East Timor's bloody road to independence

By Luke Hunt
Updated August 27 2019 - 7:03am, first published 7:00am
Relatives hold photos of Santa Cruz massacre victims at a commemoration in East Timor in 2009.
Relatives hold photos of Santa Cruz massacre victims at a commemoration in East Timor in 2009.

Twenty years ago a contingent of international observers led by Australia landed in East Timor to oversee a UN-backed referendum that would end more than two decades of Indonesian occupation and determine the fate of the former Portuguese colony. But the immediate results were devastating. East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, enraging Indonesian loyalists who went on a bloody rampage immediately after the August 30 vote. About half-a-million people were displaced, half fled the country, between 1400 and 2000 people were killed and 70 buildings destroyed as the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), 1300 local staff, journalists and NGO workers were evacuated to Darwin. "It is hardly surprising that the people there rejected Indonesia in the referendum given the way in which the colonising power had stamped its rule on them," said Keith Loveard, senior analyst with Jakarta-based risk firm Concord Consulting. With a tiny population of just 650,000, East Timor suffered badly under Indonesian president Suharto, who annexed the country soon after Lisbon relinquished controlled of what was an old colony in 1975. A promised referendum on self-determination was never held and any thought of independence was undermined by infighting among the different tribes. But that changed in 1991 with the massacre of at least 250 pro-independence mourners at a funeral in the Santa Cruz cemetery. Once divided, the clans and tribes united behind the charismatic resistance leader Xanana Gusmao and a low-level guerrilla war lasted until Suharto was ousted from power amid a financial crisis and a new government called a snap vote on self-determination for August 30, 1999. More than 78 per cent voted for independence, far greater than pro-Jakarta loyalists w ould have dared imagined and it infuriated militia leader Eurico Guterres who called for the slaughter of anyone who back ed Gusmao and his separatists. Men, women and children were shot, butchered with swords, raped and tortured. More than a hundred journalists were also evacuated. Among them was then Fairfax correspondent Lindsay Murdoch. "During a four-decade career with The Age I was embedded with US Marines during the 2003 Iraq war and covered many uprisings, coups and conflicts. But I have never been as afraid as I was in East Timor," he said. Murdoch said the threats, attacks and acts of intimidation were clearly aimed at forcing UN personnel, aid workers, journalists and other foreigners to leave. Perhaps the worst of the massacres occurred o utside the home of Father Rafael dos Santos, parish priest in Liquica. About 2000 people had taken refuge and were targeted by Gutteres' Red and White Iron militia. Backed by Indonesian soldiers, who fired tear gas, Gutteres' militia chopped them down with swords as they fled. "Their motive: to kill, rape and steal away from prying eyes of foreigners. The plan worked: sooner or later we all fled," Murdoch said, noting the killings and devastation was declared a crime against humanity but justice was never rendered. The UN stepped in, sending Australian-led peacekeepers to ensure East Timor's independence. But a trouble d future followed as Dili attempted to define East Timor in a region of much bigger neighbours, particularly Australia, China and Indonesia, which remains an over-arching influence . L oveard said there was a window where East Timor had the chance to have a future within Indonesia. "History went on to rule out that possibility but I think it needs be remembered that Indonesia did pour a lot of money into their new possession and they did not get much of a return on that investment," he said . C hina, like elsewhere, i s now investing heavily in East Timor; chasing ports and resources, while Australia is ever mindful of the country's ability to erupt into violence. The UN deployed security forces after 155,000 people fled their homes amid factional fighting in 2006. Two years later, Australian reinforcements were sent after President Jose Ramos-Horta was wounded in an assassination attempt and Prime Minister Gusmao came under fire. UN peacekeeping lasted until the end of 2012. "The increasingly combative relationship between China and Australia, and more broadly between the Western powers and Beijing, has played to Dili's advantage - at least in the short-to medium-term," said Gavin Greenwood of Hong Kong-based A2 Global Risk. He said the country's fractious domestic politics remained rooted in the independence movement and dominated by a few leaders and their coteries with a keen eye for benefits accruing from access to East Timor's oil and gas, which remains a latent threat to future stability. "Balancing these factors will remain at the heart of East Timor's politics and development over the coming two decades," he said.

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