The East Timorese of Western Sahara

Scott Burchill


was an extraordinary year for revolutionary upheavals in the Third World. The

Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April just two weeks before the US puppet

regime in Saigon collapsed. The Pathet Lao took control of Laos the following

month and later in the year Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tome and Angola

achieved their independence from Portugal. In November, after weeks of covert

subversion, Indonesia formerly invaded and occupied another Portuguese colony,

East Timor.


the very moment that Indonesian forces began to parachute into Dili, the

dilution of colonial power in Africa triggered an event of striking historical

similarity in the deserts of the Western Sahara.


years earlier the Frente Polisario (Fretilin) had been formed by the indigenous

people of the Western Sahara (East Timor) to campaign for Spain’s (Portugal)

withdrawal from its colonial outpost. But before a UN-sponsored act of

self-determination could be held, neighbouring Morocco (Indonesia) invaded in

November 1975 and occupied the northern phosphate-rich sector of the country.

Later in the month the departing colonial power, Spain, agreed to a partition of

the territory between Morocco and Mauritania, which had also staked a claim.

Faced with fierce guerrilla resistance from Polisario, Mauritania withdrew its

claim on the territory in 1979, allowing Morocco to occupy the southern part of

the region as well, where it remains today.


its violation of international law, protests from the UN, and a reluctance to

participate in an internationally-supervised referendum on self-determination

planned for 1992 – which it knows it would lose – Morocco’s ongoing occupation

prevents Africa’s last colony from achieving its independence.


crimes committed against the Saharawis are all too familiar to the people of

East Timor. Morocco has breeched a UN negotiated ceasefire, transmigrated people

in order to stack any forthcoming independence ballot in its favour, and

imprisoned hundreds of Saharawis in appalling conditions in Moroccan jails on

suspicion of supporting Polisario. Human rights abuses, including terrifying

attacks on Saharawi civilians, have been commonplace over the last 25 years.

Many people have fled to safety in Algeria, with over 180,000 in refugee camps.

And just as Indonesia maintained its occupation of East Timor with the help of

US and UK supplied high tech weaponry, so too does Morocco maintain its

"defensive wall of sand" against Polisario guerrillas with the support

of US-supplied detection technology.


Indonesia’ occupation of East Timor, no country recognises Morocco’s illegal

occupation of Western Sahara. Though the Saharawi republic is acknowledged by

more than seventy countries and is a member of the Organisation of African

Unity, it remains technically a non-self governing territory of the United

Nations. Like its fellow former Iberian colony, its chance for independence was

thwarted by an aggressive and avaricious neighbour.


played an honourable role in contributing a signals contingent to a peacekeeping

mission in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) from 1991 until 1994, but has since lost

interest in the operation. To the great powers allegedly concerned by ethnic

cleansing in the Balkans, the humanitarian crisis in the Sahara barely flickers

on their radar screens. The UN, tired of Morocco’s prevarication on the

registration of voters, seems too exhausted to bring the ballot on with the same

dedication it demonstrated elsewhere in 1999. And yet the need is equally



the East Timorese before them, the people who live on the north-west coast of

Africa contend with an even more powerful force than neighbourhood terrorism.

They confront what a South American victim of torture described as the

"blind indifference of a merciless, unfeeling world."  


Burchill Lecturer in International Relations School of Australian &

International Studies Deakin University 221 Burwood Highway Burwood Victoria

3125 Australia   

Leave a comment