided by the imperialist Portuguese. The relative closure of the colony to the outside world assisted the maintenance of this position among most Indonesians, up to the highest levels. The troops stationed in the territory were bearers of the benefits of Indonesian nationhood, and protectors against civil war and communist insurgents. East Timor was not the only restive province, and East Timorese acceptance of their place within Indonesia remained for Jakarta an unquestionable basis of policy. Indeed, the original decision to invite Portuguese parliamentarians to view the territory indicates the extent to which not only the general population but significant elements within the leadership were out of touch with feelings in Timor. The 1991 killings, however, cast doubt on the prevailing account of the liberated and integrated East Timorese.

In an unprecedented step, and largely in response to international pressure, a National Investigating Commission into the killings was established. The commission’s final report presented the massacre as an isolated incident, without acknowledging the history of abuse and intimidation in East Timor; the soldiers’ sentences were lenient. But, in a rare departure from the norm in Indonesia, the commission rejected substantial elements of the military’s initial account and criticised army procedures and behaviour: ‘the trial testimonies paint a picture of a sloppy, ill-prepared, ill-informed, poorly disciplined and poorly led army, with some soldiers reacting spontaneously to the stabbing of their colleagues and others apparently panicking amid sounds of shooting at the cemetery’ (Asia Watch, in Schwarz, 1994: 216). One Indonesian cabinet minister, commenting anonymously on the killings, accepted that ‘the Dili incident was an accident … but it was the kind of accident a drunk driver gets into’ (in Schwarz, 1994: 221). The massacre strengthened criticism of the armed forces’ operational style and of their extraordinary pre-eminence within political and social life. And it made patently clear that the ‘theory of “through economic development we win the hearts and minds of the East Timorese” has not worked so far’ (Saldhana 1994: 370).

One consequence of the easing, in 1989, of travel restrictions between East Timor and the rest of Indonesia was the emergence of both planned and spontaneous transmigration. After 1989 Jakarta encouraged migration of mainly Muslim Indonesians into urban and rural East Timor as part of its endeavour to remould the territory politically and economically. This resulted in resentment and conflict, and reduced opportunities for both rural and urban Timorese. Land rendered idle by the coralling of Timorese farmers was awarded to migrants from Java and Bali, with no compensation being granted to the original landowners, ‘under the pretext of teaching the East Timorese better farming techniques’ (Aditjondro 1994: 34). In urban areas, approximately half the population of Dili consisted of migrants, and urban enterprise was increasingly dominated by non-Timorese.

Clashes between the Timorese and the migrants, sometimes escalating into rioting, became commonplace in the 1990s. This tension expressed itself in religious terms, as an opposition between the mainly Muslim migrants and the largely Catholic Timorese. Religious affiliation provided one of the few ways open to the East Timorese to assert their community identity as distinct from that of Indonesians. Church activities became the only way of associating in public, while the Church was (until the late 1990s) the only organisation within Indonesia to speak on behalf of the Timorese community with the authorities and to criticise military excesses. As a result, and due also to the requirement that all Indonesian citizens had a religious affiliation, the number of Catholics in East Timor rose dramatically from 31 per cent of the population before 1974 to approximately 90 per cent in 1992. At the same time, however, the number of non-Catholics also grew, mainly as a result of transmigration. Within Indonesia, violence between religious affiliations was frequently read as being essentially anti-Muslim.

In 1994 the Indonesian scholar George Aditjondro identified what he called the culture of violence and intimidation in East Timor as the most serious indirect consequence of the invasion and military occupation of the half-island. This was not solely the violence of the Indonesian military towards the East Timorese. In this case violence and repression as cultural norms reproduced indiscriminately their own patterns of secrecy, suspicion and reprisal. ‘What is meant here is the emergence of an appalling habit among East Timorese of spying on their compatriots, trying to solve the conflicts between them by making – often false – reports about the activities of their rivals to the security forces’ (Aditjindro, 1994: 12). The army played to its own advantage on clan, regional and ideological conflict among the Timorese, and resentments remaining from the period of civil war. Moreover, Indonesian rule had undermined local community leadership and dispersed traditional authority. In the absence of authoritative community constraints, such conflict festered. Increasingly throughout the 1990s, the military harnessed it, employing groups of East Timorese youths in shadowy ‘ninja’ gangs – half engaged in criminal or semilegal activites, half in terrorising civilian resistance movements. Beyond this, however, having no reliable system of justice, and its community and church authorities hamstrung, in the pervasive climate of brutality violence became a readily available way of managing conflict.

