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Subject: Rough Passage to Independence (review)

East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence

BOOK REVIEW Friday, August 22, 2003 Book Review

East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence, James Dunn (NSW: Longueville Books, 3rd edition, 2003, 399 pp.).

By Anthony L. Smith Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawai’i

“When the second edition of Timor: A People Betrayed was prepared in 1996 it was beyond my wildest dreams that in five years an independent Democratic Republic of East Timor would be in existence.” (p. 1.) These are the opening words of James Dunn’s latest volume on East Timor, which is in fact far more than a mere update. East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence is substantially different from the earlier editions, not least of all because it is a far weightier book in terms of scope and depth (and therefore length). The historical sections of the book are bolstered by fresh material, while East Timor’s transition through a historic ballot, through UN control, and now independence, necessitate a new title. Nonetheless, the theme of western betrayal ­ largely Australian betrayal ­ runs consistently throughout this book as it did in the earlier incarnations.

James Dunn is uniquely placed to write a modern history of East Timor. He has a long career within the Australian public service, including a stint as Australian Consul to Portuguese Timor from 1962-4. He has been involved in East Timor in many ways since being posted there. He brings to the table a deep knowledge of East Timor, but equally valuable is his insider’s view of the machinations within the Australian government. This book is also written from the vantage point of Australia, which looms large in the narrative. In fact, Dunn’s history is far from being a dispassionate view. He cares deeply about his subject. He is not afraid to allow his political affiliations to show either. He characterizes the emergence of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government as being like a “breath of fresh air in a stagnant room” (p. iii). He then tempers this with his obvious disappointment that this more (supposedly) independent-minded government undertook a policy that encouraged Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor.

Much like the earlier editions of this book, Dunn’s work is an essential companion to the issues surrounding East Timor. It is a sensible characterization of the problem, and, at its core, lays its groundwork well. A Rough Passage to Independence contains a number of interesting sub-themes. One is struck, for example, by the number of East Timor’s current prominent political leaders who, with few exceptions, were equally prominent as leaders of parties and movements during the mid-1970s. Dunn provides an excellent typology of East Timor’s political landscape from 1974, and gives a very useful account of the important actors. Dunn shows how wrong headed the assessments of Indonesia, and of other governments, were about East Timor. He gives examples of how Indonesian officials in Dili did not serve their political masters well, for example, playing up the communist threat while playing down the widespread support for independence (pp. 90-1). Why did Indonesia invade? Despite elements of the Jakarta elite eventually seeing through some of these fictitious reports, Dunn judges that fear of communism and fear of East Timor’s possible impact on Indonesia’s eastern island Christian communities were the leading reasons (pp. 92-3). Dunn makes the compelling argument that Australia’s “green light” to the invasion allowed the Soeharto government to not only acquire East Timor, but to do so without upsetting valued relations with the west.

Dunn is right to draw attention to the deficient policies of successive Australian governments ­ policies that draw special vitriol. Dunn judges that Australia is far more culpable than Portugal for the mess of East Timor (perhaps ignoring that Portugal, more generally, had failed to prepare East Timor for independence after WWII), and even blames Australia for unnecessarily drawing Portuguese Timor into the Pacific War (although the Axis powers had a mixed record in respecting neutrality). However one could question Dunn’s leading assessment that Australia’s policy on East Timor was determined by its lack of independence and reliance on great powers. The sequence of events would seem to indicate that Australia might have been less a follower than one might infer from the opening passages of the book. Australia, after all, went further than the United States with its decision to afford de facto recognition of the “annexation”, signed a deal to gain Timor Gap oil, and, according to Dunn, held back from the United States the extent of Indonesia’s destabilizing operations in East Timor prior to their invasion (p. 192).

A few other minor pointers are worth a mention. There are some grammatical and stylistic problems that have crept into this edition, while there is also a degree of overlap. It is also more accurate to speak of “East Timor/East Timorese” than just “Timor/Timorese”, as the latter fails to differentiate from Timorese on the Indonesian side of the border. One must seriously question that western governments “applauded” the outcomes of the 1991 Dili massacre, in which the Indonesian government failed to do justice after nearly 200 East Timorese were killed (p. 334). It is also not the case that the East Timor issue gave Habibie “wide support”, when in fact East Timor’s looming independence was a leading issue in his demise (p. 340). There is no evidence that East Timor’s independence had any support within Indonesian society whatsoever outside a minute number of the pro-reformasi activists. While a detailed analysis of Australia’s policy up until the late 1990s is to be found in this volume, there is a lot more that could be said about the dramatic policy shifts before and after the 1999 ballot.

One particular point of interpretation cannot go unnoticed. When Indonesia’s troops invaded East Timor in 1975 they killed indiscriminately, even, at times, their own supporters. Why did they engage in so much unnecessary violence? Dunn asserts that a leading reason for this may have been that the predominately Muslim troops were convinced this was a holy war against Christians (p. 254). Not only is there no supporting evidence for this line of thought, it does not ring true. The mastermind of the East Timor invasion, General Benny Moerdani, was himself a Christian by background ­ and clearly this violence was tolerated up to the highest level. Furthermore, the Indonesian military was soon to embark on a similar trial of wanton destruction, killing of civilians, and organized rape, in the “purist” Muslim province of Aceh ­ cruelties employed from the East Timor campaign. Rather than some kind of religious crusade, the mindless violence is probably best explained by a concept articulated by Soeharto himself in which “shock therapy” would be used to terrorize populations into backing away from “separatist” positions. This is both an idiotic and self-defeating policy, but it seems to be favoured within sections of the Indonesian military and civilian elite (even in more democratic times).

Still, in the larger scheme of things, Dunn’s book is a brilliant study and a fascinating read. He is able to piece together East Timor’s story from an array of primary and secondary sources; much of which he is uniquely qualified to access. The debate on the finer points of East Timor’s past will go on being contentious, but Dunn’s account sets the yardstick. Dunn can claim some prescience in foreseeing the futility in allowing Indonesia to absorb East Timor in the first place. The passage of time has not been kind to those Australian politicians and bureaucrats who saw East Timor simply in a cold war/geopolitical context. Dunn’s history, beyond being a superb account of East Timor, is also a salutary lesson about the failure to understand local conditions ­ a lesson that was as important during the cold war as it is during the current war on terrorism.

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