Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
28 February 2012
Review by Laura M. Calkins, Texas Tech University
The Independence of East Timor: Multi-Dimensional Perspectives—Occupation, Resistance, and International Political Activism
By Clinton Fernandes
Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 261. ISBN 978–1–84519–428–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 20th Century, 21st Century, (Counter)insurgency Print Version

By the time Indonesia withdrew from East Timor in 1999, leaving it to become the world's newest independent country in 2002, clear shifts had taken place both in the regional political dynamics of maritime Southeast Asia and in the accepted notions about how decolonization actually occurs. In this invaluable book, Clinton Fernandes (Univ. of New South Wales), who for many years was an Australian military intelligence analyst concentrating on Indonesia and its relations with East Timor, has given the most direct and detailed accounting of both phenomena. He does so by carefully moving back and forth between the domestic and international contexts of East Timor's transition from Portuguese colony to Indonesian appendage to independent status. The common factor is the development of a new nationalist movement, which included not only the Timorese themselves but also their slowly growing international network of devoted advocates who helped bring global attention to the appalling violence of the Indonesian occupation and the effort to launch the new country. Fernandes's account gives special attention to allegations and evidence of genocide and other war crimes committed by the Indonesian military during its occupation (1975–99), as one might expect from an author who spent a year assisting the Australian Federal Police's War Crimes team in East Timor.

In the early 1970s, Portugal's huge African possessions sought independence in increasingly costly wars that the colonial power could not afford to replicate in Southeast Asia. Australia—the only other regional state that might have a direct interest in East Timor's future—issued a series of statements constituting "a green light to Indonesian policymakers to go ahead" with a campaign to annex the territory (29–30). East Timor quickly moved from the legacy of several hundred years of underdevelopment under European rule to a new incarnation as the colonial possession of decolonized and passionately anti-colonial Indonesia. There was no referendum, no opportunity for political self-determination, no real transition period between Portuguese and Indonesia rule. By the time Indonesia began its step-by-step occupation in late 1974, the Timorese had not yet even created a skeletal organization of independence seekers or freedom fighters. Such groups did eventually form, but it was too late: in February 1975, "Indonesia [was conducting] a large-scale military exercise involving its army, navy and air force" (32) in preparation for the military takeover of East Timor.

Poorly equipped and ill-prepared to meet the challenge, the Timorese resistance fractured. Its largest section, known as FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionária de Timor Leste Independente), was formed in September 1974 by a small group of Portuguese-educated students who envisioned it as a front group that could unite all anti-colonial organizations in East Timor with the goal of liberating the Timorese (13). As Indonesia moved troops into the territory and defeated its smaller rivals, FRETILIN "continued to recognize Portuguese sovereignty" (39) while trying to organize political and military resistance against the ever-growing Indonesian military threat. FRETILIN attended Indonesian-sponsored negotiations, but the conditions for the talks were manipulated to ensure their failure (34). FRETILIN spawned an armed wing, FALINTIL (Forças Armadas da Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste), in time to meet the full Indonesian invasion of East Timor in December 1975; the offensive included marine landings, aerial bombings, and the use of napalm (45–46). After 80 percent of the three thousand indigenous professionals in East Timor had evacuated the territory, FRETILIN tried to establish resistance cells. "The Indonesian military's first priority was to destroy the resistance, not to care for the population" (48), even those who had surrendered and were cooperating with the new occupying power.

Military operations and the resistance movement disrupted regular farming activities, and, between 1977 and 1979, first food shortages and then outright famine occurred, causing most of the deaths during that period; Western governments prioritized good relations with Suharto's government in Indonesia until the famine became too acute to ignore. Western activists mounted a broad public relations campaign to save the Timorese from famine and recolonization. "Humanitarian aid finally arrived in sufficient quantities after pressure generated by a relatively small number of activists, primarily in the USA, Australia and Britain. The efforts of these activists not only ended the famine, they also led to the creation of influential, long-term support for East Timor's independence among members of the US Congress and large media organizations" (47). To manage the famine relief efforts and, more importantly, to separate resistance fighters from their sources of cover and supply, the Indonesian military built enclosed "transit" and "resettlement" camps for the peasant population. By 1979, between 300,000 and 370,000 people had been herded into these camps, where hygiene, sanitation, food, and vendettas all became major problems (49).

Still the military conflict continued. FRETILIN guerrillas with their smuggled and improvised weapons "were no match for [Indonesia's] military with air power and artillery at its disposal, as well as weapons and equipment purchased from Western governments" (64). Even so, in 1980–81, FRETILIN fighters launched attacks with some successes; in March 1981, they held a conference and renamed their organization "FRETILIN Marxist Leninist Party (PMLF)" (65). Indonesia, promptly announcing that it was now fighting a communist insurgency, dispatched fifteen battalions and 145,000 conscripts to East Timor to form a human chain that would march across the territory "to flush out guerrillas from their hiding places" (65). The Portuguese government, which continued to welcome East Timorese students and knew of the situation, maintained a low profile because it was then chiefly interested in gaining membership in the European Economic Community (the present-day European Union).