Jakarta officially countered criticisms of abuse in East Timor by arguing that they merely reflected the prioritisation of civil rights in the already prosperous and politically stable West. Official Indonesian statements on human rights upheld the argument that in developing countries human resource development must form the primary focus of human rights, as the human being was both principal agent and ultimate beneficiary of such development (Alatas, 1993: 11). Indonesia could not afford to allow its restless youth to dictate conditions in the streets – the first and most pressing task was to ensure stability (a precondition for rights, or development) and to meet the local people’s basic living needs, neglected under colonialism. Conditions in East Timor provide a vivid illustration of the failure of that argument and the danger of separating economic from political categories of rights.

After two decades of economic growth, what was the outcome of development for the East Timorese? The answer is more complex than that given here, but (to focus on some key points) the Indonesians implemented a monopoly trading system with a heavy dependence on imports from the central islands and serious indigenous unemployment. A substantial proportion of the huge annual subsidy that kept the province afloat was corruptly siphoned off; as much again was used in answering a need that was itself an artificial product of the military occupation. Per capita income was not indicative of the distribution of income, productive capacity or economic power. Most assets were controlled by a few people, of whom a very small number were East Timorese. Development was ‘largely oriented towards growth and the desire for quick results … [in order to] legitimise integration with Indonesia’ (Saldhana, 1994: 93). Improved education was a genuine benefit for the East Timorese but as access to employment was undermined by discriminatory development it contributed little to effective social participation.

The economic growth strategies implemented indicate little comprehension of the actual conditions, whether cultural, historical or even material, of the East Timorese. Thus the displacement of East Timorese rice farmers by the Indonesian military was followed and compounded by the assumption that the East Timorese did not in fact farm rice. This provided the rationale both for maintaining at high levels the (expensive) import of rice from elsewhere and the migration of Javanese rice farmers to the most fertile areas of the territory, intensifying local unemployment. The expansion of industrial and commercial activity was controlled by monopolies, leaving local people as price takers in an often artificial market. Indigenous people became marginalised onlookers in the ‘development’ of their economy. This repeated the ‘overlooking’ of the East Timorese that was used to make sense of the original decision to invade. Economic development that does not enable people to exercise some control over the fundamental material realities of their lives does not enhance their ‘economic’ rights.

The divorce between abstracted categories of economic and political rights upon which official Indonesian arguments rely is so familiar to liberal thought as to be scarcely questioned, even if the reversal of priority may seem shocking. But the experience of East Timor suggests that both categories of rights directly address people’s ability to shape the direction of their lives and that the dynamics of economic development are densely interwoven with those political and social power structures which generate or tolerate the systemic infliction of intimidation and violence. What may be the fundamental, if partial and elusive, level of self-determination, that is, people’s ability to exercise some reasonable level of control over and creativity within their own collective and individual lives – to be able to take part in a non-violent way in the ‘conversations’ that structure their interlocking political communities – was rendered largely impossible in East Timor, to the cost of all parties concerned.

Incorporation reversed

Indonesia and less directly the international community were thus faced with the problem, and the cost, of East Timor. As the Gadjah Mada team gently pointed out: ‘With … integration, the Indonesian government considered the problem of the decolonisation of East Timor to be resolved. However, for the people of East Timor it would appear that this is not so’ (1991: 5). The standard options of decolonisation remained frozen on the table – independence, integration with another independent state and free association with another independent state, in principle determined through an act of free choice such as a vote. At the same time, developments within East Timor contributed to and were shaped by the difficulties seaming Indonesian political life. East Timor was a problem that would not simply go away also in part because it was embedded within questions of political direction simmering throughout Indonesia.2

