Friday, August 28, 2009

News and Human Rights 6: East Timor

I know what you're thinking: "I've never heard of a place called East Timor."
Well, there's a perfectly good reason for this. East Timor is quite commonly known as Timor-Leste, so there you have it, just one of those simple mix-ups.
Oh, you've never heard of Timor-Leste either? Well there's a perfectly good reason for that, too.

The American public school system. And the American mainstream media. So two reasons.

East Timor is a country in South-Pacific Asia roughly the size of Connecticut. Even though you've never heard of it, more than one million people live there. And, unfortunately, all one million of them are living in the aftermath of a 25 year occupation that left an estimated 100,000 natives dead. Bummer, I know, but bear with me.

East Timor was first colonized by Portugal, because even though Portugal is small, they really know their way around colonization. They were, after all, the first to colonize in Africa. The Portuguese ruled until 1974 when a military coup in their own country forced them to relinquish control of some of their colonies, East Timor included. As would be expected the newly freed country was rocked by the sudden political upheaval after 400 years of colonial rule, but at this point things had to be looking up for them. They were free to govern their own land, reap their own rewards, and be the masters of their own destinies. On November 28, 1975, the pro-independence group known as FRETILIN (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor [the acronym is goofy because of the language difference]) claimed an independent East Timor after winning a short-lived civil war and the declaration of victory in the capital city of Dili.
Then, four years later, Indonesia showed up.
Indonesia came barging in Farva-style, completely uninvited and ready to fuck things up. They completely annihilated the armed resistance of East Timor and declared the country to be a province of Indonesia. During the 25 year occupation, the Timorese people were subjected to extrajudicial executions, torture, sexual crimes and starvation. While the UN opposed the occupation and demanded immediate withdrawal, countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and Germany firmly backed Indonesia. Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger even reportedly gave the "green light" for invasion after meeting with the Indonesian president shortly before the invasion.
The Massacre:
In 1991, a delegation to East Timor was supposed to take place with members of Portuguese Parliament, a UN representative, and a dozen journalists. After one of the journalists was identified as a FRETILIN sympathizer by the Indonesian government, the entire thing was called off. Demoralization of the Timorese independence activists, who had planned to use this delegation to gain international attention for their cause, ensued. This grew to frustration, tensions ran high, and things escalated when a group of resistance members was discovered by Indonesian troops. In the course of the confrontation, a supporter of independence named Sebastiao Gomez was taken outside and shot. Gomez's memorial service turned into the largest protest of Indonesian occupation since 1975. Several thousand pro-independence Timorese walked from the site of the shooting to the cemetery where Gomez was to be buried, chanting, holding anti-Indonesian banners, and mocking the troops all the way. While loud, the protest was reported to be peaceful and orderly by most accounts.
When the procession reached the cemetery, some were allowed in while others remained outside the gates and continued to protest their oppressors. It seems to me, in my limited knowledge, that massacres in these sorts of situations always develop out of protests, and usually over the protests of a man who was wrongfully killed. Not surprising, I suppose. What better way to get the state's enemies all in one place, than with a protest?
As the procession continued their peaceful assembly, a new group of soldiers appeared. These newly arrived Indonesian soldiers arrived with purpose. They didn't waste any time with crowd control, they simply opened fire on the protesters. An estimated 250 - 400 were killed. A direct quote from the Indonesian Commander-in-Chief taken two days after the massacre reads as follows: "The army cannot be underestimated. Finally we had to shoot them. Delinquents like these agitators must be shot, and they will be."

In 1999 alone it is estimated that 1,200 Timorese were murdered in an attempt to dissuade the population from voting for independence, which they were allowed to finally (finally, finally, finally) do during a UN-supervised poll (finally.) East Timor was finally granted independence with an overwhelming majority of 78.5% voting for freedom from Indonesia and was recognized as an independent nation on May 20, 2002.

Now, East Timor is one of the many countries in the world still struggling to recover from centuries of outside control. Since their recognition the country has been rocked by political instability and violence. A protest turned riot in 2006 forced over 20,000 residents to flee the capital city and resulted in 40 deaths between rioters and military. Large numbers of the military have disaffected and assassination attempts plague political officials. It occurs to me that perhaps it is difficult to stop fighting when your environment has taught you that it is the only way to live. Sure, Indonesia is gone, but there will always be an opposition whether it be political or civil or authoritarian. After centuries of armed opposition, how do you stop killing your enemies?
For the men and women who suffered for so long through the cruelty of Indonesian occupation, it must be incredibly disheartening to see that the violence did not end with independence. And it must be even more disheartening to know that the war criminals of Indonesia have yet to be punished. In fact, in 2005 East Timor chose to pursue something called the joint Indonesia - Timor Leste Truth and Friendship Commission, which provides no prosecutions for the perpetrators of war crimes from 1975-1999.
As usual, it seems, it's not even that we forgot about this country. We never even knew it existed in the first place.

"The path pursued by these two governments has weakened the rule of law in both countries... The victims need a clear commitment by the Indonesian and Timor-Leste governments and the United Nations to investigate all allegations and bring to justice those responsible for the grave human rights violations committed between 1975 and 1999." - Donna Guest, Amnesty International.

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