East Timor Reprisal | The Canadian Encyclopedia


East Timor Reprisal

First came the assurances.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 20, 1999

East Timor Reprisal

First came the assurances. Indonesian military officials visited the seaside compound of Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo in the East Timor capital of Dili early last week, telling Belo - and the thousands of refugees who had crowded into the bishop's spacious garden seeking his protection - they would be safe from attack by rampaging pro-Jakarta militias. Just hours later, without warning, the assurance of sanctuary disappeared as gunmen attacked the compound. "They were firing automatic weapons and throwing Molotov cocktails," an eyewitness told Maclean's. "Everyone was screaming, shouting and crying, 'Bishop, Bishop, help us.' "

Belo, powerless to stem the bloodbath that engulfed the tiny half-island of East Timor last week, fled to Australia. By the end of the week, so had all but about 80 members of the United Nations mission that had pledged to stay by the side of the East Timorese if they voted - as they did, by an overwhelming 79 per cent - to separate from Indonesia in an Aug. 30 referendum. Dili, normally a city of 100,000, lay looted and burning, all but deserted except for the anti-independence militiamen - strongly suspected to be organized and armed by the Indonesian military - and by the soldiers themselves, ostensibly there to bring about order.

UN officials estimated that 200,000 of East Timor's 800,000 people had fled or had been forcibly removed to neighbouring Indonesian West Timor - and that possibly as many as 7,000 more had been murdered. Heads severed by machetes were on display on tall spikes in Dili, a chilling signal to the people of East Timor, and other separatist groups within the sprawling, ethnically diverse Indonesian archipelago, that their struggles for independence will be resisted. "There is arson and looting and shots can be heard on the streets," said Brig.-Gen. Togar Sianipar, a police spokesman. "It is chaos." To outside observers, the comparisons to the ethnic cleansing that devastated the Serbian province of Kosovo as the international community pondered its options early this year became tragically obvious. All week, Indonesia rebuffed pressures for an international force to intercede to stop the terror, insisting it had matters in hand.

At UN headquarters in New York City, and at a 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in New Zealand, East Timor dominated discussions. In Auckland, seven countries stepped forward to form a so-called Coalition of the Willing to help restore peace. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Britain, the Philippines and Portugal all gave firm commitments to join any UN-mandated peacekeeping force in East Timor - but were clearly reluctant to commit troops against Indonesia's wishes. Their caution only increased as rumours spread in Jakarta of an impending military coup, raising fears that the government of President B. J. Habibie could fall, taking with it the country's fledgling experiment with democracy. One scenario had Gen. Wiranto, the soft-spoken, strong-willed defence minister and army chief of staff, heading a ruling triumvirate. But even as Habibie abruptly abandoned plans to attend the APEC forum in New Zealand, Indonesian authorities insisted his government was secure.

The international community had clear warnings that violence would ensue if the referendum went in favour of independence. Kerry Pither, spokesman for the East Timor Alert Network, an Ottawa-based lobby group, alerted Canadian Embassy officials in Jakarta in August after she and a small group of Canadians toured East Timor on a fact-finding mission. "Everywhere we went people told us they would vote for independence," she said last week. "But they also said they would be killed if peacekeepers were not sent in."

No one seemed exempt from the bloody backlash. In the southern town of Suai, a stronghold for the militias, gunmen attacked a church where refugees took shelter. In the northern coastal city of Baucau, they besieged a local monastery. Injured, Bishop Basilio Nascimento joined thousands of others fleeing into the mountains for an uncertain refuge. In Dili, rampaging crowds sacked the offices of the Red Cross.

The UN mission's ability to monitor the situation deteriorated quickly. By midweek, its staff was hunkered in a single compound, along with 2,500 terrified East Timorese. On Thursday, the military allowed several trucks to replenish the compound with food and water, but in the absence of assurances for their safety, more than half of the East Timorese crept out under cover of darkness to seek safety in the hills. On Friday, the British head of the mission, Ian Martin, boarded a truck to the airport and a flight to Australia, leaving only a skeleton crew behind. Within minutes, as soldiers watched, men with hand grenades arrived to menace the remaining contingent and 1,000 terrified people taking refuge there. Militiamen were looting and destroying United Nations vehicles in a lot beside the compound.

