Birth of a Nation

What East Timor and the U.S. have in common. And what they don't.

By Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant & Joanne Eisen, of the Independence Institute

National Review Online. March 12, 2002 10:00 a.m. More by Kopel on genocide.

On May 20, 2002, a new nation will be born, conceived in the blood of patriots, and guided to independence by the indifferent midwifery of the U.N. The new nation is East Timor, and its story of independence has much in common with America's own struggle — with one ominous difference.

Slightly larger than the state of Maryland, the island of Timor lies in Southeast Asia, 400 miles northwest of Australia. The Portuguese first visited the island in the early 1500s. Beginning in the 18th century, the Dutch competed with the Portuguese for control of Timor. In the middle of the 19th century, they divided the island between them. When the Dutch East Indies gained independence in 1949 as the nation of Indonesia, West Timor was absorbed into Indonesia, and Portugal retained the eastern part of the island as its colony.

Portuguese occupation of Timor was characterized by the exploitation of its people through oppressive taxation, forced labor, and other human-rights abuses. Portugal's harsh treatment of the Timorese led to widespread resentment, and eventually, violent rebellion. Although Portugal was able to suppress the rebellions, resistance continued.

Portugal's fascist government was toppled on April 25, 1974 by the Carnation Revolution, a relatively nonviolent military coup. The new government in Lisbon was dedicated to democracy and to the decolonization of Portugal's overseas territories. Thirsting for freedom, the Timorese leadership began preparing for liberation. As soon-to-be-president Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao wrote of those days, from his Jakarta cell as a political prisoner in 1994, "Our only ideology was ukun rasik an, self-determination." From Gusmao's perspective, the only choice the Timorese had was between freedom and "total extermination."

When Portugal abandoned its colonies in 1975, East Timor (heretofore known as "Portuguese Timor") declared independence. But independence was to be short-lived, as Indonesia annexed East Timor nine days later.

Indonesia did so with the tacit approval of President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. According to secret documents made public on December 6, 2001 by the National Security Archive at Georgetown University, former Indonesian President General Suharto told Ford and Kissinger: "We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action [in East Timor]." Ford replied, "We will understand and will not press you on the issue."

The next day, December 7, Indonesia invaded. Within six months, there were 35,000 Indonesian troops in East Timor, and 10,000 more were standing by in West Timor.

The armed occupation lasted 24 years. In an attempt to bring East Timor to its knees, Indonesia resorted to forced sterilization (paid by for the World Bank), mass starvation, rape, murder, torture, and conventional and napalm bombing directed at isolated villages, most of which were leveled to the ground. (For details see John G. Taylor, East Timor: The Price of Freedom, 1999). Between 1975 and mid-1999, more than 200,000 East Timorese — a third of its pre-invasion population of 700,000 — had been killed. The overwhelming majority of casualties were civilians. It is estimated that 100,000 East Timorese were killed by Indonesian troops just in the first year of the invasion.

United Nations resolutions quickly demanded that Indonesia withdraw all its forces from East Timor. The resolutions were consistently ignored by Indonesia, and East Timorese civilians continued to be murdered.

Even so, Timorese resistance stiffened. In spite of the resources expended by Indonesia to prosecute the war — a cost of up to $1 million (U.S.)/day — the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor (Falintil) waged a successful guerrilla campaign, using weapons left over from the days of Portuguese rule, or stolen from Indonesian troops.

In the eyes of the U.N., however, once those arms fell into the hands of Falintil, they crossed the line from what the U.N. defines as "licit" guns, into "illicit" guns.

It is here that the hypocrisy and inconsistency of U.N. policy shines through. The U.N. equates "licit gun" with "government gun", and "illicit gun" with "anti-government gun". As Charles Scheiner, National Coordinator for the (ETAN), correctly pointed out, however: "The guns used by the Indonesian military to kill 200,000 East Timorese civilians were almost all 'legal' …[but] the line between legality and illegality is irrelevant to the victims…"

That line in the sand — distinguishing "licit" from "illicit" — legitimizes possession of firearms owned by governments and people approved by those governments, rendering firearm possession by all others "illegitimate." The implication is that all other weapons will be used in a criminal fashion; U.N. policy is premised on "a collective belief that states should only transfer…weapons to other governments," not to "non-state actors."

It was "illegitimate" transfers that armed Falintil. Measured against U.N. standards, the Falintil guerrillas — as "non-State actors" — were in unlawful possession of the firearms they used to defend their country and their people when there was no one else to do so. Likewise illegitimate by United Nation standards was the French Underground which resisted the Nazis, almost every anti-colonial movement in the world, and the American Revolution.

