How East Timor became Timor-Leste
A country's agonising birth
Feb 25th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
FEW countries have suffered as much, merely to be counted as countries, as did Timor-Leste, the former Indonesian province of East Timor. Under the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999, perhaps one-third of the population died before their time. Survivors suffered hunger, deprivation, torture and systematic terror. Against the odds, on August 30th 1999 the East Timorese found themselves with the chance of a vote to choose between independence or autonomy under Indonesian rule. Turnout was 98.6%. Of those, four in five voted for independence.
The author of this fine book, Geoffrey Robinson, was there that day, as a member of the United Nations mission that organised the poll. Before that, as an academic and human-rights researcher, he was one of a small doughty band of foreigners who helped keep East Timor alive as an international issue, at a time when most governments preferred to cultivate good ties with Suharto, Indonesia’s dictator.
Mr Robinson was also there in the nightmarish aftermath of the referendum: as Indonesian-sponsored militias trashed the country, hundreds died and terrified refugees took shelter in the UN compound in Dili. That period provides the book’s title. “If you leave us here, we will die,” was what a Timorese woman in the compound told a visiting UN delegation.
But in fact the title sells both East Timor and the book seriously short. That a second genocide was averted in the country should not conceal the ugly truth that the outside world ignored and connived at the first, in the terrible years after Indonesia’s invasion. And the title misrepresents the book because, though enlivened by the narrative of Mr Robinson’s own time as a participant in and eyewitness to the events described, it is also a subtle and nuanced work of history and analysis.
It contrasts the way the world looked the other way in 1975 with the swift intervention by an Australian-led peacekeeping force in 1999. That was in part a consequence of press attention, the courage of the East Timorese and a unique, brief period in history when “liberal interventionism” seemed to have a future. It also owed something to a collective sense of guilt over past atrocities in Srebrenica, Rwanda and East Timor itself.
As for Indonesia, the behaviour of its soldiers and their local allies was sadly not an aberration. The outcome was predictable as soon as the flawed UN mandate put the security for the referendum in the hands of the main threat to it: the Indonesian army. Mr Robinson traces the violence back to the Suharto regime’s original sin, the massacre of hundreds of thousands as it took power in 1965-66.
The strategies of violence, he notes, were “implicitly legitimised”, not just because of the state’s involvement, but because the criminals were never punished. Ten years on not a single Indonesian official has been convicted of any crime in East Timor, and the idea of an international tribunal has been, in effect, ditched.