East Timor is burning. The bodies of Timorese people are being found daily–macheted to death and dripping in blood. Journalists, UN officials, and even the clergy have failed to escape the violence. Who are the people wielding the blades and how long has innocent blood been staining the soil of this tiny island?
In past weeks the world’s attention came to focus on the small island of Timor located between Indonesia and Australia. Today thousands of UN peacekeepers are scrambling to establish safe zones for people fleeing the bullets of roving militia groups. UN Commander Major-General Peter Cosgrove complains that he is badly understaffed for the task at hand.
Regardless, much damage has already been done. The UN estimates that 75 per cent of East Timorese homes have been destroyed; churches burned, property looted. And the people? Best guesses are that, out of a total population of 800,000, about 200,000 are in refugee camps in West Timor, and another 500,000 are still in East Timor hiding in the hills, or if they’re lucky, a UN safe zone. No one knows how many have been killed. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates at least 7,000 East Timorese have been killed since an independence referendum on Sept. 3, but with few observers on the ground, no one knows for sure.
To most of the world, this eruption of horror came as a surprise. To those who have followed the troubled history of East Timor, it was hauntingly familiar.
Prior to European colonialism, what is now known as ‘Indonesia’ did not exist. Each of the hundreds of islands in the Indonesian archipelago had unique linguistic, cultural and religious traditions. The modern Indonesian state was a creation of the Dutch, who took control of most of the islands, using the largest island of Java as their central control. However, the east side of the island of Timor was a Portuguese colony and was not integrated into greater Indonesia. The Timorese were, for the most part, left alone and continued to live much as they had for centuries–until 1975. For this reason, East Timor was considered an "anthropologist’s paradise." It was this East Timor that Canadian Elaine Brière stumbled across as a young
"I was hitchhiking across Australia in 1974," she said. " My friend and I heard about a place called East Timor. Flights only went there on a monthly basis, there were no hotels, no western development at all, really."
What she saw moved her.
"There were little villages here and there. It was too idyllic for words really–very colourful, very peaceful, and everywhere you went there were these pungent smells," she recalled.
Pre-1975, East Timor was not only a unique, but also a diverse cultural region. There were 18 ethnolinguistic groups, 30-40 different languages, and a virtual library of religious myths and traditions. 1974 brought great change for the East Timorese.
"In April of 1974, independence from Portugal was declared. There was great excitement and hope, as well as fear and trepidation. The mood was very optimistic when I left," explained Brière. "I just assumed it would become independent; it wasn’t until a year later that I heard something very different had happened. I was horrified."
The Indonesian army, at the command of military dictator Suharto, invaded East Timor in 1975. The invasion was, by all accounts, extremely brutal.
"Within three years of the military invasion approximately one-third of the East Timorese population had died as a result of the occupation," noted Kerry Pither of the East Timor Alert Network.
The 24-year occupation that followed the invasion has been called a "reign of terror."
"I think it has been a 24-year nightmare. It’s hard to put into words. They have been lurching from one crisis to another, from one massacre to another, from one assassination to another," said Brière.
After the invasion, the Suharto regime stopped at nothing to keep East Timor under tight control.
"East Timor has been like an Indonesian prison for the past 24 years. The army was everywhere; well over 20,000 troops were deployed to maintain control at every level of society," said Pither.
Human rights organizations have long criticized the Indonesian regime in East Timor as among the worst violators of human rights in the world. It is well-documented that obscene torture, systematic rape and executions of political dissidents were commonplace.
"Every single family has been affected by torture, rape or murder. People were killed virtually everyday; if anyone dared to speak out, they and their relatives would very likely disappear," explained Pither.
Moreover, she insists the human rights abuses were not random acts of violence by soldiers, but part of a planned and deliberate campaign.
"This was a well-orchestrated campaign to wipe out the East Timorese–not simply physically, but also culturally and spiritually. It became illegal to sing or speak in Timorese, education was controlled by Indonesia and taught in Indonesian, women were subjected to forced birth control and even sterilization," explains Pither.
An estimated 200,000 East Timorese have been killed during the occupation.
The motivation for the Indonesian invasion and occupation was clearly not self-defense.
"It is a completely one-sided conflict; there is no moral justification for the invasion. East Timor posed absolutely no military threat to anyone," said Brière, who produced an award-winning documentary on the occupation entitled Bitter Paradise: The Sellout of East Timor.
While there may have been no moral justification for the invasion, the Indonesian military had plenty of economic reasons for taking over East Timor. East Timor, like much of Indonesia, is rich in natural resources, including oil, ore and lumber. Timor is also a valuable piece of real estate because of its location as it lies directly in the path of major shipping routes. Perhaps most important is the example an independent East Timor may have set for the rest of the archipelago.
"They [the Indonesian government] don’t want an independent country in the region to set an example for the other islands; it is a challenge to the consolidated power of the main island of Java," said Brière.
For a long time Indonesia’s "reign of terror" in East Timor seemed to go unnoticed by the outside world. This was in part the result of Indonesia’s policy of keeping journalists and international observers out of East Timor. However, the bloodshed could only be hidden for so long. The world’s attention was finally captured in 1991. On Nov. 12 of that year the Dili massacre took place. A peaceful pro-independence march had been organized in the East Timorese capital of Dili. The marchers were met with bullets. Hundreds of unarmed women, men and children were killed as soldiers opened fire on the peaceful procession.
The momentum of international public support began to grow after this tragedy, culminating in the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to two East Timorese activists–Jose Ramos Hortas and Bishop Belo.
This building momentum had, until recently, translated into very little political action by western countries for whom Indonesia had become an important trading partner.