East Timor: A Forgotten Crisis

Jia You

Many things could come to mind when one imagines a hospital; but could livestock be one of them? Visit East Timor’s national hospital in 2008, and you’d see goats, pigs and chickens wandering around the premises. These walking health hazards had persisted for two years because their owners, some 1,500 refugees encamped on paths of the hospital, had lost everything else to the arson and looting that had rampaged the capital city, Dili, in 2006. One tenth of East Timor’s population had been displaced during the crisis, which erupted with fighting between police and the army; this quickly escalated into widespread communal violence. The crisis has torn the country apart and revealed the deep scars left on Timorese society after 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

The year 1975 was a turning point in the history of East Timor. The nation had declared independence from Portugal that same year, after rejecting neighboring Indonesia’s offer of annexation. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Indonesia the following month, amidst rumors of an impending Indonesian invasion; the day they left the country, Indonesian paratroops landed on Timor Island.

“The Indonesians told us that they were going to occupy the Portuguese colony of Timor,” Kissinger recalled 20 years later, when questioned by activists during a speech on his new book, Diplomacy. “To us that did not seem like a very significant event… so when the Indonesians informed us, we neither said yes or no.”

Instead, the administration doubled American weapon supply to Indonesia over the next three years ­- weapons the Indonesian troops used to massacre thousands of Timorese every year. To Ford and Carter, what mattered was not human rights records, but Indonesia’s strategic value as an anti-communist ally in Southeast Asia.

Until the Cold War ended, American ambassadors at the United Nations would block the UN from any effective action in East Timor, while the administration would consistently supply military aid to Indonesia. These refills continued even when they violated U.S. laws prohibiting the shipment of American weapons to countries that used them for aggression. As a result, one third of East Timor’s pre-occupation population disappeared.

The story could have been different. The same year the UN finally held a referendum in East Timor to determine its future status, NATO began to bomb Serbia in retaliation for killing ethnic Albanians in its Kosovo province. Serbian forces withdrew that very year, and Kosovo achieved independence nine years later. It took 27 years for East Timor to reach this kind of freedom.

And the scars of occupation didn’t heal with the independence. Years of occupation and resistance had drained East Timor’s economic resources and divided the country between the veteran resistance fighters in the East and pro-integration militia in the West. In Dili, where new arrivals from both regions competed for limited economic opportunities, such division bred a fertile ground for conflict. For this reason, discrimination against Westerners in the army created a national crisis in 2006 and turned the Dili National Hospital into a refugee camp.

But East Timor has some good news this year: The refugees have finally returned home. All refugee camps closed at the end of last year, and only 52 families remained in transitory shelters as of January 2010. What put an end to the tents was the UN peace-building mission, or the United Nations Integrated Missions in Timor-Leste (UNMIT). Deployed immediately after the 2006 crisis, UNMIT played an instrumental role in restoring stability in East Timor through its efforts in bridging political dialogues, reforming the security sector, and coordinating humanitarian relief for the refugees. The extent of UNMIT success was put to test when a radical faction of the army attacked the Timorese president and the prime minister in 2008. Contrary to the 2006 crisis, society remained stable, and the newly-elected democratic government resolved the crisis peacefully and constitutionally.

East Timor’s recent recovery once again attests to the importance of UN peacekeeping and peace-building efforts in vulnerable states. Yet the U.S. has a poor track record in supporting the UN financially. In 2009 alone, U.S. debt accounted for 90 percent of all member state debts to the UN regular budget, and Fiscal Year 2010 was the first time the U.S. paid off its debt to the United Nations since the early 1980s.

While East Timor is on the road to recovery, a similar tragedy is ongoing in Indonesia, and the Obama administration could be perpetuating that tragedy. The administration recently lifted a decade-long ban on U.S. training and military assistance to Indonesia’s special force Kopassus in an effort to strengthen bilateral cooperation in anti-terrorism. Kopassus has a notorious human rights record: it was involved in the killing of five Australian journalists in East Timor prior to the full-scale Indonesian invasion, and it has retained and promoted soldiers convicted of kidnapping student activists in 1997 and 1998. Yet the crimes of Kopassus are not only in the past. As Obama touched down in Indonesia, secret files leaked from the Kopassus showed the Kopassus engaged in systematically murdering and abducting civilian targets in the West Papua, another region annexed by Indonesia.

Apparently, not all are oblivious to what’s at stake. House representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) submitted Resolution 1355 in May that calls for the Indonesian government to stop human rights abuses in West Papua. The resolution is currently endorsed by twenty representatives. None of them are from the Illinois General Assembly.

It is time we remember the story of East Timor. We have reached a critical juncture, where our decisions could determine whether history repeats itself.

As President Obama nostalgically praised the Indonesian meatball soup during a visit to his former country this November, he has perhaps forgotten another childhood memory.

“We had arrived in Djakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times,” wrote President Obama in his book, Dreams from My Father.

He was referring to the mass killing of communist sympathizers during General Suharto’s 1965 coup.

Few remember that America actively supported Suharto’s authoritarian regime and its invasion of East Timor, a country on the south of the Indonesian archipelago. Now, as East Timor continues to suffer the repercussions of the occupation eight years after regaining its independence, President Obama could be shaping policies that perpetuate a similar tragedy as he seeks to strengthen ties with Indonesia.

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