The anti-settler riots in East Timor during the mid-1990s prompted calls in the mainstream Indonesian media for the government to rethink its East Timor policies. Within Indonesia’s policy community, impatience at the cost of East Timor grew – in terms of the expenditure on resources, of damage to Indonesia’s international standing, of the deaths of soldiers in counterinsurgency operations and of the pressures on Indonesia’s complex political architecture. Moreover, despite Foreign Minister Alatas’s off-hand description of East Timor as a pebble in Indonesia’s shoe, it was a cost with a potential for unpredictable escalation. Rather than understanding East Timor in terms of secession, many Indonesians saw conflict there as essentially a manifestation of problems running throughout the archipelago. ‘What people in Bandung, West Java feel as government high-handedness may appear the same to people in East Timor. Hence to stop high-handedness against people in East Timor should also mean its abolition in other parts of Indonesia’ (Indonesian Observer, in Schwarz, 1994: 229). But there was also resentment at the ingratitude of the East Timorese, who were being subsidised at rates above those enjoyed by most other poor Indonesian provinces – being offered milk and responding with poison, in the words of Muslim leader Amien Rais (quoted in Crouch, 2000: 153).

An overriding concern with national unity drove Indonesia’s approach both to the decolonisation of East Timor and to the management of the territory. But rather than assuaging Indonesian anxieties about national unity, the acquisition of East Timor fuelled even greater uncertainty. ‘The failure to pacify Timorese unrest has engendered in the army real doubts about the strength of Indonesian national unity and kindled fears that democracy could lead to the unravelling of the Indonesian archipelago’ (Schwarz, 1994: 197). Resistance in East Timor threatened to carry demonstration effects for West Irian and Aceh, stirring the recurrent hostility to the Javanese centre. It also heightened sectarian religious tensions. The management of East Timor underscored the powerful position of the military in Indonesian society while at the same time throwing into doubt their credibility. The army was (and, despite curtailments and reforms, remains) enmeshed in almost all spheres of power within Indonesian political and economic life, from national monopolies to the most parochial activities. It was a role that drew increasing, if muted, scrutiny and criticism within Indonesia during the 1990s. As Schwarz asked (1994: 197), was ‘the military’s “security approach” solving political problems, or merely postponing them’?

Critical voices within Indonesia approached East Timor in terms of a reduced role for and greater accountability of the military, increased indigenisation of the public service, policing and judicial functions independent of the military, and even greater autonomy for the province. But many in the military were alarmed by this combination of a reduced role, greater accountability and experiments in pluralism. Anxiety about both the threat of disintegration and the risks that might have to be taken to respond to it in turn carried back into broader Indonesian political life. President Suharto, meanwhile, was unsympathetic to changes to a policy so closely associated with his own leadership. Within the frozen frame of the ageing Suharto’s leadership, simply holding on to the territory, ‘postponing’ indefinitely any changes that might threaten to pull at the thread of the state or challenge the military became its own rationale.

The politics of postponement that overwhelmed Indonesia under the final years of Suharto was shattered by the Asian financial crisis in late 1997. Indonesian growth rates plummeting to negative figures from 6–8 per cent per annum, undermining the legitimacy of a presidency that had already stretched the limits of acceptance to breaking point. Following widespread rioting, Suharto was forced to resign in May 1998 and was replaced by his deputy B. J. Habibie. Habibie, seeking to address the country’s desperate economic and political circumstances, and conscious of Indonesia’s increased dependence on the goodwill of international financial institutions, initiated a range of cautious liberalising reforms. Probably partly in order to remove a persistent obstacle in Indonesia’s relations with donor states, but partly because of a belief in the need for changed management of East Timor, Habibie proposed demilitarisation and autonomy within Indonesia for the territory in return for international recognition of Indonesian sovereignty. But the proposal did not satisfy the standing requirement for decolonisation that there be an ‘act of free choice’, generally understood as a vote. Xanana Gusmao, the widely respected leader of the East Timorese resistance forces, held in jail by the Indonesians since the early 1990s, rejected the proposal. But the issue was now on the table.

The Portuguese and Australian Governments pressed for some form of an act of self-determination. Unexpectedly, in January 1999, Habibie agreed. The East Timorese were to have a UN-supervised ballot to vote for or against wide-ranging autonomy, but it was made clear that rejection would lead to reversal of the incorporation – in effect, to independence. The ballot was to be held within seven months. Gusmao, the UN and others, had envisaged some years of transition for the Timorese – a withdrawal of the military, a more enlightened management of the territory, a UN-monitored process of decolonisation – in effect, the slow process that had been snatched from them in 1975. But Habibie held to the short time-frame. Years of transition would be costly, could be divisive, and the window of opportunity for a vote might pass. The UN proposed a peacekeeping force for the territory. But the Indonesian Government, under new arrangements, decided that the Indonesian police were to be responsible for ensuring security leading up to the ballot. Otherwise the status quo was to be maintained – the military were to remain.

