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Timor-Leste dancing to Indonesia's tune despite 20 years of independence

Dili celebrates a vote that sparked bloody carnage as Papua descends into violence
Timor-Leste dancing to Indonesia's tune despite 20 years of independence

East Timorese youths clean public buildings ahead of the Aug. 30 celebrations marking 20 years since the vote for independence. (Photo by Luke Hunt/ucanews.com)

Published: September 02, 2019 07:23 AM GMT
Updated: September 02, 2019 07:46 AM GMT

Across Timor-Leste’s capital Dili, the red, yellow and black flags were fluttering, the streets were cleaned and public buildings given a lick of paint last week before hundreds of foreign dignitaries arrived for the 20th anniversary of a vote that sparked bloody carnage.

Back in 1999, violence erupted four days after the Aug. 30 independence vote. Over the next three weeks 1,500 people were killed and another half million were forced to flee before United Nations peacekeepers landed, restored order and ensured independence.

Pomp and ceremony were the order of the day on the anniversary. Across this tiny Catholic country, people wore their Sunday best and proudly waved their country’s flag as medals were dished out to those who helped end Indonesia’s 24-year occupation.

But the undercurrents of the elaborate ceremonies were strong.

Timor-Leste is blighted by corruption and poverty with real unemployment above 70 percent. No one has been held accountable for the slaughter — that includes the U.N. — and Dili’s response to honest questions about difficult subjects was hardly befitting of a fledgling democracy.

Journalists were told not to ask or write about the troubled Indonesian province of Papua, which erupted into violence — some say war — as U.N. veterans in Timor-Leste were quaffing champagne and toasting their success two decades ago in delivering Dili its sovereignty.

Sober heads, however, were more forthcoming. Military, police, lawyers and bureaucrats from different countries were blunt in their assessment that the ramping up of the simmering conflict in Papua — and from some quarters demands for self-determination — began a year ago.

In Jayapura, that culminated in two weeks of violence timed to coincide with Timor-Leste’s anniversary and sparked by racist jibes. Protesting students were killed as a video of Indonesian reinforcements being deployed on military aircraft was shared online.

Also passed online were videos of Indonesia deploying helicopters and hunting down local tribesmen, armed with bow and arrows, and blasting them with rocket-propelled grenades.

“What happened here is now happening there,” said one official, who declined to give his name, from the balcony of the Esplanade on Dili’s now peaceful riverfront.

And what happened here two decades ago was rape, torture and murder. People were butchered with machetes en masse, and the U.N. could do little about it after sending in an unarmed bunch of observers who were ill-prepared to deal with the results and the expected reprisals.

Former U.N. observer Zelda Grimshaw says there is much anger that observers were evacuated and left people to face the pro-Indonesian militias alone. (Photo by Luke Hunt/ucanews.com)

Slaughter by militias

Among them was U.N. observer Zelda Grimshaw. She had been monitoring public transport and the streets around Dili, which were emptying fast once the ballot results were known. Pro-Jakarta militias, enraged by the success of the independence movement, had begun the slaughter.

“There’s still a lot of grief there about what happened and anger at the U.N. because they promised to stay,” Grimshaw said. “Everybody knew independence would win and the U.N. knew there would be reprisals, but they didn’t have a contingency plan.”

Instead, the U.N. electoral observers were evacuated to Darwin while the U.N. and countries like Australia cobbled together a peacekeeping force that would return on Sept. 20 and restore order.

“By the time peacekeepers arrived, the pro-Indonesian militias had got what they wanted: mass deportations and a scorched-earth policy,” Grimshaw added.

There is a list of 400 of people, compiled by one Western law enforcement agency, who should have been prosecuted for crimes against humanity in The Hague. Nothing happened and many on that list have since been redeployed to Papua.

A young boy sells eggs in the street in Timor-Leste, which remains blighted by poverty. (Photo by Luke Hunt/ucanews.com)

Economics of compliance

Timor-Leste is doing its best to please its former masters in Jakarta. That’s because it remains dreadfully poor. By all accounts people here are much happier than they were five, 10 and 15 years ago. But compared with countries that share a similar recent history, such as Cambodia, Timor-Leste has not pushed ahead in the economic stakes.

Corruption is often blamed on pro-Indonesian cliques who did not leave after 1999 and East Timorese who did flee but have since returned from diasporas in Mozambique.

The coterie around independence heroes such as Xanana Gusmao — elected to office once their war was won — are renowned for their guerrilla tactics and bravery in the nearby mountainous jungles, but city-slicker economics, business and finance are not their strongest suit.

It’s a problem exacerbated by isolation. Cambodia has shared borders with relatively thriving economies in Thailand and Vietnam, membership of ASEAN and free trade across the region, and a strategic position that has attracted big-spending China.

Timor-Leste has none of that, compounding its dependency on Indonesia and compromising its sovereign rights over what it can and cannot say.

That includes the explosive situation in Papua where, by the time the ceremonies were done, perhaps eight people, including an Indonesian soldier, were dead and another 28 arrested in Jayapura, where two weeks of protests simply underlined the ongoing conflict in the remote jungles.

The next round of celebrations in Timor-Leste are slated for Sept. 20, marking 20 years since the cavalry arrived — international forces led by Australia with permission to shoot first and save the people who believed in the U.N. and their right to self-determination.

It’s a scenario the Papuans are unlikely to enjoy. Wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan nationhood, is grounds for arrest.

Given Timor-Leste’s experience, its attempt to shut down the sensitive issue of Papua is a crying shame, particularly while remembering the bravery of those who died when casting a ballot that would deliver the country’s independence.

That lack of moral fiber has cast a distinctive pall over what should have been a celebration of East Timorese nationhood.

The greater tragedy is that there will be no cavalry for the Papuans; no vote for self-determination or U.N. peacekeepers, just a long, nasty civil conflict with no end in sight. One would hope officials in Dili will remember that as the next round of celebrations get underway.

Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews.com. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.

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