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East Timor Independence Day: May 20, 2002


When is hopelessness a reasonable response to a terrible situation?

Surely, the East Timorese people during the last quarter of the last century might have been forgiven for succumbing to despair. After all, this half-island nation had been invaded and illegally occupied by the neighboring military giant, Indonesia, which was aided and abetted by the world’s most powerful nations. The rest of the international community mostly stood by and watched while U.S.- and British-made weapons helped kill a third of the East Timorese population, devastate villages, and send hundreds of thousands into hiding in the jungle.

British journalist John Pilger wrote that when he first entered the country in 1993, he had “no idea that much of the country was a mass grave, marked by paths that end abruptly, fields inexplicably bulldozed, earth inexplicably covered with tarmac; and by the legions of crosses that march all the way from Tata Mai Lau, the highest peak, 10,000 feet above sea level, down to Lake Tacitolu, where a calvary line of crosses looks across to where the Pope said mass in 1989 in full view of a crescent of hard salt sand beneath which, say local people, lie human remains.”

But now Tacitolu will play a far different role in East Timorese history. It will be the home of the main Independence Day events scheduled for midnight on May 19th. On May 20th, East Timor will become the world’s newest nation, gaining independence after nearly 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule, 24 years of Indonesian occupation, and two years of transition time under the UN.

This is a magnificent moment in world history, for many reasons, not least of which is that it is a victory “won after great hardship and against overwhelming odds.” The East Timor Action Network’s (ETAN’s) open letter to the people of East Timor continues, “Your victory against occupation by the fourth largest country backed by the world’s most powerful nation gives hope and inspiration to all who work for genuine democracy, human rights and self-determination.”

While the East Timorese honor us with their gift of exemplary courage and resilience, “the world’s most powerful nation” prepares its own trademark birthday gift — resumption of military aid to Indonesia, East Timor’s neighboring human rights abuser. Already responsible for more than 200,000 East Timorese deaths during the occupation, the Indonesian military left East Timor in a “smoking ruin” (according to Human Rights Watch) in the weeks immediately following East Timor’s independence referendum in August 1999.

Despite the fact that not a single military officer has yet to be held criminally responsible in a court of law, and despite the Indonesian military’s ongoing domestic human rights abuses, President Bush and his administration are paving the way toward restoring military aid.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld recently stated, “I think it is unfortunate that the United States does not today have military-to-military relationships with Indonesia. I am certainly hopeful that we will be able to re-establish them in one way or another.”

The administration has already taken several steps to override important Congressional restrictions on military aid for Indonesia. In December, federal funding was approved for a “Regional Defense Counter-Terrorism Fellowship Program.”

Congressional human rights restrictions won’t limit who can participate in the new program, as it is directly administered by Rumsfeld’s Defense Department. In March, as part of a supplemental appropriations request, President Bush asked for $16 million to train Indonesian military, police and civilian personnel in “counter-terrorism, humanitarian and peacekeeping activities.” If this request is approved, tens of millions more could be made available for training, military equipment, and other military assistance.

While Bill Clinton and former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Holbrooke help the East Timorese celebrate their independence on May 20th, tens of thousands of forcibly displaced East Timorese will not be able to attend the festivities. For two and a half years, they have been stuck in refugee camps in West Timor, where they are essentially held captive by Indonesian paramilitary guards.

Among the many challenges East Timor faces as a new nation is avoiding the pitfalls of debt that so many developing countries experience. ETAN/U.S. and East Timor solidarity activists around the world aim to support East Timor’s desire to use funding for health care, education, and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, rather than servicing high-interest loans.

“Activists have a unique chance to take pre-emptive action — to prevent the stranglehold of structural adjustment, loans, and the vicious cycle of poverty from putting its deadly grip on the new country,” according to ETAN. (Inter Press Service, Emad Mekay, May 13, 2002)

Many formerly colonized nations gain political independence only to find their economies largely dictated by outside forces, namely, the international financial institutions that make grants and loans available but only with specific strings attached.

At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, this year, a delegate from East Timor asked Noam Chomsky’s advice about how East Timor might negotiate entering the global economy, specifically how it might avoid losing its hard-won independence now that it is vulnerable to the extremely powerful international financial institutions.

Chomsky answered that only the East Timorese could decide how to best make their way through these difficult decisions, but he advised that they be students of their own history. In particular, they should look at their own remarkable struggle, how they were victorious in what could rightfully have been called a lost cause, and how they eschewed hopelessness in the most desperate of situations.

On May 20th this year, take a moment to celebrate with the East Timorese. As activists, our lives are crowded with crises. We constantly sift through devastating news and make impossible judgements about how best to respond. Winning seems impossible. It is tempting to consider giving up. But the East Timorese did not. They organized. They waited. They eventually won. If they can do it…

The struggle continues.

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Contact the East Timor Action Network (www.etan.org) to see how you can help stop resumption of military aid to Indonesia, pressure the UN for an international tribunal for Indonesia’s war criminals, bring the East Timorese refugees home, and help keep East Timor debt free. Listen to Amy Goodman’s broadcast of Independence Day events by logging on to www.democracynow.org.

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Cynthia Peters is a freelance writer, editor and political activist. She can be reached at [email protected] Thanks to ETAN for help with this piece.

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