According to the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research, "the ready availability of weapons makes it far too easy for substate groups to seek remedy for grievances through the application of violence." In other words, the U.N. is upset that it was "far too easy" for Falintil to resist Indonesia's genocide. Although the United Nations did offer "resolutions" telling Indonesia to get out of East Timor, those words were meaningless without the force supplied by Falintil's "illicit" arms.

James F. Dunnigan, editor of, pointed out why Falintil — a guerrilla army comprised of both men and women, equipped with only small arms and support from the civilian populace — prevailed against the might of Indonesia: "The basic idea behind guerilla war is to keep your force intact, not to fight the enemy. Guerillas who keep those priorities straight are successful. The East Timor separatists used a sound strategy, and eventually, the situation became intolerable for the occupying power…That was how the American Revolution was fought. Washington didn't have to win, or even fight, battles, he just had to keep the Continental army intact until the British parliament got tired of paying for the North American war."

The Price of the Referendum

In 1999, the Indonesian government, headed by B. J. Habibie, finally agreed to an East Timorese vote on self-determination: autonomy under Indonesian rule, or complete independence.

Indonesia, though, had merely changed tactics. The Sydney Herald (April 29, 1999) detailed Indonesia's "three-pronged attempt" to sabotage the referendum process: "to first destabilize the situation in East Timor sufficiently to prevent a referendum; second, to terrorise the population sufficiently to ensure a pro-integration outcome in case a referendum takes place; and third, to 'Timorise' the conflict by presenting to the world a picture of 'warring Timorese factions.'"

So the Indonesian military set about training "militias" in East Timor. These bore no resemblance to the American model our Founding Fathers had in mind, our well-armed citizenry which provides homeland security. Indonesia's militias consisted of armed gangs of thugs, perpetrating mayhem and rape, and intimidating anyone believed to be in support of independence. These militias were quite similar to the British and Hessian standing armies which America's founders so greatly loathed: the dregs of society, empowered by government to terrorize the population. While Jakarta tried to cast Falintil as the cause of continued violence in East Timor, it was evident that the violence was orchestrated by the Indonesian army and its "militia" thugs.

In April 1999, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas demanded that the East Timorese give up their arms as a pre-condition for peace. East Timor resistance leader Xanana Gusmao refused. He reiterated that Falintil guerrillas were never involved in acts of terrorism but had always acted in self-defense. They should therefore be treated as "an army of liberation and not as a band of bandits." He did, however, agree to a U.N.-brokered compromise between East Timor and Jakarta: Falintil and the Indonesian militias were to refrain from carrying weapons except in designated areas called "cantonments."

While Falintil remained passive in accordance with the truce, the Indonesian military continued to encourage militia misbehavior, leaving the undefended East Timorese populace easy prey. Because independence depended on the referendum, which in turn depended on the cantonment of Falintil, East Timorese leaders had no choice.

On May 5, 1999, agreements were signed allowing the referendum to go forward, and on June 11, U.N. Resolution 1246 formally established the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) for the purpose of organizing and supervising the referendum process. The "responsibility…to maintain peace and security in East Timor…in order to ensure that the popular consultation [the vote] is carried out in a fair and peaceful way and in an atmosphere free of intimidation" was placed on the Indonesian government.

The Indonesian army and its militias, with a long record of broken promises of non-aggression, now had a monopoly of power in East Timor, and their terror campaign persisted. One knowledgeable Western security expert predicted, "If independence wins, these autonomy guys will go berserk."

On August 30, 1999, the referendum was held. The turnout was huge, and the vote was 78.5% for independence. Falintil remained in cantonment, muzzled.

The Price of Independence

Until the eve of the referendum, the Indonesian military and police continued to promise to curb the violence and to honor a free vote. And as predicted, once East Timor voted to cut its ties with Indonesia, the Indonesian military set loose their vengeful militias on a defenseless populace. They hunted down independence supporters and their families, and torched villages.

According to the New York Times(October 24, 1999), one militiaman told the reporter that his orders were "to kill anyone on the street who stood for independence." And, he added, "if they could not hold onto East Timor, they would leave behind a wasteland devoid of schools, society, structure or a population."

Still, Falintil remained passive.

