Oldest among its European competitors, the Portuguese transcontinental empire lasted the longest, collapsed the fastest, and left the most bloodshed and ruin behind it. It owed its durability to Portugal’s own backwardness and poverty – which ruled out the ambitious modernising colonialisms of industrial America, France, England and the Netherlands – and to its strategic position in Spain’s armpit, at the mouth of the Mediterranean, which earned it for centuries the backing of London’s naval might. It collapsed fastest because of the bizarre longevity of the Salazarist dictatorship, and its fanatical determination to fight three Vietnam Wars simultaneously – in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, thousands of miles apart from one another – with a half-mercenary pre-professional army and no prospect of success. Within a year of the April 1974 coup in Lisbon, engineered by disillusioned officers, the empire was gone. The bloodshed and ruin, however, were only indirectly the responsibility of Lisbon. The atrocious 12-year ‘civil war’ endured by Mozambique was orchestrated and financed by South Africa. Pretoria and Washington bear most of the blame for the 20-year conflict in Angola. But the holocaust in Portuguese East Timor, half a small island off the northern coast of Australia, was the doing of the Indonesian dictatorship of former general Suharto – with crucial support at the outset from the United States, and later, to lesser extents, of the Governments of the big EEC states, Japan and Australia.
The course of events is ably outlined by Peter Carey in the tightly-packed text that accompanies the grim pictures taken in 1991 by the courageous British photographer Steve Cox. No anti-colonial guerrilla resistance had developed in this remote outpost of empire when the Salazarist dictatorship fell. Though the Portuguese had been there since the middle of the 16th century a modern system of roads and transportation barely existed; the 600,000-odd indigenous, largely animist, population was overwhelmingly illiterate, and spoke two dozen or more local languages. The tiny literate élite, beneath a thin stratum of Portuguese clerics and officials, was substantially mestizo, descendants not only of Portuguese and local people, but also of African soldiers occasionally deployed on the island. There was no legislature, nor political parties, and only the shadow of a press. Needless to say, there was not the slightest suggestion of decolonisation.
The left-leaning officers who had taken power in Lisbon were fully occupied with the turbulent politics of Portugal itself, and with the problems of the African territories, in which there were substantial numbers of Portuguese settlers. East Timor was largely abandoned to its own devices. When General Costa Gomes, President of the Republic at this time, later declared that he had thought it would end up like Goa, and that the neighbouring Indonesians would peacefully absorb the territory, he was not being wholly insincere. Nehru had sent his troops into Goa in 1960, without a drop of blood being shed. But he was a humane man, and the freely-elected leader of a democracy; he gave the Goanese their own autonomous state government, and encouraged their full participation in India’s politics. In every respect, General Suharto was Nehru’s polar opposite.
For a year or so after April 1974, the Government in Jakarta did everything it could, short of an invasion, to gain control of East Timor. Leaders of the fledgling East Timorese parties were cajoled, bribed and threatened, their rivalries exacerbated and manipulated. These machinations culminated in August 1975 in an Indonesian-backed coup by the UDT, the more conservative of the two substantial political parties. But the coup was quickly countered by its left-leaning rival, Fretilin, and a brief civil war ensued in which several thousands lost their lives. The UDT leaders fled over the border into Indonesian West Timor, while Fretilin took control of the colony, and began to move towards formal independence, with wide popular support according to many foreign observers.
The only option now left to Indonesia was an invasion, duly launched on Pearl Harbor Day, 1975, within hours of the departure of visiting President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger. The assault was a bloody mess, with Indonesian troops firing on each other, and committing numberless atrocities in the East Timorese capital of Dili. The East Timorese troops, armed with high-quality weapons taken from the Portuguese garrison, gave a good account of themselves; and the Fretilin Government withdrew in good order to prepared positions in the difficult mountain terrain of the interior. For two years the independent Government held its ground and the bulk of the population – a source of mounting frustration in Jakarta.
Why did Suharto, his top generals and his all-powerful intelligence apparatus take this course? The simplest answer is that they thought it would be easy. About six weeks before the invasion, two of the key military architects of policy on East Timor, Generals Ali Murtopo and ‘Benny’ Murdani, visited my university, and laughingly assured uneasy questioners that ‘it would all be over in three weeks’. Kissinger himself had advised Jakarta to ‘do it quickly’. But there were other considerations. Indochina had ‘fallen’ only a few months back, and generals who had come to power in Jakarta via the mass murder, in 1965-6, of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Communists (and others), would not tolerate an independent ‘left-wing’ state on their borders. There was also the prospect of the vast undersea oilfields known to exist off East Timor’s shores – especially attractive after the quadrupling of world oil prices in the autumn of 1973, and the extraordinary $10 billion dollar bankruptcy, early in 1975, of Indonesia’s state oil company Pertamina.
