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|Subject: NVA: Review of A Not-So-Distant
Close to Home
By John M. Miller
A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor
Now independent, East Timor has suffered more than many at the hands of a global system that favors the wealthy and powerful over the small and weak. Backed by the United States and other major powers, resource-rich Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. As Joseph Nevins forcefully argues in A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor, the United States was intimately involved in the horror that followed. An estimated 200,000 East Timorese one-third of the population were killed by direct military action or war-induced famine.
More was to come. In 1999, Indonesia agreed to a binding referendum on East Timor’s political status. Over the next months, Indonesian security forces inflicted a violent campaign of intimidation on the East Timorese, who nevertheless voted overwhelmingly for independence on August 30 of that year. In a final blow, Indonesia conducted a scorched-earth campaign, destroying most of East Timor’s infrastructure and displacing three-quarters of its remaining population.
In relating those events, Nevins examines how the governments of major powers including the United States, Britain, Japan and Australia responded to Indonesia’s invasion and occupation with weapons and diplomatic support. Believing, as one U.S. diplomat said, that “the dilemma is that Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn’t,” the same powers consistently dismissed East Timor’s aspirations for independence. As the end of Indonesian rule neared, with the violence escalating, the major powers declined to use the leverage that Nevins believes would have prevented the creation of yet another “ground zero.” Now the governments of those countries, having belatedly acted, congratulate themselves over their role in the birth of the new nation, while ignoring their past complicity in its anguish.
Partners in Crime
Nevins quotes James Rubin, the State Department’s spokesperson during the Clinton administration, discussing 1999, “[W]e did the best that could be done under extremely difficult circumstances.” But, Nevins writes, “Even if Rubin’s contention is accepted … as the history of military, economic, and diplomatic assistance rendered to Jakarta by various national governments shows, they were effectively partners in Jakarta’s war crimes and crimes against humanity in East Timor.”
Since 1999, many East Timorese, along with international human rights groups and others, have pressed for justice for the many crimes committed in 1999 and before. For a time, most of East Timor’s leaders also demanded international efforts to try those most responsible for their people’s suffering. Not so anymore. East Timor’s government, seeing little international stomach for an international tribunal and wary of stirring up Indonesia’s still-powerful military, has called for leaving the past behind, a call that leads many of East Timor’s people think that justice, too, will be left behind.
East Timor’s oldest human rights group, Perkumpulan HAK, has called the attitude of its leaders “nonsense.” Laying the blame for the government’s timidity on its “fear of angering donor governments,” Perkumpulan HAK asked, “For 24 years we asserted our right to self-determination against the international consensus that we were a lost cause. Now that we have independence, are we to do nothing more that obediently follow the new consensus, even when it denies our ideals?”
Even when governments have called for accountability, they have confined those calls solely to the year 1999 and clearly do not mean to include bringing to justice their own past officials who provided the weapons, training and other support that facilitated Indonesia’s crimes.
“The battle to characterize East Timor’s history and, thus, to shape its present is one that is inextricably linked to the power struggle involving ongoing efforts to ensure, on the part of some, and to deny, on the part of others, justice for the country’s suffering,” writes Nevins.
Nevins’ book is especially timely. A new U.N. report, like several others before, clearly argues that an international tribunal or similar mechanism is needed for East Timor. Meanwhile, in an effort to thwart international involvement, the governments of East Timor and Indonesia have created a Commission on Truth and Friendship, whose goal is to bring “definitive closure” to the events of 1999. The joint commission is barred from recommending any prosecutions. Few believe that this commission will fulfill even its narrow mandate to establish the truth of what happened and to bring the peoples of the two countries closer.
Nevins is a long-time advocate for East Timorese self-determination and a frequent visitor to the territory. That personal involvement infuses his book with firsthand accounts of what he saw and what East Timorese told him, and those personal tales keep both his narration and much of his analysis vivid. In one poignant example, Nevins reveals the magnitude of the 1999 devastation by describing how the widow of a well-known local leader was reduced to asking him, Nevins, whether he had a picture of her dead husbandbecause everything she had had been lost when Indonesian-backed militia had destroyed their home. For Nevins, neither the global political system that was so instrumental in East Timor’s fate nor the suffering of its people is an abstraction.
I would have liked to have seen more about why Indonesia’s President Habibiesuccessor to the dictator Suharto who invaded East Timor in 1975made the 1999 decision to allow the United Nations to conduct the referendum, as well as more on the role of non-governmental groups in Indonesia and elsewhere in changing their governments’ polices. Those additions would have helped to turn a book that forcefully describes the devastating impact of U.S. and other foreign policies into one that also shows how those policies can be changed.
John M. Miller is Media and Outreach Coordinator of ETAN, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (http://www.etan.org). He is a member of WRL’s Administrative Coordinating Committee.
[Please note copies are available via ETAN. ]
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