To the pro-independence movement, the prospect of a complete UN withdrawal was frightening. Arsenio Ramos-Horta, younger brother of Jose Ramos-Horta, a prominent independence activist who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with Belo, told Maclean's that if the United Nations pulls out, "it would be the death sentence for East Timor." As of last week, the independence movement's Fretilin guerrillas remained in their mountain hideouts. In Jakarta, Xanana Gusmao, a leader of the independence forces who was captured in 1992 and freed from house arrest last week, issued assurances that the guerrillas would not join the fighting. "They are determined," he said, "not to make any gesture which could be seen as waging civil war" - and provoking a harsher crackdown. Said Canada's ambassador in Jakarta, Ken Sunquist: "It must be difficult to watch your brothers being killed."

Until last week's carnage, more people had died this year in another challenge to the Indonesian federation - in the longstanding unrest in the northern Sumatra province of Aceh, where separatists want to create a fundamentalist Muslim state. Anti-Indonesian feelings also run high in Irian Jaya, the western half of New Guinea, which Indonesia annexed in 1969. As well, clashes in Ambon, part of the country's Moluccas Islands, are partly motivated by local Christian opposition to Muslim migration from Java. Activists from Aceh and Irian Jaya demanded their own independence referendums, but are unlikely to get them. Jakarta, says Christopher Dagg, an Indonesia expert at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., sees the two provinces as "an integral part of the country." And unlike impoverished East Timor, they are rich in resources, including gas and oil.

While the world sympathizes with the plight of East Timor, said Sunquist, most countries have no desire to see Indonesia split apart. The world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia is a key Asian supplier of raw materials including oil, copper and nickel. It also sits astride trade routes linking the Pacific and Indian oceans. For the rest of the world, says Dagg, "political and commercial interests are at stake." Early in the crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appeared ready to invoke the so-called Clinton doctrine that emerged from the Kosovo crisis - that troops should be sent in to stop genocide wherever it occurs. At week's end, President Bill Clinton suspended U.S. military sales to Jakarta in an attempt to secure Indonesia's agreement to an international peacekeeping force. "Because we bombed Kosovo does not mean we should bomb Dili," said White House security adviser Sandy Berger. "Indonesia is undergoing a fragile political and economic transformation." An outraged Jose Ramos-Horta made his disappointment clear. "The West bombed Serbia back to the Stone Age in the name of human rights," said the Nobel laureate. "Now what is to be the fate of East Timor?"

That left the prospect of economic sanctions against Indonesia, which Axworthy and other international leaders said were still under discussion. Officials at the World Bank said Jakarta's handling of East Timor could affect its access to the $1.8 billion that the financial agency is scheduled to lend Indonesia this year. "People are right in demanding that something be done," said Axworthy, "but the question is what is in the realm of possibilities now."

East Timor independence activist Pither says the answer is simple: Ottawa should immediately drop a $280-million aid package it agreed to last year, and stop all commercial dealings with Indonesia. Although Canada suspended military shipments to that country last year, Walter Dorn, a Canadian expert on Indonesian affairs at Cornell University, says he believes Canadian-made weapons may still be getting through. The events in East Timor have put profound pressures on global support for a strong, unified Indonesia. "I do not think the world can turn a blind eye," said Ambassador Sunquist. Clearly, it will take more than sympathy to help the East Timorese in their quest for independence.

Trade and Aid

- Canada committed itself last year to $280 million in financial aid to Indonesia, mainly in the form of export credits used to buy food.

- Imports from Indonesia increased to $921 million in 1998 from $627 million in 1996.

- One of the largest Canadian companies in Indonesia is Inco Ltd. of Toronto, which operates the giant Soroako nickel mine on the island of Sulawesi.

Straining at the Seams

Indonesian strongman Suharto used an iron fist to keep his ethnically diverse country together during his 32 years in power. But the country's economic collapse, which forced the dictator from power in May, 1998, has unleashed separatist forces across the 17,508-island nation of 213 million.


A special territory with considerable autonomy and a strong opposition to the central government.

Java, Madura and Bali

The three islands contain two-thirds of Indonesia's population.


Ethnic clashes over immigration from Java.

East Timor

Formerly Portuguese, largely Roman Catholic, ruled by force by Indonesia since 1975.

West Timor

Formerly Dutch, became part of Indonesia in 1949.

Irian Jaya

Melanesian inhabitants ethnically different from the Malay who dominate the rest of Indonesia.

Maclean's September 20, 1999