At the same time, the role of the United States was central, so central indeed that without it the invasion would probably not have happened. Ninety per cent of the weapons used for the invasion came from the US. Although their use outside Indonesia was expressly prohibited by a 1958 American-Indonesian agreement, Washington, well informed by the CIA of Jakarta’s preparations for invasion, turned a blind eye to the violation. In 1977, when the desperate Indonesian Army sought to acquire the OV-10 Bronco counter-insurgency airplanes needed for a massive aerial assault on Fretilin’s mountain redoubts, the Carter Administration secretly supplied them, while lying to the Congress and the public that an embargo on military equipment was in place. At the United Nations, the US Ambassador Patrick Moynihan did everything he could to line up support to block UN diplomatic intervention – he boasted in his memoirs of his success.
Two factors came to determine Washington’s policy. First and foremost was the gratitude of its Vietnam War-era establishment to Suharto for wiping out, in 1965-6, the largest (and legal) Communist Party in the world outside the socialist bloc (not a drop of American blood was shed) and for the economic policies he subsequently pursued which threw open resource-rich Indonesia to foreign investment and trade. Second were strategic calculations in an era when Soviet military (especially naval and air) power was at its apogee. Indonesia sprawled across the sea lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and Suharto’s secret offer to permit American nuclear submarines to pass through Indonesian waters, now including the deep channel along East Timor, without surfacing for Soviet satellite monitoring, was irresistible.
At the end of 1977, Jakarta was ready for a decisive breakthrough, using its Broncos in particular to destroy the fields and villages of the interior with bombs, napalm and chemical defoliants. Tens of thousands of villagers were forced to flee into the Indonesian-held coastal plains, where they were herded into grim ‘resettlement’ camps under Indonesian military control. Between 1977 and 1979 about one-third of the entire East Timorese population died as a result of famine, epidemics and the brutal fighting. As Peter Carey points out, this death toll was proportionately much higher than in Pol Pot’s contemporary Cambodia. But the Indonesian regime had long closed off the island from the outside world, and the American Ambassador in Jakarta colluded with the regime in keeping the tragedy from the Congress and the American public. In the meantime, virtually all the top leaders of the Fretilin Government, including its capable military commander, Nicolau Lobato, had been killed or had surrendered.
By the beginning of the Eighties, most interested observers believed the struggle was all but over. Yet today East Timor is closer to real independence than at any time in the past two decades. Carey gives a very clear explanation for this startling change. The Dutch had dominated the East Indies from the early 17th to the early 20th century without much difficulty, mostly because, like Portugal, between 1700 and 1900 the Netherlands was a weak, poor and small imperial power whose strategic location in Europe made it a useful subordinate for London. By 1900, however, the engines of Dutch capitalism were running well, and in The Hague the ‘new imperial thinking’ had taken hold. This meant massive investment in communications infrastructure in the colony. It meant the institution, to be sure on a conservative scale, of modern education for the natives. It also meant the creation of a police state, capable of surveillance and repression in a way that would have been unimaginable in the 1880s. Out of this explosive combination of development, education and repression grew, quite suddenly, the Indonesian nationalism that only a few decades later ended Dutch rule.
Suharto and his generals were, alas, poorly informed about their own country’s modern history, and so they proceeded in the Eighties to do exactly what the Dutch had done at the beginning of the century. Furthermore, like all ‘second imperialists’, they were determined to show up the deficiencies of the aged colonialisms they supplanted. So large sums were invested in East Timor’s infrastructure, mainly but by no means entirely for military purposes. They established an elaborate hierarchy of schools, and eventually a university. The number of pupils enrolled was fifty times higher than in the Portuguese era; illiteracy was reduced from 90 per cent in 1972 to 42 per cent in 1990. It was hoped that this would help to instil the Indonesian language, the New Order state ideology and loyalty to Jakarta. Under the aegis of the sinister Catholic intelligence tsar, General Murdani, an apparatus of repression was created which, because it was shielded from the view not merely of the outside world, but of most Indonesians, soon stood above the law. Anything went, and did: systematic torture, disappearances, termless imprisonments and so forth. The consequences during the Eighties were exactly those that emerged in the Dutch East Indies in the Twenties and Thirties.
