Related topics

East Timor Faces Desperate Odds

September 4, 1999

DILI, Indonesia (AP) _ East Timor’s vote for independence comes after a tumultuous century in which the former colonial backwater was twice thrust onto the international stage, suffering a huge loss of life each time.

The United Nations’ announcement Saturday that voters overwhelmingly chose independence from Indonesia was accompanied by a campaign of terror by anti-independence militias allegedly armed and directed by the Indonesian army.

It is not the first time the East Timorese have faced desperate odds.

In World War II, more than 50,000 perished after they sided with Australian commandos who fought a guerrilla campaign against Japanese invaders. The death toll was estimated at 12 percent of the prewar population _ one of the war’s highest loss rates.

Today’s brutal pro-Indonesian militias closely parallel a murderous auxiliary unit, the ‘Black Column,’ that the Japanese set up in World War II. Consisting mainly of Indonesians who flocked into Japan’s service, the unit terrorized East Timorese who sided with the allies.

Decades later, tens of thousands of East Timorese _ some estimates go as high as 200,000 _ died in battle, or of disease and starvation after Indonesian troops occupied their homeland in 1975 after Portugal evacuated the colony.

Portuguese seafarers first bumped into the sparsely populated island in 1512, two decades after Christopher Columbus sailed to America.

Roman Catholic missionaries eventually fanned out into the hinterland, laying the groundwork for Portuguese administrators and traders who followed.

But, by the end of last century, Portugal’s time as a world power had long since passed. Its weakening role increased East Timor’s isolation and poverty.

``The Portuguese government in Timor is a most miserable one,″ wrote Lord Alfred Wallace 100 years ago. ``After 300 years of occupation there has not been a mile of road made beyond (Dili).″

In the 1920s, Portugal came under the control of a neo-fascist government. Because of its remoteness, East Timor became a penal colony for exiled political opponents of the regime. Some married Timorese women, and they and their children formed the backbone of the anti-Japanese and anti-Indonesian resistance movements.

East Timor emerged devastated from World War II, but received little reconstruction aid. It remained a dirt-poor, half-forgotten colonial outpost, which survived only because nobody was interested in occupying it.

``This was a comparatively peaceful place, all the violence since the early part of the century _ whether the Japanese intrusion, or the Indonesian occupation _ was externally induced,″ said James Dunn, author of the book ``Timor - a People Betrayed.″

In 1974, the Portuguese government was overthrown by a group of officers who promptly announced that all remaining colonial possessions would be granted self-determination.

In East Timor, political tensions flared between moderates and leftists. Fearing a takeover by the leftists, Indonesia’s right-wing dictatorship organized a clandestine effort to insert troops and ignite a civil war.

But the covert effort quickly failed and the Indonesian army launched a full-scale invasion, followed by violence in which Indonesians executed thousands of civilians. More died of starvation and disease, and the total death toll was estimated at one-third of the population.

The brutality of the Indonesian army created a lasting legacy of bitterness. Although Indonesia later invested heavily in the territory, building roads and other infrastructure, it was never able to overcome that hatred.

``Nothing could have been more self-defeating than what the Indonesian army did because of poor discipline, incompetence and sheer stupidity,″ said Dunn. ``Had this happened in Bosnia or Kosovo, they would all be facing war crimes trials,″ he said.

Update hourly