Independence For East Timor?

first time East Timor declared its independence, after Portuguese
colonizers withdrew in l974, it was immediately overrun by Indonesian
troops. Their occupation, until 1999, wiped out a third of the population,
but not the independence movement. In the 1999 UN-sponsored referendum,
the vote for independence was overwhelming; but the Indonesian armed
forces and their militias voted with their weapons, leaving thousands
dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and the built environment—cities
and villages alike—in ruins. 

elections for a constituent assembly that took place on August 30,
2001, after a period of United Nations tutelage, were peaceful,
even festive, passing leadership to Fretilin, the party perceived
as representing the independence movement. Following the adoption
of a constitution in March 2002, presidential elections on April
14 gave resounding victory to poet-cum-guerrilla leader- cum-statesperson
Jose “Xanana” Gusmao. He was inaugurated on May 20, as
the United Nations withdrew from a two and one-half year stint of
transitional administration. 

School of Politics 

the East Timorese returned to the polls on August 30, 2001, there
was a great deal at stake, not only for the indigenous people who
had fought so hard and sacrificed so much in pursuit of independence,
but also for the United Nations (UN) and the international aid community.
The UN, usually the most authoritative of elections monitors, was
this time around the governing body whose performance was to be
judged. With respect to East Timor, the UN had a badly blotted copybook
to clean up. 

East Timorese have yet to recover from the aftermath of the 1999
referendum. Those able to escape their burning homes with families
intact and find hiding places in the mountains were the lucky ones.
Many families were torn asunder when the Indonesian occupation forces
entrusted with “security” for the elections followed through
on their threats of retaliation against proponents of independence.
Some 1,600 of the children separated then from their parents remain

by Portugal for more than 300 years, East Timor, half of a lush
and balmy South Pacific island, had enjoyed a whiff of independence
when Portugal, undergoing its own revolution, withdrew in 1974.
But with the blessings of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger,
Indonesia, already controlling the western half of the island, launched
a full-scale invasion of the Eastern portion in 1975. Neither the
UN nor its member states ever formally recognized Indonesian sovereignty
there; but no foreign entity mounted resistance when Indonesian
forces unleashed a campaign of genocide. 

200,000 people, a third of the pre-invasion population, were killed
over the quarter-century of occupation; survivors fought harder
than ever for liberation. After President Suharto was forced out
of office in 1998, the successor government of B.J. Habibie permitted
the UN to conduct a referendum to choose between independence and
integration, as a “autonomous” province, into Indonesia. 

threats and acts of violence (between 3,000 and 5,000 were killed
in the months preceding the election) by Indonesian “security”
forces, voter turnout exceeded 98 percent, and more than 78 percent
of the voters opted for independence. Punishment was swift. U.S.-trained
Indonesian special forces and their East Timorese militias—supposedly
safeguarding voters and election results—ran amuck, killing
another 2,000. About 250,000 were driven forcibly to camps under
militia control across the border in Indonesian West Timor. Towns
and villages were leveled, properties plundered, homes and crops
burned, cattle rustled or slaughtered, irrigation systems ruined.
The capital, Dili, was rendered a ghost town, with hardly a public
building left standing. In the country as a whole, some 75 percent
of the buildings were destroyed. 

again the UN and the international community fiddled while East
Timor burned. Only Australia was willing to talk about dispatching
troops, and then only with U.S. clearance, which was slow to come.
When the Clinton administration finally announced its decision to
cut off military assistance, Indonesian forces started to withdraw.
It was not until October, however, when the smoke had cleared and
the territory’s physical infrastructure had been utterly demolished,
that the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET)
was established and reconstruction began. 

least until the elections of 2001, the Indonesian military continued
from time to time to rearm militias and filter them over the border
to stir up trouble. More than 60,000 East Timorese are still being
held hostage in refugee camps over the border in West Timor in squalid
conditions, unmonitored since September 2000. Following the murder
at that time of three of its employees serving in the camps, the
UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) withdrew all of its personnel.
Even so, the UNHCR feels obliged to stave off starvation in the
camps, so it continues to supply essentials, knowing that it is
supplying the militias as well, giving the militias further incentive
to hold hostages as an insurance policy. 

