The UN has pledged to reform East Timor’s police and military after the gun battles that tore at the heart of the new country last year. General-Secretary Ban Ki-Moon made the pledge after meeting Timorese president Jose Ramos Horta in the capital Dili on Friday. Timor-Leste has made perilous progress to democracy since its separation from Indonesia in 1999 and last year saw several weeks of anarchy and gang warfare that was only ended by a strengthening of the UN force. Now Ban promised that the UN and the international community “will fully support reform of the security force and judiciary.”
This is good news designed to protect East Timor’s fragile democracy and its hard won independence from Indonesia. The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste founded in 2002 was the world’s first 21st century sovereign state and one of the poorest. In 1975 it declared its independence from a Portugal, which was convulsed in its own struggle for democracy. But after a few short weeks of civil war between feuding parties East Timor was annexed by Indonesia.
For the next 27 years its official UN status would remain that of "self-governing territory under Portuguese administration”. This was a crucial distinction: While it was a de facto Indonesian province with the explicit and implicit approval of successive American and Australian governments, it remained on the UN agenda. But the cold war imperatives that caused the US to overlook Suharto’s excesses no longer existed in the 1990s. With the world seeing film footage of Indonesian atrocities, the tide turned and by 1999 with Suharto gone, Indonesia offered a surprise independence referendum. 78.5 percent of East Timorese voted in favour of independence.
The story of the former Portuguese colony’s long road to freedom is achingly told in David Scott’s Last Flight Out of Dili. David Scott has devoted much of his life to the cause of Timor-Leste. He was one of the last Australians to set foot in the colony before Indonesia’s illegal invasion in 1975. He was there on behalf of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid charged with the mission of finding out the consequences of Fretelin’s unilateral declaration of independence from Portugal. As the Indonesian forces closed in, he stayed on to help at Dili hospital. He was eventually evacuated with the last flight out of the country avoiding the inevitable execution that awaited those few foreigners that remained.
That fate had befallen five journalists for Britain, Australia and NZ two months earlier on the border between West and East Timor. They became known by the border town in which they were slain: the Balibo Five. They were executed under the orders of Indonesian commanding officer Yosfiah Younus who would become Minister of Information in the 1998-99 government of BJ Habibie.
After the Indonesian invasion, responsibility for resistance fell to the 35,000 strong Falintil (Armed Forces for the Liberation of Timor) who fought from the mountains for next 24 years. Thousands of civilians gave clandestine support and sent reports to the outside world in the face of a media blackout. They faced a 30,000 strong Indonesian army equipped with the latest in American and British equipment. Casualties were roughly even on both sides, about 13,000 to 15,000 died on each side.
Scott accused Australia of four major betrayals in the long independence struggle. The first was in World War II. He quotes Swiss historian Henry Frei who says Japan had no intention of invading neutral Portuguese Timor. Portugal was determined to remain neutral to be a negotiating channel. However a force of 400 Australian troops landed in the province giving Japan the excuse to invade. 40,000 Timorese died in the subsequent occupation.
Scott cites the second betrayal as Gough Whitlam’s support for Timorese integration with Indonesia in 1975 before President Suharto himself was totally convinced by his generals. Throughout his political career Whitlam remained a staunch supporter of Indonesia’s right to the province. Whitlam was aware about the Balibo attack and told the Indonesians his government would not stand in the way of an invasion. His legacy was upheld by the Fraser government that replaced him after the December 1975 dismissal. Australia refused Jose Ramos Horta entry for 8 years and closed down a Darwin radio station that was the only link to Timor from the outside world. The Hawke, Keating and Howard governments that followed Fraser all supported the ‘de jure’ status of Indonesia’s occupation.
The third betrayal occurred in 1999 after the UN Security Council guaranteed the East Timorese the right to campaign and vote in the referendum without fear. This was subverted by Indonesian army elements that conducted a campaign of terror, organised militias, and tried to intimidate people into not voting for independence. Then after the vote, the embittered Indonesians unleashed a scorched earth policy of revenge that levelled East Timor's towns and villages and left hundreds dead. Not until Dili was destroyed did Australia offer troops to lead a UN intervention force.
Scott says that there was a fourth betrayal that occurred around the same time. Australia had intelligence intercepts of Indonesian army plans to terrorise the population ahead of the referendum and also knew about its plan to destroy the new nation if the referendum succeeded. But John Howard’s government refused to divulge this information to either Indonesia or the UN.
It wasn’t until Australian NGOs and unions took action, did the Government move. The level of public anger about the rape of East Timor took many by surprise and it was grassroots action that had the most effect. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) banned the movement of all Indonesian freight. Churches and community organisations protested about the tragedy that was apparently happening “next door”. Finally an 8,000 strong multi-national InterFET (International Force for East Timor) contingent led by Australian Major-General Peter Cosgrove arrived in the country. They showed great skill negotiating Indonesian acceptance of the mission and the Indonesian withdrawal.
On 29 December 1999, the Indonesian flag was lowered for the last time in Dili. The UN became the transitional authority with a two year timetable for rebuilding and preparing East Timor for self-government. Portugal finally recognised its old colony’s independence in May 2002 as did Indonesia and Timor-Leste took its seat in the UN three months later. But the transition has been painful.
Fierce fighting between former allies broke out in May 2006 and there were renewed clashes in the run-up to the 2007 presidential election. That election was won by 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta. He now says he wants Australian-led international troops to stay at least until the end of 2008 and the U.N. mission until 2011. "We will review it along the way together with the United Nations," Ramos-Horta told reporters after meeting Kevin Rudd today. "We should not repeat the mistakes of the past, a hasty withdrawal of the UN and our friends."