The Timorese have been treated like mere flotsam by history. They and their island are taken up by the currents of change, battered around and into the rocks, and sent crashing down a new course; only with the creation of an independent state in Timor in 2002 did they have a chance at determining their own path. Their story, which I shall outline in brief, is a story of what can happen to a people at the edge of the international system, where the lives of humans somehow become worth less than the lives of those at the centre because they lack power. To the objective human eye, it is unjust tragedy. To the historian, it is sad normality.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Timorese were an insular people. Their island is located at the far east of the Indonesian island chain but they were not seafarers; they made no impact on the outside world until Asian traders arrived in the fourteenth century. Then came - as they did everywhere in the world - European traders. And, as always happened, after European traders came European settlers and colonists. East Timor's separation from the west dates from this time, when the Portuguese established a state there. Portugal, though condemned to obscurity now, was the earliest and hence most long-lived of the European maritime empires, and so quite the major international player in its time. Their control of East Timor would last until 1975, long after the other European powers had given independence to their colonies.
Portugal's rule of East Timor was mild compared to what would follow. The Portuguese cared little about this remote and impoverished part of their empire and what followed was a rule of benign neglect after the Dutch, who owned the west part of the island, were discouraged from harassing it. Centuries rolled by and history stayed mercifully absent in East Timor, despite the denial of their ability to rule themselves. Then, in 1942, events which began in distant and unrelated lands brought a whirlwind of destruction to East Timor.
World War II
World War II began in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria, a part of northern China. The fact that the war stayed distant from the English-speaking countries for so long often blinds us to this fact, and it is natural that the focus of our memories is on Europe. And while what the Japanese did in East Timor pales in comparison to what they did in China, this does not make their crimes in the former any less worthy of our recollection. The Japanese invaded East Timor in 1942, caring not one jot for the people but merely for the strategic position of the island. Australia had committed itself to the defence of the place, and for nearly a year 2,000 Allied commandos - mostly Australians, but also Dutch, British and Americans - stayed and mounted a valiant defence.
The toll on the Timorese people was immense. As a result of a year-long battle that claimed less than 500 Allied lives and the reprisals afterwards, a staggering 40,000 - 70,000 Timorese died. Some fought with the Allies against the Japanese invaders, whereas others were press-ganged into the service of the latter; some no doubt fought willingly for the Japanese, dying as cannon fodder for the cause of Japanese fascism dressed as Asian self-determination. Eventually the Allies fled and the Timorese were left to the the Japanese, whose brutality was surpassed in the twentieth century only by Nazi Germany. When the Portuguese returned after the war the Timorese breathed a sigh of relief. And still, their independence was to be delayed for the sake of a people who had failed to defend them.
East Timor and the limits of the American dream
The next time history came to East Timor was 1975, when a sudden and unexpected revolution in Portugal brought to power left-wing officers who tired of their country's authoritarian dictatorship. Lisbon declared itself for Timorese independence, and a generation of Timorese officers drank deep of the left-wing ideology - independence and economic self-determination - held by their new, post-revolution Portuguese masters. One problem remained: Indonesia.
Indonesia extended right up to the border of East Timor, being sovereign as it was over the west part of the island. Indonesia feared that the dominant party in East Timor, Fretlin, would allow an independent state to become a bastion of Communist sympathies and a potential launching-pad for subversion against its own territory. Communism appeared to be on the march in southeast Asia at the time due to the recent defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War, and there was a widespread opinion that a Timorese state would not only be economically unviable but would further complicate the balance of power in the Pacific. For Indonesia, the situation seemed simple: why allow the Timorese a troublesome independence when they could impose unity?
There has been much dispute over the American role in the Indonesian incorporation of East Timor and the horrific occupation that ensued. I have been to the archive and I have looked at the documents and I can say with some authority that the United States knew of the imminent invasion of East Timor and the quashing of its independence, and that it did nothing to stop it. After the fall of South Vietnam, the U.S. was scrambling to shore up its friendships with other countries in the Asia-Pacific and Indonesia was a key ally. Had Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger told Indonesian president Suharto not to invade, he would have done so anyway; and then he would have eyed Washington with suspicion and listened to them less in the future. The U.S. administration chose the option of the realist.
In doing so, it cast light on the limits of American power and American idealism. The U.S. has long declared foreign policy goals that it cannot possibly meet in practice - from a world safe for democracy to a world free of terrorism - and the people of East Timor would learn something about this real world of broken dreams and victimization by the powerful through 27 years of brutal occupation. Their occupation was condemned by the UN but supported by America, Australia and the United Kingdom, who stayed allies of Indonesia even as the military of the latter murdered some 100,000 Timorese. Legally, this was not genocide - but it was close. But while the Cold War raged on and Indonesia remained an important ally for trade and military basing rights, the fate of the Timorese was ignored.
When the Cold War was over, Indonesian hegemony gradually lost its legitimacy in the international community. The Timorese proved themselves a resilient and determined people, and the independence movement remained strong. The brutal massacre of over 250 civilians in the capital, Dili, in 1991 garnered widespread world attention on a planet that had recently witnessed so many victories against autocracy; and gradually, the Indonesians realized what must be done. In 1999 the process of deciding the future of the area was begun, and this ended in a referendum that delivered an overwhelming vote for independence.
Independence has not been easy for the Timorese. Their country, like was often said, is small, impoverished, and possibly not viable in the long term. They have been wracked by internal conflict, exacerbated by the poor economic situation which makes resources worth fighting for. But they have fought and suffered for it so much that no-one can deny them the opportunity to rule it and decide upon their own future. The international community may have to help them, but we in the developed countries owe them nothing less after the shoddy way we have treated them for a long century.
The Timorese suffered from waging a battle for a cause that was outside of history and of interest to no-one who was powerful; principles of self-determination and freedom are only observed as much as is practicable by the major powers of the world, and sometimes not even that much. Humanity's maturity has delivered self-rule to all parts of the globe and this gift came last of all to the East Timorese, some forty years after many other countries received it. Perhaps, had they wielded the gun, they would have acted no differently to the outsiders. History suggests they would not. But the actual chain of events serves as a reminder to what happens to the weak and vulnerable who remain at the edges of the concerns of the major powers; their story ought to animate us to a better defence of those who remain there today.