By 1990, sleepy little Portuguese Dili’s population had increased more than fivefold. A greatly expanded cohort of literate, educated East Timorese had developed for whom Jakarta’s colonial-style economy offered only limited and subordinate employment. Fluent in Indonesian, as the young Indonesian nationalists seventy years earlier had become in Dutch, these youngsters now knew their rulers intimately, and through the Indonesian language had varying access to the Indonesian intelligentsia and the Indonesian press, and through both to the outside world. Moreover, they understood that they were being colonised, for all the Suharto regime’s vaunted success in promoting assimilation. There was no more striking indication of this reality than the frequency with which Jakarta spoke of their ‘ingratitude’ for all that Indonesia had done for them. Colonialists in trouble always speak of the natives’ ingratitude, nationalists never. The holocaust of 1977-9 was in the childhood memories of young East Timorese, and they had direct experience of the systematic repressions of the Eighties. In this way, Jakarta vastly deepened and widened East Timorese nationalism.
The Suharto regime unwittingly undermined its own aims by one other policy, the encouragement of Catholicisation. In the wake of the massacres of 1965-6, justified partly as a crusade against Communist atheism, the state had insisted that all Indonesians belong to some organised, recognised religion. Suspicious itself of militant Islam, it encouraged conversion by the East Timorese Catholic Church, which, in those days, it had every reason to trust. Catholic officers and civilians were a powerful presence in the country’s security apparatus and the small Catholic minority had always been quietly reliant on the regime for protection against the Muslims. By the end of the decade East Timor was overwhelmingly Catholic, not least because the Church was the only institution offering some limited protection from the military. But here an unexpected hitch occurred. Under heavy external pressure – no state except oil-greedy Australia had recognised Indonesia’s de jure absorption of East Timor – the Vatican decided to administer its East Timorese flock directly, rather than through the Indonesian episcopate. The rapidly expanding East Timorese Church was manned by indigenous clergy, who used the local lingua franca, Tetun, for their parish work and, where it was possible, Portuguese for communication with the outside world. As in an earlier Ireland, the priesthood thus became identified with the nationalism of a brutally colonised population. No one better represented this transformation than the seemingly timid young man, Carlos Ximenes Belo, named Bishop of Dili in 1983, who by the end of the decade had become a courageous, outspoken symbol of his countrymen’s endurance.
At the very end of 1988, Suharto decided, after removing Murdani from his position as Commander-in-Chief, that things were going well in East Timor and that the moment had arrived for some controlled glasnost. The country was cautiously opened up to ordinary Indonesians and even to foreign visitors, and an able young Protestant general, Rudy Warouw, was sent out to pursue a ‘soft’ policy. But the timing was unfortunate and the move in any case came far too late.
Internationally, the Cold War, which had made Suharto Washington’s darling, was coming to an end. Portugal had entered the EC, and its conscience-stricken leaders began using its veto to obstruct the Community’s commercial relations with the ASEAN, of which Indonesia was the largest member. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded and ‘absorbed’ the dubious Emirate of Kuwait, leading in February 1991 to a massive international military effort aimed, formally, at preventing him from doing exactly what Suharto had done in 1975 – occupying and ‘integrating’ a small neighbour. In Africa, Mengistu’s Ethiopia was collapsing before the military prowess of Eritrean nationalists – a case once again with close similarities to East Timor. And ever since Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976, the strength of the international human rights movement had been increasing.
With the ‘opening’ of East Timor, thousands of Indonesian carpetbaggers poured into the country to take advantage of the business opportunities that government policies and foreign donors were making available. This peaceable ‘second invasion’ by private enterprise was widely interpreted by young East Timorese as a scheme hatched in Jakarta to reduce them to a demographic minority in their own land – so that if ever a referendum on its future were held, the Suharto regime would command a stable majority for integration. The appearance of outside visitors, most notably Pope John Paul in late 1989, gave the East Timorese the sense that they had not been forgotten by the outside world, and increasingly they found opportunities to communicate with it. For the first time they began to organise demonstrations for independence, which, though harshly repressed, showed clearly that the struggle’s focus had moved from scattered armed groups in the mountains to the mass of urbanised youth.
The turning point came early on the morning of 12 November 1991, when a huge, peaceful procession of youngsters walked through Dili to the cemetery of the Santa Cruz Church to lay flowers on the grave of a young activist who had recently been killed by the Indonesian security forces. For reasons that are still unclear – few people believe that General Warouw gave the orders – two hundred or so heavily armed troops appeared and started shooting down the mourners trapped within the cemetery’s high walls. At least two hundred and fifty were killed on the spot, many others were gravely injured, and over three hundred were subsequently disappeared. Massacres of this type had often occurred before, but on this occasion they were videotaped and photographed by two intrepid Englishmen, Max Stahl and Steve Cox, who managed to smuggle their films out of the country. Stahl’s videotape, shown first on British television and then around the world, proved to have more immediate political impact than the mountains of written evidence on the 16 previous years of brutal Indonesian rule accumulated by human rights organisations.
