Today is an important anniversary. It’s a unique occasion - an extinct holiday - that should not be forgotten.
25 years ago today, the Indonesian parliament integrated East Timor as its 27th province. They “legalized” the invasion they had committed seven months earlier, formalizing a brutal military occupation that killed one-third of the population of East Timor, 200,000 people. For the next quarter-century, the East Timorese were forced to celebrate July 17 as “integration day.”
The world, even Indonesia, now recognizes that East Timor is not part of Indonesia. In 1999 the Indonesian government, largely in response to international pressure, allowed the U.N. to conduct a referendum in which 78% of the East Timorese people voted for independence, defying pervasive threats and state-sponsored terrorism. The Indonesian military finally withdrew from East Timor - but not before killing thousands, displacing three-fourths of the population, and destroying three-fourths of the buildings and infrastructure. East Timor is slowly rebuilding under a transitional United Nations administration, and will be independent within a year.
There are many lessons in East Timor’s traumatic victory. One of the most important is that the line between legality and illegality is irrelevant to the victims of aggressive military action. The guns used by the Indonesian military to kill 200,000 East Timorese civilians were almost all “legal.” They were fired by soldiers following orders from a recognized government. They were sold according to the laws of the countries - principally the United States, but also Britain, Germany, Russia, Sweden and many others - which profited from Indonesia’s need for ever more bullets in their effort to exterminate East Timor’s freedom. They were used by an army trying to preserve its country’s territorial integrity.
Those weapons were also illegal. Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor was never recognized by the United Nations, although the international community took no effective action against it as long as the Suharto dictatorship remained in power. During the most intense killing in the 1970s and 80s, United States businesses and government supplied 90% of Indonesia’s arms, double the amount before the 1975 invasion. These weapons violated a 1958 treaty that banned their use for “aggressive purposes.” And the human and legal rights of the people of East Timor, their rights to life and to self-determination, were violated every day of the quarter-century of occupation.
Small arms used to implement immoral policies, have disastrous consequences. The legality of the process does not affect the severity of the suffering.
The 1999 referendum process provides an ironic perspective on this issue. The Indonesian military created, trained, paid, and armed militias as the front line of its terror campaign to prevent the East Timorese people from voting for independence. Since these militias were under direct command of the Indonesian military, their weapons were as legal as any others used to maintain Integration Day. Indonesia and its weapons suppliers would no doubt argue that these guns should not be covered by international regulation of illicit weapons.
On the other hand, the Indonesian government invented a specious separation between their military and its militia proxies, denying responsibility for their actions. The international community, to its everlasting shame, largely swallowed this line, or viewed the militias as directed by “rogue elements” of the Indonesian military. If this were so, then the guns supplied to militia were illicit, not under government control, and would be barred under an international control regime.
Let me close by mentioning another lesson of East Timor’s experience. In 1994, as a result of public outrage over continuing massacres, the United States government banned the sale of small and light arms to Indonesia. Although Indonesia then bought these weapons elsewhere, this was a key point in the growing campaign that eventually enabled East Timor to achieve its freedom. The ban remains in effect, although some in the Bush Administration are trying to repeal it. The Indonesian military and its militias continue to hold 80,000 East Timorese as virtual hostages, to enjoy impunity for their decades of crimes against humanity, and to commit atrocities against civilians in Aceh and West Papua almost every day.
East Timor will soon be the first new nation of the new millennium. Its experience teaches us two important lessons.
First: The legality of weapons has no relevance to their victims.
Second: Curtailing the international supply of weapons, even in a symbolic way, can be instrumental in saving lives and ending crimes against humanity.
East Timor’s suffering can never be undone.
But if we can push the world to act on these two lessons, it may be partially
Timor Action Network U.S. Updated May 19
ETAN/US was founded following the November 1991 massacre. ETAN/US supports a genuine and peaceful transition to an independent East Timor. It also supports human dignity for the people of East Timor by advocating for democracy, sustainable development, social, legal, and economic justice and human rights, including women’s rights.
East Timor was invaded and subjugated by US ally Indonesia in 1975. East Timor chose independence in August 1999 and was soon destroyed by the Indonesian military. It is now administered by the UN.
ETAN/US provides a wide range of articles, news reports and press releases related to East Timor. ETAN has 28 local chapters. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org & email@example.com Homepage: http://www.etan.org
East Timor info on the ETAN site is added daily.
BD: Military and political aid to Indonesia - A collection of recent reports, articles and news