Sam PF's Journal - Blent: what I'm most proud of
March 25th, 2014
01:23 am

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Blent: what I'm most proud of
shreena asked "What are you most proud of?"

I think this would have to be being involved in the solidarity campaign for East Timor in the 1990s. It's one of the campaigns I have been most intensively involved in and, unlike a lot of others, actually saw a positive outcome.

A brief history: as for links, well you know where to find Wikipedia as well as I, or here is the history as given by the Timor Leste government website.

East Timor, the eastern half of an island about 400 miles north of Darwin, Australia, was a Portuguese colony, unlike the western half and indeed the whole Indonesian archipelago around it. In 1974-5, Portugal, in the middle of its own revolution, was decolonizing, and East Timor was moving towards independence. Indonesia was at the time ruled by a bloodthirsty, western-backed, tyrant General Suharto, who came to power in a coup in 1965 that was followed by the slaughter of at least 500,000 suspected communists or sympathizers.

Indonesia invaded East Timor on December 7 1975, again with the tacit backing of the US, Australia and the UK. The plane carrying President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger took off from Indonesia the day before, and recently released cables confirm what was claimed by a CIA whistleblower at the time, that Kissinger approved the invasion. The US also provided all the arms necessary for Indonesia's conquest of East Timor. (Which actually faced stiff resistance, especially in the mountainous interior, overcome thanks to the supply of US light attack aircraft by President Carter, suited to the terrain).

The invasion and occupation was accompanied by genocide of the East Timorese population. The most recent figures estimate that 183,000 people were killed, in direct massacres and due to the mass displacement of population into concentration camps, with the resulting famine and disease. This out of a pre-invasion population of about 600,000.

The international solidarity campaign for East Timor gathered a great deal of momentum in the 1990s, after a massacre of over 200 protestors in the capital Dili by Indonesian forces was secretly videoed and smuggled out by an Australian journalist. (These days it would just be uploaded straight away to You Tube, but this was the olden days).

Like a lot of people, I was introduced to the issue by John Pilger's 1994 documentary, Death of a Nation. Pilger can be a one-note polemicist a lot of the time, but he probably did more than anyone to make the world aware of the horrors that were taking place in East Timor, and the shameful role of the west in supporting it.

East Timorese resistance, both armed and peaceful, never died out. Resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, later President, now Prime Minister, captured by Indonesia in 1992 and imprisoned for life, became an iconic figure; meanwhile, the Catholic Church became a key focus of resistance for the mass of the population, led by Bishop Carlos Belo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, along with José Ramos Horta, East Timor's foreign minister in exile, who campaigned tirelessly for his homeland in international circles.

The opportunity for East Timor came in 1998 when, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, the people of Indonesia rose up and overthrew the dictator Suharto. As the country transitioned to democracy, the international campaign for East Timor had made the issue just enough of an embarrassment for the Indonesian government - as one US diplomat charmingly put it, a 'speed bump on the road to democracy' - that they felt it was something they had to resolve. Transitional President B.J. Habibie (Suharto's former deputy) called a referendum in East Timor to vote on independence.

The referendum was conducted and observed by the UN but, crucially and disastrously, held under the continuing auspices of the Indonesian army. All manner of NGOs and campaigners warned that this would lead to tragedy, and that the west needed to push Indonesia hard to allow a UN peacekeeping force in, but our governments insisted that everything was perfectly OK. It was not. The Indoensians, over the course of 1998 and 1999, organized pro-Indonesian militias - apparently sometimes brought in from West Timor, or even Indonesian soldiers out of uniform - to terrorize the East Timorese population. Acts of violence were taking place all over, including several massacres, but the international community was silent.

The referendum, on 30 September 1999, nonetheless proved an incredible display of the bravery and determination to be free of the East Timorese people. There was a vast turnout, with a 78% vote for independence.

Immediately, the 'militias' went on the rampage, killing about 1000, displacing most of the population into the mountains, and destroying about 80% of the buildings in the country. What was different was that, because this was a UN referendum with (unarmed) UN personnel present, this happened in the full glare of international television cameras. It threatened to be a complete humiliation for the UN and for the western countries who had backed the process - and who had just gone to war supposedly to prevent such killing and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Finally, after 24 years of warm words, western countries took action. The US called in its loans. The EU declared an arms embargo. And within a day, Indonesia folded, agreed to pull out its troops, and allow in a UN Peacekeeping force.

The UN mission succeeded, dealt with the militias (though there has been precious little justice for their atrocities), and enabled rebuilding and the transition to independence to start. Xanana Gusmao was released and returned home. East Timor became independent on 20 May 2002, with Xanana elected as its first President.

The country has had a bumpy ride since, with another UN force needed in 2006 to deal with a brief internal armed conflict. It is still very poor, but seems to be basically coping, aided by substantial revenues from the large oil reserves in its waters. But most of all, East Timor - or Timor Leste as is its official name - is free.


As I say, I got involved in the campaign after seeing a video of John Pilger's 1994 film, along with a group of fellow activists at Warwick, in 1995. We were starting a local Campaign Against Arms Trade group, and also started a student East Timor solidarity group, which we sought to expand nationally.

In Britain, the campaign largely revolved around the UK's sale of arms to Indonesia, including armoured vehicles, and Hawk Trainer/Light ground attack aircraft, exactly the sort that had been used to such effect by Indonesia in the past. A clearer case of siding with evil by a western government would be hard to find. (Well, there are a fair number of as-clear cases mind you). My good friend Chris Cole, who has been willing to put far more on the line than I ever have, went to prison for breaking into a BAE base and hammering on the nose cone of a Hawk destined for Indonesia. The women of the Seeds of Hope Ploughshares group also broke into BAE Warton in Lancashire in 1996 and smashed up a Hawk; they were acquitted by a Liverpool jury on the grounds that they had acted to prevent a greater crime.

As for me, I got involved in national CAAT when I moved to London, with the arms to Indonesia being one of the key campaigns. I and a friend also started up a Christian-based solidarity movement for East Timor - playing on the fact that the East Timorese were predominantly Catholic, and the prominent role of the Catholic Church in the peaceful resistance. All in all, it kept me pretty busy, though to how much effect is of course always impossible to say. I was particularly active, with the British Coalition for East Timor, in the run-up to the referendum and its appalling aftermath.

The credit for Timor Leste's freedom lies first with the East Timorese, who endured unimaginable horrors and still stood firm to demand and win it. Second with the Indonesian people, who created an opening for change when they overthrew Suharto. But I think the international campaign made a real difference - a swing vote if you will. Like I said, it meant that when Indonesia was transitioning to democracy, there was enough of a noise and a smell over East Timor that it wasn't something they could ignore, and then the post-referendum violence became something the 'international community' couldn't ignore.

I played my part in that; a minor one in the scale of things, but not a negligible one in terms of time and energy. I met Xanana when he came to speak in London. He thanked all of us who had been part of the solidarity movement.

This one, we won. Timor Leste is free. I am proud of that.

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From:sabotabby
Date:March 25th, 2014 11:02 am (UTC)
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As well you should be.

East Timor was one of my first real experiences of activism beyond what my mother dragged me into; I was a teenager in the 90s and our little high school group did some work around it. I remember Jaggi Singh getting pepper-sprayed in Vancouver for protesting Suharto, and that was a big moment for me.
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From:smhwpf
Date:March 26th, 2014 11:29 pm (UTC)
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Thought you'd mentioned East Timor stuff before...

I'd been a lefty for a long, long time before getting into East Timor stuff. But it was still an eye-opener for me in terms of just how utterly, cynically evil our governments can be.
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