Hope and Achievement Seen in East Timor's Independence

by Scott Loughrey
The greatest genocide of the last century, in proportion of population killed, was in East Timor. Do you remember hearing about it when it happened? If not, why not?
When East Timor was becoming the first new country of the 21st century the Washington Post was given a small problem: What to say about it? They were not about to report that this colossal achievement came after enormous popular, international struggle. They also weren't going to mention some of the key figures involved in the transformation. So, they simply pretended that East Timor's history began in 1999:

"DILI, East Timor, May 18—When the first wave of U.N. peacekeepers descended on this smoldering seaside city in September 1999, they encountered what one commander called "unimaginable apocalyptic ruin.".

The only mention of the United States in this typically execrable article comes at the bottom:

"The U.S. government also runs a $25 million annual aid program, making East Timor among the largest per capita recipients of American development assistance." (Washington Post, 5/19/02)

This commentary is similar to what the Post has been publishing for decades. While all sorts of crimes are being committed by other nations that the Post objects to, East Timor's independence was an excellent opportunity for the issue to enter our public policy discourse.

Fortunately, it isn't all-quiet in the mainstream media. For example, in a recent news analysis in the Baltimore Sun (May 20, 2002) broke its usual silence by mentioning that Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor was US-backed all the way. This invasion cost the lives of 200,000 East Timorese, a third of the original population. Per capita, Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor makes it the greatest genocide of the twentieth century.

If commentary like the Sun's 5/20/2002 article had been conspicuously presented by the Washington Post or New York Times decades earlier countless lives could have been saved. Meanwhile, the people of East Timor are still vulnerable to invasion by Indonesia and from interference in general by the US. This is a reality that isn't going away for the distant future.

Not only are the East Timorese not safe, but so too is any population in the world that stands between the Empire and what it wants.

Making the Impossible Possible

Since East Timor's independence is a time for celebration, let's pause to remember the contributions of some of the people involved in their solidarity campaign. We can draw inspiration from their stories for the struggles that remain.

From the very beginning of Indonesia's invasion, East Timor's President, Xanana Gusmao, was someone to whom many of his countrymen turned for inspiration and strength. Despite Indonesia's overwhelming advantages in power, Gusmao led the guerilla resistance group called Falantil from East Timor's mountains. He was later captured by Indonesia and incarcerated for 7 years. International support spared his life.

Jose Ramos-Horta, who accepted an overseas post just before the invasion began, was a tireless advocate for East Timor's independence. He was the permanent representative of FRETILIN at the UN from 1976 until 1989. Ramos-Horta spoke passionately about his people to governments, the media and to the UN Security Council, the General Assembly Decolonization Committee and the Commission on Human Rights of the European Parliament.

When Noam Chomsky first began working on behalf of the East Timorese after the invasion commenced he was one of a very small number of US citizens doing so. He was the one who first informed many of the people who later joined East Timor's solidarity movement. Eventually, he reached millions of people around the world. If any one person outside of the East Timorese enabled their freedom, it is Noam Chomsky, hero to the democratic world.

"Democracy Now"'s Amy Goodman and journalist Alan Nairn were reporting on a spontaneous demonstration by East Timorese that took place in 1991 in a Santa Cruz, East Timor graveyard when the Indonesian military marched in. The people were trapped behind the cemetery walls. Goodman and Nairn moved to stand between the military and the Indonesians who held US-manufactured M-16s. The Indonesians then marched past Goodman and Nairn and began killing all of the East Timorese. This event is called the Santa Cruz massacre. Goodman and Nairn were both beaten; Nairn's skull was crushed with a rifle butt. Several Indonesian soldiers brought their guns to the heads of Nairn and Goodman; somehow they were coaxed into not executing them. (Nairn returned to the area in 1999 and was then incarcerated by the Indonesian military.)

The story of the Santa Cruz massacre managed to penetrate the wall of silence that the US mainstream media was maintaining regarding East Timor. With the help of people like Edward Herman, John Pilger and the East Timor Action Network, the event became a lightning rod for the international solidarity movement and was a turning point in their struggle.

These are all extraordinary people who each did extraordinary things on behalf of East Timor's solidarity campaign. For the rest of us, every small effort at opposing the mainstream media's lock on our public policy discourse is heroic as well.

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This story was published on June 5, 2002.