of the East Timorese with whom I spoke during the run-up to the
elections of 2001 were prepared to dismiss lightly the worst-case
scenarios of plotting by Indonesian special forces and the militias.
Election planners and monitors had to be mindful as well of a smorgasbord
of reliable means of disrupting and corrupting elections employed
elsewhere in the underdeveloped and overdeveloped world, many of
which could be especially tempting in the Timorese context. Mimicking
of the names, flags, or logos of more popular parties, for example,
can spread confusion and deceit in any electorate and could be particularly
befuddling in East Timor where 60 percent of the population is illiterate.
Nationalists suspected the chicanery of Indonesian intelligence
and its local allies in the appearance of new parties whose emblems
might be mistaken for those of Fretilin, with which most of the
population identifies. 

are also prone to attract money or violence or both, as the East
Timorese know all too well. The staging of elections in a society
just emerging from conflict is risky, as it can be expected either
to intensify polarization or to generate schisms where the unity
forged by struggle remains crucial to national reconstruction or
decision-making autonomy. 

the most part, though, Timorese social activists focused on more
immediate problems and challenges. Voter registration, in which
UN volunteers assumed a major role, was an awesome task where homes
and villages had been destroyed and residents dispersed. Voter education
was also a formidable undertaking. The punishing experience of 1999
was this electorate’s first exposure to the process since 1975;
and the objective in 2001 was different and more complex. They were
to elect delegates, representing an array of new parties, to an
assembly tasked with drawing up a constitution. Polls had shown
that few outside of Dili understood fully what the elections were
about. Most seemed to think they would be electing a president. 

UN transitional authority was just beginning a couple of months
before the election to send educators into the countryside to teach
local trainers about electoral processes and the choices voters
were to make. Local non-governmental organizations had expressed
concern that this election represented a rush to judgement. Though
other rationales were floated, premature scheduling of elections
appeared to be the main reason Xanana Gusmao had withdrawn in June
from the National Council, the consultative body representing the
indigenous population within the UNTAET structure. 

it happened, voter turnout, 91 percent in August 2001 for the election
for the Constituent Assembly, which has become the country’s
first parliament, and 86 percent for the presidential election in
April 2002, did not match the stunning 98 percent in 1999, when
voters knew they were putting lives and livelihoods at risk. But
neophyte East Timorese voters put to shame the phantom half of the
U.S. electorate, who can scarcely be bothered to turn out for a
presidential election and a U.S. political elite disinclined to
offer enough choice to lure them out. 

Security Without Truth 

East Timor’s new policy-makers gear up for the road ahead,
weighing needs against resources and options, they may come to feel
that carrying out elections and fashioning political institutions
was the easy part of birthing a new nation. To begin with, there’s
the matter of accountability for the atrocities of the past quarter-century.
Security concerns are heightened by the Bush administration’s
push to lift legislative restrictions on U.S. military aid to Indonesia. 

noted by the country’s highly respected human rights organization,
Yayasan Hak, East Timor has finally come back around to where it
was 27 years ago—that is, to the independence to which it was
then entitled. They are not likely to feel secure in their hard-won
independence so long as there are no effective international institutions
to lift the impunity of those responsible for the heinous crimes
committed against them. 

newly established International Criminal Court, to begin hearing
cases next year in The Hague, would have been the appropriate body,
but it had no jurisdiction to deal with crimes committed before
its governing treaty came into effect on July 1, 2002. Neither the
UNTAET’s serious crimes unit nor the East Timorese truth and
reconciliation commission is empowered to look beyond the new country’s
borders in pursuit of commanders and masterminds of mass violence
and destruction. An ad hoc tribunal that finally began work in Jakarta
in March has brought charges against lesser officials but is not
expected to reach into the Indonesian military’s high command. 

East Timorese nationalists continue to call for the establishment
of an international tribunal, as authorized in January 2000 by the
UN International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor. The UN should
remain committed to the creation of such a tribunal if only to clarify
events and to learn from its own monumental failure in 1999 to protect
a vulnerable people and an electoral process for which it had assumed
responsibility. For the East Timorese the absence of such a tribunal
means that conflict perpetrated by Indonesia will remain quarantined
in East Timor. Uninterred anger will remain focused on local collaborators,
rank-and-file militia, delaying social healing and clouding prospects
for much-needed community solidarity. 