The extraordinary restraint exhibited by Falintil during the ensuing chaos earned high praise from U.N. officials: "Throughout all this emergency they have not moved. The Indonesians want them to come out and attack so they can blame the chaos on Falintil." But Xanana Gusmao resisted the temptation to fight back in justifiable self-defense. In a broadcast aired shortly after the vote, he said: "I appeal to all the guerrillas…to maintain your positions and not to react…."

As the world took notice, international pressure was brought to bear on Jakarta. Three weeks after the referendum, the first wave of Australian, New Zealand and British troops — the core of the U.N. peacekeeping force — arrived in Dili, the capitol of East Timor. Within a week, 3,000 troops had arrived, with a final target of 8,000.

Finally, the balance of power favored security for the people of East Timor.

Freedom, at Last?

Once again, the U.N. ordered Falintil to disarm. Again, they refused. Recognizing the high cost of confiscating Falintil's weapons, U.N. peacekeepers backed off; on October 5, 1999, Australian Army Col. Mark Kelly, spokesman for the international peacekeeping-force Interfet, made a face-saving statement: "The ongoing discussions we will have with the Falintil leadership will look towards the eventual disarming. We have got a requirement to disarm those people under our [U.N.] mandate."

By December, it was decided that Falintil would be transformed into East Timor's "legally constituted police force." If the U.N. could not disarm Falintil, then group could be legitimized in U.N. eyes by morphing it into the East Timor Defence Force.

On Feb. 1, 2001, the Falintil guerrilla force became the world's newest internationally recognized army. Its mission was declared by its new commander, Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak: "to guarantee the defence of our homeland, of the new sovereign state of Timor, fully respecting the new democratic institutions and the political representatives democratically elected by our people."

Can East Timor remain a viable country upon independence? From a financial perspective, the answer is "yes", when one considers the hardworking and self-sacrificing spirit of its people — and the immense offshore oil deposits. In 1989, a huge share of that oil was given to Australia by Indonesia "in return for Australia's support for, and formal recognition of, the 1975-1976 Indonesian annexation of East Timor." By international law, that offshore oil belongs to the East Timorese, and on July 5, 2001, a new treaty was signed between East Timor and Australia, giving the soon-to-be nation a 90 percent share of the gas and oil revenue.

Yet the answer to East Timor's long-term survival might well be "no", because when U.N. peacekeepers pull out three years after independence, the balance of power will shift again, and it might not tilt in favor of the East Timorese populace. There are strong indications that pro-Indonesia militias are still intent on thwarting an independent East Timor. Is a military force of 1,500 active soldiers enough to ensure the safety of its citizens against hit-and-run terrorism from the huge country next door?

Indonesia's current president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who assumed office in July 2001, inherited both the political acumen of her father (Indonesia's founding president Sukarno) and the gravitas of his name. But even this may not be enough to control her country's military. Developments in East Timor have served only to increase the thirst for independence of Indonesia's minority provinces. She knows that if Indonesia loses control of its resource-rich provinces where there is strongest separatist sentiment — Aceh and West Papua (Irian Jaya) — Indonesia's own political stability will be in jeopardy.

A strong indication that the Indonesian military is beyond civilian control can be inferred from the current status of the refugees remaining in West Timor. Numbering up to 100,000 mostly women and children, these people fled into West Timor after the violence in 1999. As a gesture of good will, Megawati should take measures to ensure that the remaining refugees are repatriated enthusiastically and without incident.

Further clouding the future of the new nation is Regulation NO 2001/5, "On Firearms, Ammunition Explosives and Other Offensive Weapons in East Timor", enacted into law on April 23, 2001 by the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). The U.N.'s determination to disarm civilians finally prevailed.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between America's guarantee for the perpetuation of its newly-won liberty, and that of the East Timorese. Incorporated in this document, which reads like an Indonesian army wish-list, is the codification of U.N. disarmament policy. If the regulation stands, it will ensure that Timorese civilians are forced to sit and wait for protection from a thinly spread national defense force.

Commander Taur Matan Ruak, who has already lived through his country's hell, recognized the great potential for continuing violence. Three months before the new firearm regulations were enacted, Ruak expressed the belief that East Timor's "population should defend itself." Knowing firsthand how the balance of power can so easily and so quickly be changed by the presence of firearms, will the fledgling government revoke the U.N.-imposed de facto prohibition of a true citizen militia, once independence becomes a reality?

Asked soon-to-be-president Xanana Gusmao: "Is it the law that the small and the weak can be totally subjugated by the strong and the powerful?" The history of our species tells us that, sadly, the answer is "yes." But as the East Timorese know, guns sure help to even the odds.

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