The military had lost many men in East Timor. Many Indonesians believed that they had made great sacrifices to save the East Timorese from communism and civil war and to save Indonesia from a communist beachhead. ‘Indonesianisation’ was seen as a long-term benefit for the East Timorese – even if individuals, East Timorese and others, had to suffer for its realisation – and the military were its guardians. The belief was widespread that without the army East Timor would ‘again’ disintegrate into civil war. Moreover, high-ranking military interests had major financial assets in East Timor. The military leadership did not want to lose the province, but did not openly oppose the ‘act of popular consultation’ proposed by Habibie. It seems likely that key elements of the military leadership saw the referendum ‘as an opportunity to settle the East Timor issue once and for all by making sure that the vote would be in favour of continued integration with Indonesia’ (Crouch, 2000, 160).

Mimicking in cruder form the broader management of East Timor, the military again used a carrot-and-stick approach to ensure a vote for integration. The ‘stick’ was the militias. East Timor already had a constellation of paramilitary forces. These were made up of local civilians formally employed by the military and armed for operations against the Fretilin guerillas, plus the ‘ninja’ groups that had been formed in the mid-1990s to intimidate those engaged in civilian resistance movements. As agitation for independence had intensified in the 1990s, the ninja groups, under direction of military intelligence, had likewise grown. By late 1998 there were militia groups operating across East Timor. Leading military figures coordinated and re-formed the militias for their new task and oversaw their operations. Altogether, the militia could call on an estimated 6,000–9,000 members (Crouch, 2000). New members were press-ganged into support. In the period leading up to the vote, the militias terrorised individuals, families and whole villages known to support independence, slaughtering and injuring with machetes and guns. To escape the violence many people fled into the hills, driven by what was probably a concerted effort to disrupt voter registration. The terror campaign can also be understood as an effort to incite or give the appearance of a civil war that would again ‘prove’ to the outside world the inherent uncontrollability of the Timorese and the need for a full-scale Indonesian military presence.

The ‘carrot’ was organised via the military’s manipulation of food and medical supplies, with the army attempting to monopolise supplies and eke them out in return for a pledge of a pro-integration vote. The East Timorese were again cast as children, this time in cynical recognition of their vulnerability: ‘winning over the people of East Timor … [is] not difficult … They will follow whoever gives them food and medicine’ (from an alleged military communication, quoted in Crouch, 2000: 164). The unarmed UN presence, able to protest but not intervene in the militia violence, assisted the penetration of the country by NGOs delivering food aid to the Timorese, so undermining the military’s apparent attempts to control supplies. The UN presence was thus deeply resented by the military and itself became subject to efforts at intimidation.

These strategies failed, however, and the referendum on 30 August saw both a 98 per cent voter turnout and an overwhelming 78.5 per cent vote for independence. The size of the loss, at almost four to one, seemed to stun many in Jakarta, who had been led to believe that the vote would support integration. After a brief calm, the violence that had marked 1999 now culminated in an explosion of destructive activity. This violent rampage has been documented by an Indonesian Commission of Investigation report (KPP HAM), in a report compiled by James Dunn (2001) as well as by other accounts. It was not ‘the spontaneous response of those who favoured integration’ (Dunn, 2001: 1). Indeed, many East Timorese who genuinely supported autonomy within Indonesia did not support and were not linked with the militias, whose hierarchies seem to have been tied predominantly to the military. As it became clear that the vote was indeed going against integration, it seems militia leaders and military officers in East Timor, as an act of revenge, but also perhaps believing that violence may yet achieve their goal of integration, planned sweeping counter-measures. Whether or not the full extent of the rampage was directly intended by senior military figures – and this is something which a court or tribunal may be able to clarify – it was the outcome of the campaign of intimidation, destruction and terror which they had instigated (Crouch, 2000; Dunn, 2001). The violence included executions, the mass-murder of many hundreds of unarmed people, torture and rape, the forced deportation across the border into Indonesian West Timor of many thousands of people, as well the dislocation of three-quarters of the population, and the destruction of an estimated 70 per cent of East Timor’s infrastructure and built environment. Many of the towns and villages were left in ruins and people’s lives shattered. The Indonesian leadership, under intense international pressure and itself seemingly shocked at the extent of the violence, accepted an international peacekeeping force which arrived on 20 September.