centrifugal forces to be expected in post-revolutionary contexts
have also begun to take their toll on the nationalist coalition.
The Church that so strongly supported liberation for the overwhelmingly
Catholic East Timorese was not prepared to condone the full range
of liberties that women who fought and sacrificed so much now demand.
Language differences that were surmountable in the face of a common
enemy begin to divide cultures and generations when education policy
is at issue. There is no serious lack of an educated elite, but
those attending local schools before 1975 speak Portuguese, while
those educated since learned Bahasa Indonesia. Eighty-five percent
of the population speaks one of the two dozen indigenous languages.
Even dialects of the predominant Tetum vary greatly among regions
and from rural to urban areas. There is rising demand on all sides
to learn English, the de facto language of UN tutelage. 

on a Shoestring 

skeletal remains—peacekeeping forces, civilian police, a serious
crimes unit, and some international civil servants— will testify
over the next few years to what has been the UN’s first experience
in direct territorial rule. For many East Timorese, the departure
of the UN comes none too soon. Already they had seen the development
of a full-blown dual economy, with prices in Dili geared to the
pay scales of international organizations. 

UN has accomplished a great deal in the way of resurrecting physical
infrastructure, but considerably less in the provision of social
services and safety nets. Even with respect to such basic “services”
as maintenance of law and order—e.g., policing and prison management—UNTAET
was not always mindful of the requirements of due process and other
individual protections found in international law. Compounding the
frustrations of independence leaders, the UN adhered to a strategy
of limiting the role of government and the levels of local wages,
set at a fraction of those of their foreign counterparts. Meanwhile,
international financial institutions seemed to be looking, mostly
in vain, for operations or resources to privatize and to be pushing
loans to a government-in-waiting committed to avoiding the debt

all their good intentions, the UN bureaucrats and their counterparts
from the World Bank and other donor agencies were running this unique
experiment in nation-building in accordance with the only real world
model they know: colonialism. To be sure there are mountains of
paper attesting to consultation with local leaders and to grassroots
organizational efforts. There are a great many young people serving
the intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations who are
well trained in bottom-up, participatory approaches to development
and fully committed to the well-being of the East Timorese. 

are also a great many well-educated, experienced, sophisticated,
and public-spirited East Timorese serving in political roles as
well as in more than 200 local NGOs. But for the most part international
bureaucrats and local leaders have failed to connect. Those who
invested so much in the dream of independence have been fearful
that by the time an indigenous government was in place the most
crucial decisions would have been made and their mantle of office
would be a straitjacket. 

should be noted that for the East Timorese and other peoples who
must avail themselves of the services of the United Nations, the
organization’s overriding problem is not its arrogance but
its weakness. In East Timor as elsewhere, the UN has been handicapped
by the ad hoc nature of its funding. Most operations are funded
by a limited number of national donors, who may assume a proprietary
sort of interest in the manner in which the program is designed
and managed. It is pointless, then, to blame the UN, as such, for
its shortcomings. It could scarcely be expected to fulfill its mandates
effectively without more clout, which would in the first place require
more adequate funding as well as programmatic autonomy—real,
not just nominal, independence from funding sources. 


East Timorese are hopeful that Timor Gap petroleum reserves, shared
with Australia, will help to float the economy in a few years. In
the meantime, though, the new country faces an unemployment rate
estimated at 80 percent, a per capita GNP of about $340, a life
expectancy of 57 years, an infant mortality rate of 135 per 1,000
live births, and maternal mortality twice as high as the norm in
neighboring states. 

from centuries of colonialism and occupation, the East Timorese
have been advised by a parade of consultants, representing inter-governmental
and non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations,
and overdeveloped states on how to deal with the challenges of independence
in the 21st century. But most of us who are so ready to advise hail
from states where electoral credibility and independence-as-popular-sovereignty
are fast eroding and where 21st century technology camouflages a
return to 19th century social relations. 

the richest of states are unable now to tax or regulate the money-movers—multinational
banks and corporations—so as to support an adequate social
welfare system. Livelihoods and ecosystems everywhere are rendered
more vulnerable by the subversive potential of a trillion or more
dollars sloshing around in cyberspace on any day looking for quick
and dirty ways to reproduce. 

order to limit the mobility of money or to globalize the popular
regulation of it, social activists need new paradigms and more effective
strategies and organizations. Perhaps in this endeavor the East
Timorese have more to teach than we. In their struggles against
all odds, they have learned that each-against-all individualism
reaps only a nothing-left-to-lose kind of freedom; that security
can only be collective; and that security lies ultimately in the
symbiosis and mutual commitments of a just community.                    Z 

Knippers Black is a professor at the Graduate School of International
Policy Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies
in California. She has published 11 books on international politics
and development.