The international uproar was so great that Suharto was forced abruptly to dismiss General Warouw and his immediate superior, the dashing Commander of Military Region 9. (Thus began a process whereby East Timor ceased to be a fast track for military promotion and became a place shrewd officers try to avoid.) When Xanana Gusmão, the poet and, after Lobato’s death, legendary leader of the guerrilla underground, finally fell into the hands of the military late in 1992, his execution was out of the question. He was tried by the regime’s complaisant judicial system, but in more or less open court, and was sentenced first to life, then to 20 years in prison. (In just this way, in late 1948, the Dutch found it impossible to execute Sukarno, the nationalist leader, and so incarcerated him. Sukarno quickly emerged to lead his country into a negotiated independence.)
Since the Santa Cruz massacre, though the repressions continue, East Timor has become for the first time an open political issue inside Indonesia. For by this time the state’s near-monopoly on information was collapsing, thanks to CNN, and especially to the fax and email revolution. The tone of official pronouncements was becoming steadily more defensive. The Foreign Minister Ali Alatas told the Indonesian press that East Timor was ‘gravel in our shoes’, and Suharto said that it was ‘a pimple on our face’ – expressions they would never have used for any province which they genuinely felt to be Indonesian. For the first time the braver Indonesian journalists investigated for themselves what was happening on the spot. Some Jakarta dailies printed ‘short stories’ which were thinly disguised accounts of the experiences of a devastated society. When the prominent environmentalist George Aditjondro of Java’s Satyawacana University spoke out openly in favour of East Timorese independence, and defied a government ban on his attendance at an international conference on East Timor in Portugal, the regime harassed him, but did not dare to imprison him. Still more striking evidence of the East Timorisation of Indonesian politics came late last year with the spectacular, minutely planned invasion of the compound of the American Embassy in Jakarta by East Timorese students – just as Suharto was welcoming Clinton and other heads of state to the APEC summit conference. Within days, the Jakarta Metropolitan Region commander, the astute, ambitious General Hendro, was dismissed – the third general to fall to the Timorese in three years. And there was nothing for it but to permit the students safe conduct into exile in Portugal.
The success of this coup de théâtre in Jakarta has had powerful reverberations in East Timor, where it is taken as yet another sign that history is now on the youngsters’ side. One outcome has been the increasing frequency of violent incidents between East Timorese youth and the (mostly Muslim) carpetbaggers who dominate provincial markets, culminating last month in urban riots across most of the territory. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the recent immigrants have been forced to flee to their homes in Celebes and Java. The regime, having earlier announced that improved conditions had permitted the withdrawal of substantial troop units, has felt compelled to send in new battalions, with the predictable consequences of massive arrests and brutalities which represent nothing but the politics of the cul de sac. While a few hardline Muslim intellectuals in Java have cynically taken up the cause of their fleeing co-religionists, demanding punishment of ‘disloyal Christians’, Suharto cannot afford to play the Islamic card: too many of his political and military associates are Catholic or Protestant; so are many influential intellectuals and powerful Sino-lndonesian businessmen. He also knows that nothing would undermine his regime faster than the prairie-fire spread of inter-religious violence out of East Timor across Indonesia’s patchwork of ethno-religious groupings.
All of this has resulted in a marked, if gradual shift in American policy. The US voted against Indonesia at the last UN Human Rights convocation in Vienna; the State Department has blocked the sale of certain military aircraft. Clinton gently lectured Suharto at the G7 meeting in Tokyo and has visibly supported the re-activated Indonesian-Portuguese talks being held under Boutros-Ghali’s aegis. In the meantime, longstanding bipartisan Congressional concern has subtly shifted from the human rights of the East Timorese toward their right to self-determination. In this shift, Suharto’s age – he is now 74 – and growing signs of popular unrest in Indonesia, as well as conflicts among the ruling élite, certainly play their role.
For Jakarta there is no way out. A return to the policies of the late Eighties is out of the question; while the ‘development’ of the Eighties has led precisely to intensification of Timorese nationalism and Catholicism. Nothing shows the awareness of this impasse better than the recently published memoirs of General Murdani. This text is primarily a boastful catalogue of its author’s political and military triumphs; but on East Timor it is wholly silent, except for an account of the botched invasion of 1975, which is blamed on unnamed superiors. Probably the final breakthrough will have to wait until Suharto’s political or physical demise, though he has shown in the past a capacity for realism and surprising démarches. No plausible successor will have the power or the capacity to resist for very long the ebb-tide of Indonesia’s imperial venture. Steve Cox’s haunting photographs and Peter Carey’s terse, informed commentary record the moment when the tide turned, and make their own contribution to its powerful undertow.