The killings and the devastation have meant a savage and threatening conclusion to Indonesian rule. Militias remain potentially dangerous across the border in West Timor. While now embarked on its own process of political and economic reform, Indonesia continues in a state of crisis. It may now be Indonesia that is the fragile and unpredictable neighbour – and it will remain in the interests and the convictions of some there, not least the militia leaders who have fled to Jakarta, to act to undermine the newly emerging state. Within Indonesia, responses to East Timor are profoundly unsettled – while the Commission of Investigation into Human Rights Violations has produced a damning report on abuse and, at least as importantly, has called for investigations of operations in East Timor going back to 1975, one of the most prominent militia leaders is fêted as a patriot. Within East Timor, in an atmosphere of some hope, but also uncertainty, destruction, social dislocation and trauma, the East Timorese are now facing in an extreme form the problems common to decolonisation and state building.


UNTAET is managing both the rebuilding of East Timor and its initial transition to statehood. It is a peace-building enterprise concerned in broad terms with the creation of structures capable of institutionalising peace. Peace building represents an extraordinary set of social and political experiments, made across cultures, by a chaotic mix of international, national and non-governmental agencies with competing agendas. Over the past decade, the international community has been increasingly engaged in the tasks of peace building, and has struggled to come to grips with the complexity of the task. East Timor is the most recent and by far the most extensive peace building mission undertaken by the UN. In this case, and for the first time, the UN (or UNTAET) is the transitional state, responsible for all aspects of governance.

The brief comments that follow are not an assessment of UNTAET’s work. They are rather a reflection on what the international community might learn from the story, as it has been briefly told here, of East Timor’s recent history. There are three interlocking points to emphasise. The first concerns the participation of the East Timorese in the building of their state; the second, the problem of the emergence of reasonably peaceful political orders after long-term violence; and the third, which runs through the other two, is the theme of dialogue.

East Timor will be significantly dependent on the international community for the foreseeable future. At present, this dependence is expressed through the presence of UNTAET, but the role of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other agencies, as well as individual states and NGOs, will be more long term. International peace building is a liberal endeavour. In general, and certainly in East Timor’s case, it involves the effort to reconstruct the state as a liberal market democracy. This is in part because liberal models of representative democracy and market capitalism are widely assumed to be conducive to the management of conflict and so to peace (the ‘democratic peace’ argument). Liberal democracy enshrines notions of rights, and respect for rights reasonably enough appears as the antidote to the systematic infliction of injury embedded in the conflicts and crises to which peace building is a response. But, perhaps as important, the international administrators staffing peace-building missions, facing situations of great complexity and tight time-frames, must draw on the managerial models with which they are familiar. Leading figures in East Timor themselves use the language of liberal market democratisation, so at the level of rhetoric at least there is no conflict.

To date, the large-scale international peace-building efforts have focused on the creation of national politico-legal structures, such as constitutions and party and electoral systems, on development projects and the lineaments of economic governance. Elections and IMF-approved economic models have been the cornerstones of the projects. Relatively little attention has been paid either to the grassroots dynamics of these political and economic models, or to other dimensions of governance – in particular, to whether and how practical alternatives to violence, as a means of managing conflict, may be evolving. Yet experience to date in peace-building efforts indicates that the development of such alternatives, at all levels of political life, are fundamental to the rebuilding of sustainable political and economic orders.

The history of East Timor underlines the cost, in terms of human suffering and of pragmatic politics, of not engaging the apparently powerless as participants in shaping their own future. This lesson reiterates what peace building and development programmes elsewhere have indicated. But participation is extraordinarily demanding, both as an ethic and an administrative discipline. The joint-statement on planning released by the UN and the World Bank in late 1999 recognises the importance of local participation in development and rebuilding programmes – community empowerment is one of eight sectors addressed. (The others are macro-economic management, the civil service, agriculture, the judiciary, health, education and infrastructure.) Moreover the UN and the World Bank involved the Timorese, both exiles and those who had remained in Timor, in the formation of the plan. The plan identifies village councils as an accessible and accountable site for local governance. It is not clear, however, that these village councils actually feed into decision making in the other seven sectors – that is, the sectors which form the practical business of governance (Bleiker and McGibbon, forthcoming).