In Fernandes's account, Indonesia's overwhelming military superiority made the guerrilla struggle virtually impossible to pursue: the independence fighters had no friendly contiguous border, no external patrons, and no cash from crops, minerals, or other exports. By the mid-1980s, it was clear to all that a new strategy was needed to prevent Suharto from incorporating East Timor into Indonesia. This realization coincided with the emergence of a new generation of East Timorese nationalists, many of them schooled in Indonesia itself, who advocated the use of the new tools of international communications in a global political and diplomatic struggle (81–82).

In 1988, with hundreds of Timorese studying in the major cities of Indonesia, a new organization called RENITIL (National Resistance of East Timorese Students) began to form cells inside Indonesia itself. These cells established links with the pro-democracy and human rights groups in Indonesia and began to tie the East Timor issue to the agenda of progressive politics in Indonesia. Surviving members of FRETILIN, including Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta, left the old organizational structures behind to join the emerging united front. This made armed struggle secondary to an international diplomatic effort to enlist the aid of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and sympathetic foreign governments. This network also appealed to the Roman Catholic Church in East Timor, a strong institutional leftover from Portuguese rule: Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, head of the Dili diocese, took the lead in encouraging priests to support the independence movement. Belo also used his position to appeal to the United Nations and to mobilize Catholics in East Timor itself.

Fernandes argues that the efficacy of the new approach was demonstrated in 1985, when NGOs were able to pressure British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to bring up the issue of East Timor's status during her visit to Indonesia that year: "virtually all the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross]'s immediate demands for prison visits and other forms of humanitarian access were then granted" (80). Pope John Paul II traveled to East Timor itself in October 1985, further heightening international awareness of the independence movement and of Indonesia's military occupation.

The author's close ties to Australian officials allowed him access to unpublished correspondence and interviews, including with Laurie Brereton, the Labor Party's shadow foreign secretary, who, in 1996, began a review of Australia's close relationship with Indonesia and backing of its occupation of East Timor. Brereton's initiative was supported by senior United Nations official Kofi Annan, soon to become the Secretary General. In October 1996, a most important international development gave Brereton's inquiry new momentum: the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Bishop Belo and José Ramos-Horta (169). Although not in power, the Australian Labor Party abruptly changed its policy and began to urge self-determination for East Timor. Indonesia for the first time faced the disapproval of its most important regional ally, Australia. When President Suharto resigned because of health issues, the succession crisis was magnified in Dili, where there were new protests for independence and a helicopter crash killed Indonesia's highest-ranking military officials for the East Timor region. A new organization, the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), issued a statement in July 1998, signed by Ramos-Horta and others, just as oil began to flow from offshore oilfields that had been divided between Indonesia and Australia; the statement called for independence and assured Australia of its large share of the oilfields of East Timor under any future Timorese government (175).

The occupation of East Timor exacted a growing diplomatic price from Indonesia, and domestic discontent both in East Timor and on the mainland was rising. Under circumstances that Fernandes convincingly portrays as a crisis of confidence, Suharto's successor, B.J. Habibie, agreed to a referendum on independence in East Timor. Even so, Indonesia was clearly shocked when, in September 1999, "despite the climate of fear, the long campaign of intimidation, the presence of dubious voters from West Timor, and the fact that many voters did not believe their votes were secret, 78.5% of registered voters opted for independence from Indonesia" (185). Fernandes notes that Indonesia tried to reverse the vote by announcing the imposition of martial law and opposing the deployment of external peacekeeping forces. He persuasively implicates Australia in these policies, stressing its continued public support for Indonesia.

The book has its shortcomings. The final chapter disappoints in not covering the period between the self-determination vote and East Timor's actual achievement of independence in 2002. Fernandes concentrates on Australian policy, not East Timor, Indonesia, or the United Nations, thus never taking the reader to the natural denouement. Also, there are no maps, which would have helped readers grasp, for example, the geographical aspects of the independence struggle or the international dimensions of the oil production issue.

Nonetheless, The Independence of East Timor offers the clearest, most detailed presentation to date of the East Timorese battle against the ironic and brutal colonial rule of Indonesia. It is broadly researched and much enriched by the author's privileged access to information hitherto outside the public domain. It also fills a gap in the literature through its in-depth account of the international alliance of activists who rallied support for East Timor's independence and effectively helped secure the Nobel Peace Prize for the heroes of the deeply endangered freedom movement. The book is imperative reading for scholars concerned with the recent history of independence movements and for anyone with an interest in new strategic studies, postcolonialism, international relations, modern revolutions, small wars and insurgencies, and Southeast Asian and Australasian studies.

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