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Timor-Leste, forged in blood, struggles with peace and independence

Twenty years after a vote for self-determination, East Timorese remember the bloodshed that followed
Timor-Leste, forged in blood, struggles with peace and independence

Former East Timor militia leader Eurico Gutteres speaks to journalists at North Jakarta district court in January 2001. Guterres was convicted for his role in massacres in Timor-Leste and sentenced to 10 years in jail but was never incarcerated. (AFP photo)

Published: August 28, 2019 03:36 AM GMT
Updated: August 28, 2019 03:37 AM GMT

Timor-Leste is a country forged out of violence. Three hundred years of Portuguese colonialism were marked by tribal brawling, and infighting was a tradition that would undermine efforts to provide a united front against Indonesian occupation in the final decades of the last century.

Isolated and impoverished, its tiny population of just 650,000 endured the heavy hand of Indonesian president Suharto soon after Lisbon said goodbye to an old colony in 1975 with a broken promise to hold a referendum on self-determination.

At least 120,000 people died of famine and conflict within the first four years of annexation by Indonesia, with any sense of resistance blighted by infighting and any thought of independence a distant dream.

That changed in 1991 with the massacre of at least 250 pro-independence mourners at a funeral in the Santa Cruz cemetery. It proved a rallying cry, unifying forces once divided by clans and tribes behind charismatic resistance leader Xanana Gusmao.

Decades of violence culminated in a last stand this week in 1999. Suharto was ousted amid a financial crisis and a new government, goaded by the international community to resolve the issue once and for all, called a snap vote on self-determination for Aug. 30.

Turnout was 98.5 percent and five days later the United Nations announced that 78.5 percent of voters had chosen independence. Pro-Jakarta militias were incensed and leader Eurico Guterres took to the airwaves to call for the slaughter of independence supporters.

The response was brutal. More than 1,500 people were killed, half a million people fled, buildings were razed and U.N.-backed observers with 1,300 local staff, among many others, were evacuated to Darwin in Australia.

A slaughter to be remembered

Australian foreign correspondent Craig Skehan covered the bloody events once the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) pulled out amid reports Guterres’ militias were hunting down anyone tied to the pro-independence movement.

“Guterres was their leader and after orchestrating massacres in East Timor, he was helping to hunt down pro-independence supporters who had fled to Indonesian West Timor,” he said.

“Foreign and local humanitarian workers were doing their best to protect them. But there were cases of people being kidnapped from refugee camps and killed. One refugee talked about two men being trussed like pigs before they were slaughtered.”

Timor-Leste's spiritual leader Bishop Carlos Belo, Gusmao and Portuguese officials all accused Indonesia of colluding with paramilitaries in perpetrating the massacres and attempting to cover up the carnage.

Belo fought back tears while describing how at least 25 people were hacked to death or shot. At a press conference in Jakarta, Gusmao and Portuguese diplomat Ana Gomes said his supporters had been “killed like animals” by paramilitaries accompanied by Indonesian soldiers.

Outside the home of Father Rafael dos Santos, the parish priest in Liquica, 2,000 people who had taken refuge were targeted by the Red and White Iron militia, backed by Indonesian soldiers who fired tear gas into the crowds.

As people fled, Gutteres’ militias chopped them down with swords. Witnesses later said three truckloads of corpses had been driven from the scene.

Like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Timor-Leste was all but obliterated. What happened was a crime against humanity and arguably a genocide, but unlike Cambodia there would be no justice for the victims.

Independence at a price

Those with blood on their hands lived on with impunity. That, according to Gerry van Klinken from the University of Amsterdam, includes Prabowo Subianto, who has twice campaigned unsuccessfully for the Indonesian presidency.

He was also head of the Indonesian special forces unit Kopassus and conducted counter-insurgency operations in East Timor in the 1980s, was an early sponsor of Gutteres and has been accused of abducting and killing student activists in 1998.

Guterres was convicted for his role in the massacres and sentenced to 10 years behind bars but was never incarcerated.

Instead, he was elected to the Indonesian parliament in West Timor, where according to Skehan there was “stark evidence of the role of the Indonesian military and other authorities in myriad gross human rights abuses.”

But the die had been cast and the bloodletting that culminated in the tumultuous events of 1999 meant U.N. peacekeepers would soon arrive to ensure Timor-Leste’s transition to independence and Indonesia formally abandoned a province that was never recognized by the U.N.

The tiny Catholic nation has not been bereft of violence since then. In 2006, the U.N. sent in security forces to restore order after 155,000 people fled their homes amid factional fighting.

Then, in early 2008, President Jose Ramos-Horta was critically wounded in an assassination attempt and Prime Minister Gusmao escaped gunfire as Australian reinforcements were deployed. U.N. peacekeeping operations remained until the end of 2012.

Timor-Leste remains blighted by poverty and its foreign relations are a mess, with the interests of much larger regional powers like Australia, Indonesia and China providing a constant challenge when deciding where the country heads next.

Still, its people fought, sacrificed and eventually won what they craved most, and few would doubt the heavy price they paid for independence was worth it.

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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