The IMF (2000) has also produced its blueprint on ‘Establishing the Foundations of Sound Macroeconomic Management’ in the new state, and has asserted the importance of indigenous participation at all stages of the process of forming East Timor’s economic agenda. At the same time, however, these recommendations for East Timor echo the IMF’s many other structural adjustment programmes and reflect the neo-liberal economic orientations of its leading donors. In keeping with its traditional outlook, the programme is austere – one of its more controversial aspects may prove to be the size, scope and pay scales envisaged for the civil service. The IMF wants a small public sector on low pay scales, and foresees further cuts in salaries. The East Timorese, with the influence the social justice traditions of the Catholic Church and Fretilin, may see it differently. Nor does East Timor have the strong private sector institutions that assist the operation of neo-liberalism. Following comparable pay cuts in Mozambique, its civil servants needed additional income, leading to a rise in corruption, while the well-qualified found work in international agencies on international salaries, draining skills from government (Hanlon, 2001), and teachers left in droves, undermining education programmes.

Programmes of rapid economic liberalisation in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mozambique have had disastrous effects on peace building. ‘The restructuring process is pursuing the objective of developing a market economy at the cost of a serious deterioration in standards of living, resulting in pauperization and a concomitant resurgence of violence’ (David, 1999: 35). Roland Paris’s 1997 survey of eight peace-building missions during the 1990s noted that World Bank and IMF policies ‘have continued to place the principal burden of adjustment on the poorest and most vulnerable groups in developing societies, which is a recipe for political instability’, particularly in societies already seamed by conflict (1997: 77). Moreover, strong free-market policies rewarding competition in a society that lacks a real safety net, and where pressing questions hang over the most basic forms of ownership of resources, are likely to feed into powerful political antagonisms. Many people in East Timor have been stripped of everything by the rampaging militias, while others, due to luck but also sometimes to political associations, have been spared. And does ownership of a particular piece of land rest with those who were recognised as owners by traditional – Portuguese or Indonesian – authorities? Given the co-existence of some traditional and Portuguese systems, people with a legitimate claim to any such competing titles may be claiming the return of their resource. In such cases, the benefits of unrestrained market competition can mesh with unexpected social faultlines.

While the IMF emphasises consultation, it is an organisation of immense power; and, without IMF approval, East Timor is unlikely to receive on-going assistance from the World Bank, or any other bank. The danger in all these instances is of a form of ‘participation’ that, whether because of perceived time constraints or the dynamics of power at play, does not really extend beyond the giving of consent. But to be effective, participation must also encompass the goals and parameters of the exchange. Not only the outcomes but the processes by which such directions are taken have potential for profound impact on the emerging shape of East Timor’s political and economic life:

Unless the Timorese community has a sense of ownership over the social, political and economic rebuilding of their society, tensions will remain high and the influx of foreign funds will only heighten existing problems. The greatest dangers emerge from the possible external imposition of a rebuilding process that neither involves local participation nor achieves national reconciliation. (Bleiker and McGibbon, forthcoming)

Political structures have been emerging more gradually – until independence UNTAET remains the sovereign authority. UNTAET is planning to choose a government from the constituent assembly, and will pass what decision-making scope it sees fit to that government, while retaining ultimate responsibility. While transitions are by nature awkward, questions remain concerning the space allowed for Timorese participation in debates on the shape of the government. Deep divisions mark Timorese society. After all, 20 per cent of adults voted to accept autonomy within Indonesia; among them are some of the more powerful and wealthy Timorese. Some pro-integrationists are already arguing that (despite the Indonesian Parliament’s acceptance of the divorce, in October 1999) the vote was simply a rejection of one particular model of integration – other models might yet be found accepted (see e.g. Araujo: 2000). Nor do those united by the desire for independence from Indonesia necessarily agree on other fundamental matters.

