Watching The Painful Birth of East Timor

By Farish A. Noor, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

Seven years ago the nation-state of East Timor came into being. It was then the youngest country in the world, one of the poorest nations in Asia, and its history was written with the blood of its people who had been the victims of the forceful annexation, conquest and colonization of its greater neighbor Indonesia.

East Timor had never experienced a single day of democracy till then. Up to 1974 it was a colony of Portugal, an outcast colonial settlement at the edge of the world that was forgotten by its colonial mother-country and remembered even less by the rest of the international community. During the years of Portuguese rule the treatment of the East Timorese was so bad that local natives were not even allowed to walk on the pavements as long as there were white colonial settlers there. The Portuguese paid lip service to lofty notions of colonial governance but for all intents and purposes East Timor was a hole in the ground: Education was almost non-existent and basic social infrastructure like hospitals, universities and a local economy were not there either.

In 1974 with the political crisis in Portugal the end of the empire was near: Portugal relinquished control of East Timor that was then under the influence of leftist anti-colonialists who were thought to be proxy agents for Moscow or Peking. Suddenly East Timor was on the maps of strategists and securocrats the world over, for fear that it would fall into the hands of the Communists and become the next ‘Cuba of Asia’. With the consent and knowledge of the major Western powers including the United States of America, Britain and Australia, Indonesia’s army moved in and forcibly annexed the country at gunpoint.

For two and a half decades East Timor was ruled as a colony of Indonesia. At no point was democracy part of the agenda as Indonesia itself was hardly a democracy then. President Soeharto used his army and security services to clamp down on legitimate opposition movements in his own country and the same iron law applied to East Timor that became a dumping ground for a re-settlement campaign to re-populate the region. In time the ‘Indonesianisation’ of East Timor came about, with thousands of Javanese being moved there in order to solve the problem of over-population in Java.

At the same time the East Timorese were routinely co-opted and persecuted by the Indonesian elite who saw them as ‘ungreatful’ recipients of Indonesian governmental control.

In all this time, what has East Timor gained? Indonesia’s meddling into its affairs has left the country leaderless, with many of its prominent leaders like Xanana Gusmao forced to live abroad in exile.

East Timor’s population were inflicted with countless modes of social engineering including sterilization campaigns for its women and the routine rape, abuse, torture and murder of its prominent intellectuals, students, activists and union leaders. It was only the collapse of Soeharto’s regime in 1998 that brought an end to Indonesian rule there—and even so the Indonesian army commanders who were responsible for many of the actrocities like Generals Benny Moerdani and Wiranto have yet to face trial.

Yet despite its horrific past and the traumas inflicted upon its people, East Timor gained its independence with a ray of hope. Being a nation that had suffered the pains of exile and persecution for so long, its constitution guaranteed the right of asylum to anyone from abroad, in recognition of the asylum granted to so many Timorese over the years.

East Timor was chronically poor, under-developed and in need of manpower and skills, and it opened its doors to anyone who wanted to come and live there to help feed, clothe and educate its young population.

The crisis in East Timor today should be read in this context, as the birthing pains of a nation still coming into being. The riots in Dili and other cities of East Timor were sparked by the sacking of 600 army troops who were said to be of dubious loyalty, coming as they did from the Western part of the country. East Timor’s economy is totally un-developed and efforts to turn it into a tourist attraction have floundered thanks to the precarious security situation.

The world community does not know how to help the Timorese now, and all that we have seen so far is the dispatch of troops from Australia and Malaysia to its shores. Yet this is not what East Timor needs in the long run.

Nation-states are complex entities that are held together not only by the narrative of nationhood but also concrete institutions of state that keep the government and economy going.

Setting up East Timor as a viable country was bound to be a challenge for any technocrat, but one should have thought of Timor as a country that has had an earthquake for more than a hundred years, and where everything had to be constructed from the bottom, back to the beginning.

Instead the international community was prepared to launch the East Timorese ship of state without any of the institutional, economic and structural support it needed. This was like launching a ship without a crew and leaving it to flounder on the waves of the sea.

The governments of ASEAN should have cleared a space for East Timor in its network of trade links and inter-state co-operative ventures, experimenting with things like the ASEAN free trade triangles and other imaginative ventures that would have allowed it to quickly gain a sense of place and belonging in ASEAN and the world.

That chance has not been lost and can still be remedied. For a nation that has suffered so much for so long, East Timor should be given a chance to learn the ropes on the march.
We should not give up with the country just yet, and if there is one thing that the East Timorese can teach us it is that despite the obstacles to independence they have proven more resolute and determined than many other peoples.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a political scientist based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin.


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