Should and would East Timor join Indonesia


Within the Portuguese colonial empire, East Timor was a sleepy outpost at the end of the world, where time stood still. It was one of the poorest areas in the world and showed all of the classic economic and political symptoms of colonial mismanagement. Portugal had not invested in economic development, schooling or health.

In 1974 the Carnation Revolution put an end to the dictatorship in Portugal and paved the way for the decolonization of the "overseas provinces". A socio-political development process could only now begin in East Timor. As early as the 1960s, a small, young East Timorese educated elite had emerged in Catholic schools, above all the seminary in Dare. Together with the few Timorese students who had come into contact with anti-colonial ideas at universities in Portugal and Lisbon, they called for national self-determination. Several political parties were formed. The Fretilin (Frente Revolutionária do Timor Leste Independente) advocated independence, the UDT (União Democrática Timorense) advocated a transitional federation with Portugal and subsequent independence, and the APODETI (Associação Popular Democrática Timorense) advocated joining Indonesia. The APODETI did not have any noteworthy support from the population. Fretilin and UDT formed a coalition government that quickly broke up. Indonesia took advantage of the tension between the parties and put the UDT on its course. The Portuguese government also signaled its consent to integration into Indonesia. She suggested that Indonesia win the hearts of the East Timorese with a targeted policy. But the Suharto regime in Jakarta relied on destabilizing measures: with its support, the UDT staged a coup and a civil war broke out, killing around 1,500 people. From this the Fretilin emerged victorious; Portugal had fled the island during the civil war, but was asked by the Fretilin to come back and end the decolonization. Portugal, torn by domestic political problems, did not see itself in a position to do this at the time. On November 28, 1975, the Fretilin unilaterally proclaimed independence. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia, using the specter of communism and under the pretext of having followed a call for help, attacked the small neighboring country of East Timor and declared it to be the 27th province six months later.

Indonesian occupation 1975-1999

Indonesia acted with the approval of the western governments, especially the USA and Australia, who saw East Timor as a possible source of unrest - even a 'Pacific Cuba' - that could endanger the stability of the Pacific region. Shortly after the loss of Indochina, the strictly anti-communist Indonesia under Suharto was a politically and strategically important partner for the Western governments. The Indonesian generals, like their Western allies, also believed that little East Timor could be taken by surprise. But the Indonesian armed forces did not come as 'liberators' and they stayed as occupiers.

Indonesia's army not only fought the armed resistance of East Timor, the Falintil (Forças Armadas de Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste), with unbelievable brutality, but also the civilian population was systematically covered with terror and violence, countless women and girls were victims of sexualised war violence.

With the final report of East Timor's National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CAVR), an official overview of human rights violations is available for the first time. As a result, up to 183,000 people lost their lives as a result of the conflict between 1975 and 1999. The persistent repression by the Indonesian armed forces turned the resistance into a broad alliance, led by East Timor's "father of the nation", Xanana Gusmão. During the period of resistance there were three fronts: the student resistance by the Clandestinos, the diplomatic front, and the armed resistance by the Falintil. During the resistance, not many people realized that music and culture are powerful and influential. Cultural resistance has played a very important role in keeping East Timorese culture alive. The spirit of music awakened the willpower and strength to fight for independence.

In order to take account of the changed form of resistance, Xanana Gusmão founded the 'National Council of Resistance of East Timor' (CNRM, later CNRT, Conselho Nacional da Resistencia Maupe, or Timorense) in 1987, which united different groups in their demands for self-determination. At the international level, the spokesman for the CNRT, José Ramos-Horta, advocated a peaceful solution to the conflict through diplomatic channels. Xanana Gusmão was captured in 1992 and sentenced to life imprisonment for rebellion and gun possession in a show trial, shortly afterwards pardoned for 20 years. Its popularity is similar to that of Nelson Mandelas in South Africa. During a state visit in July 1997, Mandela surprisingly wrested the then President Suharto from meeting Xanana outside the prison and got involved as a mediator in the East Timor conflict.

A major turning point in the history of the East Timorese resistance was the Santa Cruz massacre, which drew international attention to the country. The filmmaker Max Stahl documented how on November 12, 1991 thousands of Timorese (especially young people, members of the civil resistance) peacefully moved to the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili to bury Sebastião Gomes, who was killed by the Indonesian military was. The funeral march turned into a rally and the military opened fire on the peaceful protesters. At least 271 people were killed, 382 people were wounded and several "disappeared" in the days that followed. The world public was shocked, but it was not until Bishop Belo and the exiled politician José Ramos Horta were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 that a cautious correction of foreign policy towards Indonesia began.

Although the United Nations had never recognized the annexation - the process of decolonization was considered interrupted and Portugal was de jure the administrative power - the international community intervened late. The economic and geopolitical interests in the huge country Indonesia with its more than 250 million inhabitants and natural resources were too significant.

It is due to the East Timorese resistance and the advocacy of human rights and solidarity organizations as well as church organizations worldwide that the wall of realpolitik and ignorance with which the international community confronted the conflict could be overcome.