In this context UNTAET favours a government of national unity rather than one formed by a single winning party. Again, on the basis of past peace-building experiences, there is a strong argument for this. While established democracies may have a low propensity for war, democratising states (‘those that have recently undergone regime change in a democratic direction’) are highly war prone (Mansfield and Snyder, in David, 1999: 43). Competitive elections in a fragmented state can intensify fragmentation while the formal marks of Western electoral systems are no guarantees of democracy. But if arrangements at the national level are not matched by work towards a participative ethos in East Timor that can at the same time manage conflict, government could again simply degenerate into dictatorship. The challenge and the great difficulty for the East Timorese, and for the international community working with them, is to develop institutional and social contexts at all levels of society within which the people can work against the ‘deafness’, violence and ingrained marginalisation which have enclosed their lives.

Impending statehood and the withdrawal of the Indonesian military will not simply wipe clean the legacy of that history of conflict, violence and marginalisation. Part of this legacy are the eroded traditional structures of authority, an erosion matched not by the development of legitimate non-traditional mechanisms but by increasing reliance on violence as a means of achieving group and individual objectives. Many Timorese had expected that independence would bring a better life. While in time that hope may well prove justified, East Timor is now one of the poorest countries in the world. The desperation and frustration that flow from 80 per cent unemployment and widespread devastation only compound those pressures to violence. The need to recreate a reasonably peaceful political and social life at all levels and to re-learn non-violent ways of handling disagreement and constructing difference is of fundamental significance, paralleling and intermeshing with the importance of widely shared access to economic growth and livelihood.

The East Timorese face, in a very raw form, fundamental questions about how to build political life. These are questions raised by what was widely seen as an ‘alien’ occupation that reshaped major dimensions of social, political and economic life. But they are also posed by the reality of division and the systemic infliction, and experience, of suffering. After long periods of conflict the fracture lines of enmity can often be complex, confused and highly personalised. As Xanana Gusmao, the highly respected former leader of the anti-integration forces, has commented:

The waves of wounds to the Timorese people are the consequences of both internal and external conflicts. They come from our thorny civil war, and from the problems of our early years in the mountains and the related acts of revenge, as well as those inflicted by the Indonesian military and those Timorese serving the integration process. (Gusmao, 2000: ix)

How now do returned militia members, guerilla fighters and their opponents and victims find ways of living together? How is justice to be sought, recognised and respected, and is there a limit to its pursuit? How do you mark and give voice to your suffering or to that of others, particularly when there is no suggestion of remorse or when the application of justice to the perpetrators is out of reach? Denied such an exchange, how do we not shut the perpetrator – or the victim – out of the category of ‘human’, or from ‘the referential world of self and other’ (Williams, in Brown, 1995: 96)?

It may be that, in broad terms, how people see the injuries of history dealt with at national and local levels affects deeply their acceptance of and commitment to mechanisms of justice, order and governance. The manner in which the extreme abuse of the past is dealt with becomes, in the words of Raoul Alfonsin, Argentina’s first elected president after the military regime, the primary instrument for forming the ‘collective moral conscience’ at an attitudinal but also an institutional level (in Huyse, 1998: 276). It is thus not only the past but the foundations and legitimacy of political and social relations in the future that are at stake in the complex intermeshing questions of justice and reconciliation. Xanana Gusmao speaks of the need to forgive and rebuild, as do some other leading Timorese figures. In effect, the fragile nature of the Indonesian state means that the chances of prosecuting Indonesian senior military officers and militia leaders who have taken high-profile ‘refuge’ in Jakarta are uncertain, at least in the medium term. The embryonic legal system is struggling with the prosecutions of some of the returned militia members, and a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission is under discussion, although key witnesses remain beyond its jurisdiction in Indonesia.

Justice may prove elusive, and while not questioning the value of pursuing it, as the hundreds of stories of the more local acts of violence come closer to the ground, justice may not always be preserved from ambivalence and revenge. Nor may it prove a sufficient answer to trauma and loss. But how to forgive and rebuild? Certainly, while both reconciliation and justice must be pursued at the formal level of the state, through overarching mechanisms such as the developing legal system and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of some nature, the underpinning realities of the locality and the village, where ‘civic’ life has often been transformed by fear, enmity and trauma seem likely to be at least as important. The quandary of reconciliation and the need to deal with the obdurate realities of anger, loss, pain and injustice lie at the level of ‘everyday life’ – of the basic social and political institutions which shape people’s lives – as much as they reside in the more formal dimensions of the state. The slow and difficult task of dialogue is hardly an answer to the questions posed by injury and suffering, nor can others provide answers for the East Timorese; but dialogue offers at least a way of working with these questions, from which answers – the different answers that will be needed for different aspects of people’s collective existence – may emerge.

