East Timor: Towards Rwanda

By Scott Burchill

When an extraordinary 98.6% of eligible East Timorese voted last Monday (30 August) to decide whether their political futures lay as members of an autonomous province of the Republic of Indonesia or as citizens of an independent state, the early signs were ominous for Jakarta and the pro-integrationists. It wasn't just the extraordinary sight of people who had never decided their own political destiny queuing before dawn outside 800 UN polling stations scattered around the territory. It was the realization that months of intimidation and terror by Indonesian-directed militias had failed to deter the East Timorese from determining their future political arrangements.


A History of Betrayal

The commitment to self-determination by individual East Timorese is even more remarkable in light of their betrayal by others over the last twenty-five years. After three centuries of colonial neglect, Portugal abruptly left in 1975 without preparing the territory for independence. Exploiting both the opportunity that followed Portugal's departure and the anti-Communist sympathies of neighbouring states, Indonesia illegally invaded the territory in late 1975, falsely claiming to have been invited in by popular consent. It's subsequent brutal twenty-four year occupation, which has cost the lives of as many as 200,000 East Timorese or one third of the population, constitutes in Noam Chomsky's assessment the worst slaughter relative to a population since the holocaust.

The invasion of East Timor and subsequent repression of its population would not have been possible without Western complicity. The United States and the United Kingdom gleefully sold Jakarta the weapons it needed to kill the civilian population and hunt down the military resistance which had fled to the mountains.

Australia's role was even more shameful. In 1985 Indonesia's most important neighbor, gave explicit de jure recognition to Jakarta's illegal annexation of the territory so that four years later it could sign a treaty (1989 Timor Gap Treaty) with the occupying power to jointly exploit the oil and gas reserves of the Timor Sea. Successive Australian Governments placed commercial and defense ties before human rights, forging closer economic relations with the Suharto dictatorship (APEC) while training Indonesian military officers in the art of warfare (1995 Australia-Indonesia Security Agreement).

Exculpation of Jakarta for each outrage committed by ABRI (the Indonesian military, now TNI) in East Timor became almost reflexive behavior in Canberra and in sections of the Murdoch press. Public opinion in Australia, consistently at odds with Government policy towards Indonesia and East Timor, had to be frequently, if unsuccessfully hosed down. It was also normal for Canberra to defend Jakarta's actions in the capital cities of the West. In 1982 former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appeared at the UN General Assembly Fourth (Decolonisation) Committee, arguing the case for withdrawing the issue of East Timor from the business of the United Nations. Gareth Evans, Australia's foreign minister at the time, dismissed the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre as "an aberrant act" and later flew to the US to berate the editorial staff of the New York Times for its unhealthy preoccupation with Suharto's human rights record.

Meanwhile, those who campaigned for human rights and self-determination in East Timor were regularly defamed in the Australian press by journalists and lobbyists for the Suharto dictatorship as "anti-Indonesian" and "racist". Former Australian Ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, claimed that "the East Timor lobby should accept that the time for an act of self-determination after 20 years has passed and that demanding independence is a lost cause which raises false hopes, prolongs conflict and costs lives". Similarly, former foreign minister Evans argued that Indonesia's takeover of East Timor was "irreversible" and that "it's quite quixotic to think otherwise".


From Joy to Tragedy

Despite the best efforts of Canberra, London, and Washington, the extraordinary courage and resistance of the East Timorese was finally acknowledged in 1996 with the awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to East Timorese Catholic Bishop Carlos Bello and resistance leader Jose Ramos Horta. Two years later, in May 1998, Suharto's fall from power in Jakarta provided a new window of opportunity for the resolution of the conflict. Portugal and Indonesia, under President Habibie, recommenced negotiations at the United Nations which eventually resulted in an agreement, signed on 5 May this year, to give the people of East Timor the choice of independence or integration with Indonesia in a popular vote. The result of that ballot was announced by Kofi Annan last Saturday (4 September). A decisive 78.5% of the population had spurned Jakarta's offer of special autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia, electing instead for independence.

Despite the skill of UNAMET, the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor, and the overwhelming preference of the East Timorese for independence, the popular consultation has been held in neither a peaceful nor a free or fair environment. East Timor's resistance leader Xanana Gusmao was unable to campaign during the popular consultation and remains under house arrest in Jakarta. His deputy Jose Ramos Horta is still barred from entering his homeland by the Habibie Government.

