Editorial: Free, Free at Last

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 24, Pentecost 2002

East Timor is free. After four centuries of colonial rule and a quarter of a century of brutal Indonesian repression the East Timorese have won their struggle for independence. At midnight on 19 May 2002, in the capital of Dili, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan handed over power to the new government and new president, Xanana Gusmao. Gusmao led the resistance struggle for almost two decades from the mountains before being captured and imprisoned for six years by the Indonesian authorities. To the thousands of East Timorese who celebrated the raising of their own flag at last, Mr. Annan said, ‘I salute you, people of East Timor, for the courage and perseverance you have shown. Yours has not been an easy path to independence. You should be very proud of your achievement.’

It has been a struggle hard fought and won at great cost. There is a bitter symmetry to the recent history of East Timor. Independence was first proclaimed on 28 November 1975 by Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), the political party that became the country’s main resistance movement in the years that followed. Nine days later, on 7 December 1975, the Indonesian army invaded with a sea and air attack on Dili in which paratroops and marines made their way through the streets of the capital slaughtering those that stood in their way, burning buildings to the ground and causing much of the population to flee to the mountains. At least 60,000 East Timorese were killed in the three months that followed.

In order to destroy the resistance, the Indonesian army attempted to destroy the extended family ties upon which the resistance networks relied. As a result thousands of families and communities were broken up and people were displaced. Some were deported to small outer islands, others relocated to different areas of East Timor, others settled in whole new villages, fenced-off areas with restricted access, guarded by troops or surrounded by military or police buildings. The people could not farm their lands and famine spread. Families and communities were dispersed and the social fabric of the country torn apart while Indonesian settlers were brought in and settled on good farming land. In 24 years of occupation, it is estimated that 200,000 East Timorese died as a result of violence, starvation or sickness that can be tied directly to the invasion, occupation and forcible relocation of the people.

But the people never stopped protesting their oppression, and their leaders – particularly Xanana Gusmao, and Nobel Peace Prize winners, Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, lobbied ceaselessly to keep the country’s illegal occupation on the international agenda in the face of great indifference from much of the world.

On 30 August 1999, in a display of courage that was astonishing in light of the context of fear and repression in which it took place (including the assassination of pro-independence leaders and widespread intimidation of the people by Indonesian troops) 78.5 percent of registered voters in East Timor voted for independence. The revenge of the occupying power was as savage as its occupation had been. In the violence that followed the referendum, up to two thousand people were killed, Dili was again razed to the ground and the people once more fled to the mountains. A quarter of a million people were forced at gun point into trucks, boats and planes and taken across the border to Indonesian West Timor.

But independence has come. East Timor is free although it is a freedom tempered by poverty – it is one of the poorest nations on earth, occupying last place among the 162 countries whose income is monitored by the UN. It has also, in its first few days, felt the heavy hand of Washington. This is not surprising. There is strong evidence that Washington acquiesced to the invasion in 1975, in part, according to South Bank University’s Professor John Taylor[i], because the US was anxious to retain access to the deep water channel to the north of the country for its nuclear submarines. Another reason is surely its oil. There are large oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. Taylor argues that, prior to the invasion, the Australian government began negotiations with Indonesia for the rights to exploit these fields and subsequently recognized the annexation of East Timor in order to have access to them. The Guardian newspaper[ii] reports that last year, following a visit by Australian representatives to US Vice President Dick Cheney, the US warned East Timor not to push Australia too hard on dealing for access to the oil. More recently, Colin Powell wrote to the incoming government suggesting that US aid was conditional upon East Timor giving written assurance that it would not prosecute any US citizens for crimes against humanity in the new international criminal court. So, those most complicit in East Timor’s agony are watching carefully, to take what advantage they can of the new situation.

But East Timor has also had supporters in the international community – vocal if not particularly powerful – and it needs them still. The work of rebuilding of the country, not only in economic terms but also in terms of justice and reconciliation, will be immense. In one small example of the continuing solidarity between many New Zealanders and East Timor, the Lyttelton parish of St Joseph the Worker is contributing substantially to rebuilding three villages badly affected by the violence of 1999. Through the Caritas Rural Development Programme the parish is helping with farming, water supply and the building of a local school.

Throughout the period of occupation the Catholic Church remained one of the few public spaces not occupied by the Indonesian authorities (the population is 90 percent Catholic). Many public protests were associated with religious events and the church developed a theology and spirituality of resistance, emphasising human rights, justice and service to its people. In 1983, an open letter from a group of the country’s priests to the Pope told of ‘moral and physical violence; arbitrary imprisonment; the resettlement of families and whole villages; the execution of those who surrender; executions without trial; disappearances and the destruction of families; the execution of whole groups who are captured; hunger and disease.’ These abuses have come to an end at last, and the Church’s work continues in a new way. It is encouraging to know that Church communities around New Zealand are able to contribute to this work of solidarity and partnership.

—Jane Higgins

Jane is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Canterbury, and a member of the parish of St Joseph the Worker, Lyttelton.

[i] Taylor, John (1991) Indonesia’s forgotten war: the hidden history of East Timor, Zed Books, London.

[ii] Steele, John (2002) ‘East Timor is independent. As long as it does as it’s told’, Guardian, 23 May.

Comments are closed.