The Indonesian departure from East Timor and the arrival of the UNTAET mission was sparked by a sequence of unpredictable international shifts; but it was also the result of a struggle over twenty-five years, inside but also outside East Timor, for fundamental change in the governance of the territory, whether that was achieved through independence from or by a transformation of Indonesia. This struggle could be characterised, accurately, as a demand for self-determination. Self-determination is a fundamental reference point of the post-Second World War order of states. It offers a potent language, and perhaps the only available language, for the East Timorese to register the suffering of their circumstances and articulate a demand for redress. But although sometimes claimed as a self-evident moral truth, self-determination is an ambiguous principle and a multivalent reality. Far from signifying absolute sovereignty, it is rather a complex process of transaction, occurring in the context (in this case) not only of a traumatised and fractured community but of the relentless demands of international political and economic exchange. Like the notion of ‘human rights’, its practical ethical value depends on how it is used and what it makes possible in particular circumstances and histories.

In international politics the language of self-determination is generally that of independent statehood, but this is not because being a state in practice best expresses, or necessarily expresses at all, a potential for communities to manage their affairs to some reasonable extent. Self-determination struggles have often been the effort by a collectivity to ensure that it will not in the future be subjected to the same violence and exploitative disregard to which it was subjected in the past. But, as in East Timor’s case, while the achievement of statehood is no guarantee of effective self-determination, nor are other routes to an acquisition of some measure of control over community life and to freedom from the systemic infliction of gross humiliation and destruction readily available. East Timor is in the process of achieving statehood, but more fundamental questions of self-determination remain.

The violent incorporation of East Timor and its subsequent ‘burial’ made sense in part because it could draw on a polarisation between ethics and the realities of power. That polarisation, touched on in chapter 2, is a fundamental ‘common sense’ weaving through the ways in which it is possible to think about international politics. It is evident in approaches to East Timor from both a predominantly idealist and a predominantly realist perspective, but it was the assertion of pragmatics over principle that carried the most powerful and deleterious effects in this case. The de facto acceptance of a forced annexation over a more strenuous support for the principles of decolonisation – principles to which East Timor had indisputable legal access – was done in the name of pragmatic good sense. What turned out to be a protracted violent and costly conflict was justified in terms of the prudence and practical grasp of power that realism advises. Principles of self-determination were, in effect, treated as somewhat ‘lawyerly’ regulations – desirable, but to be put aside when necessary – rather than as part of an effort to deal with the complex interplays of power by which communities, whether they are weak or strong in terms of quantifiable strategic resources, are persistently bound to one another.

‘Pragmatism’ operated here as its opposite – a narrow and reified self-interest, shorn of the need to take much account of the reality on the ground, which in this case included the reality of the ‘powerless’ actors in the drama. This reflects directly the evacuated concept of ‘power’ – power to impose – that characterises much strong realism (and, in a different way, idealism). It is this narrow and abstract conception of power that so completely divorces principle and pragmatics, placing one in a world of ideal essences and the other in a repetitious and solipsistic cycle of calculations. The value of listening, however, flows not from principle enshrined in an ideal world but from the need to be attentive to the factors that go to make up a concrete situation and to their dynamic potential. The East Timorese were not heard in part because of the deafness made possible by realism; it is important, now, that the support lent by liberal internationalism does not have equally damaging effects. The brutality of the Indonesian military presence has gone – and this is a hopeful thing – but people’s need to be able to shape their own collective lives and to give voice to and work against the systemic infliction of violence and the imposition of suffering remains.


1 For example, Dunn (1983), Taylor (1995), and Viviani (1976) are three detailed accounts.
2 That is, those debates around Indonesia becoming the kind of place that, in Goenewan Mohamad’s words, ‘even the powerless can love’ (1994: 106).
  • Collapse
  • Expand

All of MUP's digital content including Open Access books and journals is now available on manchesterhive.


Human rights and the borders of suffering

The promotion of human rights in international politics


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 1545 563 19
PDF Downloads 572 90 3