The Genocide Generation in East Timor

"If cynical geopolitics are allowed to take precedence when it is convenient, the result is an undermining of the whole United Nations system and all it stands for. The world community must hold them in account."-Ray Funk MP, at the United Nations, August 1990

By David Webster

A nation of three quarters of a million people is invaded by massive military forces from its neighbor, a country which has become the regional superpower thanks to American and Soviet arms sales. The invader cites intolerable provocations from its smaller neighbor and claims to be liberating the people from feudalism and misgovernment, but oil lies at the root of the conflict.

The United Nations immediately calls for withdrawal of foreign troops and respect for international standards of justice. And nothing more happens. Fifteen years later, no Canadian, American, Australian, or European troops are defending the rights of East Timor. The parallel with Kuwait ends December 8, 1975--one day after the Indonesian invasion.

The above statement by Ray Funk--only the second time a Canadian M.P. has addressed the U.N. about East Timor--came on the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. It has been a decade-and-a-half of genocide. An estimated 250,000 people, more than a third of the population, have been killed. Famine followed war, repression (everything from forced abortion and sterilization of Timorese women to forbidding traditional ceremonies, songs and dances) followed famine. (See PEACE, Dec. 1989)

Through it all, the United Nations followed the business and geopolitical interests of a few of its members, led by Australia, Japan and Canada, but backed by the United States and the Soviet Union. The international outcry was muted, compared to that over Kuwait, a parallel situation. Only a few states, notably former Portuguese colonies, spoke out.

Like indigenous people around the world, the Timorese have nowhere else to go. The Mambai people, one of the largest of the thirty indigenous nations that make up the population of East Timor (collectively called the Maubere people ), call themselves the "people of rock and tree." Their job is to sit with rock and tree, not moving across the world as other peoples do, and pray for the well-being of the cosmos.

Under foreign occupation, they have been forbidden this. They stand with their backs to the sacred mountains of Matebian and Ramelau, their traditional religion banned. To their way of thinking, not only themselves, but the whole world is in danger as a result. They can never surrender to the Indonesian military.

What chance for peace in East Timor? The chances may be better now than they have been since the independence declaration of November 1975. When Portuguese colonial authorities refused to return following a short Timorese civil war, the country declared independence under a Catholic nationalist movement, Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor). Fretilin followed moderately leftist and nationalist ideas and began the processes of national reconciliation and modernization that had been neglected by Portugal (a country whose officials called the Timorese "these half-witted savages from Oceania"). All this was ended by Indonesian invasion. Since then, Fretilin has led the resistance.

According to Fretilin leaders, they fight on three fronts: military, diplomatic, and underground. Since Fretilin forces were surrounded and massacred with their families in 1978, the military front has been a guerrilla struggle against massively superior forces, which Fretilin acknowledges cannot lead to military victory over Indonesia. The mountains and rural regions of the country, by tacit acknowledgment of both sides, belong to the Indonesian army by day, to resistance forces by night.

On the diplomatic front, the story is more promising. U.N. resolutions condemning Indonesia were passed annually by ever-decreasing margins from 1975 to 1982. Furious Indonesian and Australian lobbying kept the Timor question off the agenda of most international forums throughout the '80s. But in 1989 and 1990, the tide began to turn again, this time in East Timor's favor. Resolutions favoring a free act of self-determination for East Timor have been passed in the European Community, the Socialist International, and the U.N. Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, among others. Even in the countries which support the military and the economy of Indonesia, such as Canada, Australia, Japan, Britain and the Netherlands, solidarity movements have challenged their governments' complicity in genocide.

What has made the increasing international support possible are actions on the third front: underground resistance behind Indonesian lines. In order to control the population, military authorities forcibly relocated the people from their traditional villages to "strategic hamlets" built around military command posts. Despite the constant surveillance on suspected dissidents (most people in the hamlets) and regularly reported torture, resistance has gone on. In October 1989, during a pastoral visit by Pope John Paul II, a new wave of protest broke out, led for the first time by young people and seeming almost consciously to model itself on the Palestinian intifada.

he Pope is titular head of the Diocese of East Timor, which has grown to include nearly all Timorese since 1975. (Under Indonesian law, all must declare allegiance to a monotheistic religion. The role of the Catholic Church as the only Timorese institution allowed to function in partial freedom--the only space for dissent and expression of indigenous culture--has also helped its growth.) A Papal Mass outside Timor's capital of Dili saw hundred of youths unfurl banners welcoming the Pope on behalf of Fretilin and supporting the call of East Timor's Apostolic Administrator (effective Bishop) Monsignor Carlos Belo for a referendum under U.N. supervision on the country's future. As the Pope watched, police attacked the youths, taking many into custody where according to Amnesty International they were repeatedly tortured. Many others escaped only by taking refuge in Monsignor Belo's home.

t was the first incident in a non-violent uprising which has continued ever since, despite Indonesian crackdowns. In February, Indonesia's Defence Minister General Benny Murdani visited Dili to warn the teenage protestors that they would be "wiped out" if they continued their protests. "If someone makes a movement for an independent nation and that movement is strong enough, the armed forces will destroy it," Murdani declared. "There will be no independent East Timor. There is no Timorese nation, there is only the Indonesian nation. Don't ever dream about a nation of East Timor. Don't even talk about a nation of East Timor."

Protest, however, has gone on through the increasing repression. On "Integration Day" in July dozens of kids were arrested for raising Fretilin flags at two Dili elementary schools and singing the Timorese anthem Foho Ramelau. Flag-raisings have become more frequent since then. Many military vehicles have been reported sabotaged. The "Kapan Pulang" ("When are you going home?", a question asked of all Indonesian soldiers and settlers) campaign has drawn in the bulk of students from ages 6 to 16. The latest report is from September 4, when another Mass ended in a protest and the arrest of 80 people for a crime no greater than chanting slogans.

As in Israel's occupied territories, as last fall in Czechoslovakia, an unarmed mass of young protestors is resisting a modern army which has ruled them by fear and terror for years. The Indonesian occupiers draw strength from the unflagging support of countries like our own, which shore up the world's longest-ruling dictator, General Suharto. The Timorese can only draw strength from each other, from gatherings like one at Dili's statue of the Immaculate Conception, where 3000 assembled and, in the words of one participant, "prayed, some with backs beaten raw, some with heads split open, others with various injuries they had received . . . . It is not necessary to lead and organize, it is the mass of people who do not accept this, who are discontented, who are sickened."

What chance for peace? It is up to us in the West. The people in East Timor have brought hope back to life, but they cannot free themselves if they remain alone against the world. The changing attitudes of European states make peace seem possible at last, as more and more countries begin to end their complicity in a genocidal occupation. But too many countries continue to support Indonesia for the hope of peace to seem more than a glimmer. Only when the concern for self-determination and international justice shown over Kuwait become a universal principle, only when the United Nations live up to their responsibilities towards East Timor, will peace be able to come.

* Demonstrations to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion of East Timor are planned for December 7 at Indonesian government offices in Toronto and Ottawa. See Ontario Notes for details. For more information: East Timor Alert Network, PO Box 354, Ladysmith BC, V0R 2E0.

* David Webster works with ACT for Disarmament and the East Timor Alert Network.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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