Even more disturbing, however, is the collapse of law and order in the territory, the result of a major flaw in the Tripartite Agreement signed in New York on 5 May. Article 3 of the agreement states that "the Government of Indonesia will be responsible for maintaining peace and security in East Timor in order to ensure that the popular consultation is carried out in a fair and peaceful way in an atmosphere free of intimidation, violence, or interference from any side". To say that the Government of Indonesia has not fulfilled its obligations under the agreement is to fail to convey the partisan behavior of Indonesia's security forces.

In the days since the ballot, pro-Jakarta militias have freely roamed around East Timor killing suspected independence supporters and locally engaged UN staff, harassing and attacking journalists, and forcing the evacuation of provincial towns. These death squads, which have been given a license to exact revenge against anyone associated with the ballot, are the creation of Indonesia's security forces, directed by Indonesian intelligence operatives and, courtesy of the local Indonesian police, are immune from prosecution and agreements demanding their disarmament. At the time of writing, East Timor is rapidly descending into anarchy as Indonesia's security forces openly collude with the militias in the slaughter of the population throughout the territory. The foreign media has been driven out of the territory and as many as 150,000 people have been displaced from their homes.


The Responsibility of the International Community

Indonesia's security forces are only free to terrorize the population because, under the 5 May Tripartite agreement, Portugal and the UN granted Indonesia it's demand to be solely responsible for maintaining law and order up until the conclusion of the ballot. UN Security Council resolution 1246 (1999) confirms that it is "the responsibility of the Government of Indonesia to maintain peace and security in East Timor....in order to ensure that the consultation is carried out in a fair and peaceful way and in an atmosphere free of intimidation, violence, or interference from any side and to ensure the safety and security of United Nations and other international staff and observers in East Timor". Indonesia is clearly and brazenly breaching international law.

As the slaughter in East Timor intensifies, the international community has belatedly acknowledged the need for deploying an armed multilateral peacekeeping force. The UN, as it did in Rwanda in 1994, claims it will take weeks and possibly months before such a mission can be constituted. In the short term, only a rapid deployment force from a coalition of willing states (including Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand and the U.S.) can avert yet another humanitarian catastrophe in East Timor.

The moral responsibility for the atrocities being committed in East Timor must be shared by those states which are waiting for Jakarta's permission before sending in an armed peacekeeping force. Unlike in the cases of Kosovo or Iraq when the international community didn't hesitate to breach national sovereignty, there is no legal basis for Indonesia's sovereign claim on East Timor. East Timor is a non-self-governing territory of the United Nations General Assembly (UN Charter, Chapter XI) and Portugal is the administering authority. Only Australia explicitly recognizes the legitimacy Jakarta's annexation of East Timor: the United Nations does not.

According to Article 6 of the Tripartite Agreement, following the vote for independence, "the Government of Indonesia shall take the constitutional steps necessary to terminate its links with East Timor thus restoring under Indonesian law the status East Timor held prior to 17 July 1976, and the Governments of Indonesia and Portugal and the Secretary-General shall agree on arrangements for a peaceful and orderly transfer of authority in East Timor to the United Nations. The Secretary-General shall, subject to the appropriate legislative mandate, initiate the procedure enabling East Timor to begin a process of transition towards independence".

Three points can be drawn from this.

First, Indonesia does not have the discretion to ignore the result of the ballot. If the Timorese opt for independence, Indonesia must sever all links and claims it has over the territory.

Secondly, the implementation of the ballot is not contingent upon Indonesia's domestic constitutional and legal processes. Whether or not President Habibie recommends a separation to the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) when it convenes in October and whether or not the MPR ratifies the ballot is of little consequence as far as the UN is concerned.

Thirdly, under this scenario East Timor becomes, even in Indonesia's eyes, a non-self-governing territory of the UN General Assembly. Under Chapter XI of the UN Charter, this places an obligation upon Portugal (not Indonesia) as the current administrator of the territory to promote and develop the process towards self-government: to help prepare the path towards independence.

In the weeks leading up to the ballot, it was clear to most observers that Indonesia's security forces had no intention of maintaining law and order in East Timor and that a UN authorized armed peacekeeping mission would be required to prevent the Jakarta-backed militias from slaughtering the population. Preparations for such a mission, initiated by the United States, were thwarted by the Australian Government which sought to avoid upsetting Indonesia's armed forces. The consequent delay, and Canberra's insistence that nothing can be done until Jakarta invites the UN into East Timor will cost thousands of lives. The West's shameful betrayal of the people of East Timor continues.

Scott Burchill
6 September, 1999

Scott Burchill
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian and International Studies
Deakin University
Burwood Victoria 3125