Subject: Book Review: The Inside Story of East Timor's Fight for Freedom

The Weekend Australian June 15, 2002

Miracle despite miscalculations

By Peter Coleman

Deliverance: The Inside Story of East Timor's Fight for Freedom

By Don Greenlees and Robert Garran, Allen & Unwin, 375pp, $35

EVERYONE made a "colossal miscalculation" in East Timor, according to this compelling and authoritative book -- the Australian Government for a start. Just before Christmas 1998, John Howard sent his historic letter to president B.J. Habibie reversing what he had come to regard as the servile Keating-Hawke-Fraser-Whitlam policy of accepting Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor as settled and final. He called for an act of self-determination by the East Timorese people.

But the Australian Prime Minister's idea was that this act of self-determination should take place in 10 or 15 years, by which time a democratic Indonesia would be able to persuade the East Timorese to stay Indonesian, with all the health, educational, security and transport services that entailed.

The miscalculation was that Habibie would agree to this timetable. No one expected him to call a referendum in a matter of months. Habibie's colossal miscalculation was that he would easily win it, that the East Timorese would vote to stay Indonesian. But they voted overwhelmingly for independence.

The UN's miscalculation was that it could rely on the Indonesian army to keep the peace and calmly accept defeat while the UN ushered the new nation into being. Instead, it acted like a retreating army with a strategy of scorched earth -- until stopped by Australian soldiers. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he would never have embarked on the referendum at that time had he foreseen all the consequences.

All these great authorities had the advice of huge intelligence apparatuses and all of them were wrong. We should therefore be cautious about predicting the future of this brave, new mini-nation.

This is the main message of the inside story by Don Greenlees and Robert Garran. Not the least of the book's many merits is that it avoids the standard cliches. For example, almost every commentator likes to remind us of what terrible and repressive colonisers the Portuguese were in their nearly 500 years in Timor. But Greenlees and Garran also remind us that the Dili elite, which led the fight for freedom, value their Portuguese heritage. They have even adopted Portuguese as the national language without bothering to consult the ordinary East Timorese, the vast bulk of whom cannot speak it. (The young speak Indonesian.)

Again, Greenlees and Garran do not dismiss everyone who wanted integration with Indonesia as a thug. Many conscientiously wanted to remain Indonesian and more than 94,000 voted that way.

Yet the authors' sympathies remain with the East Timorese throughout their story. In this they reflect Australian public opinion, which was horrified by the television reports of massacres, mutilations, terrorism and the torching of property conducted by the Indonesian army or its militia proxies.

As Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said: "The Australian public was screaming out. People were ringing up, crying over the phone. We had more calls on that issue than I've ever had in my life on anything."

This backs up one of the sub-themes of the book -- the role of globalisation in bringing freedom to East Timor. The global economy brought down the Suharto dictatorship. The global political order justified foreign intervention in the affairs of another country. The global media (along with the internet and email) made East Timor an inescapable international issue. Once British film-maker Max Stahl had documented for the world the Santa Cruz cemetery massacre of 1991, the global media gave the East Timorese international support and kept them in the public eye.

The loss of East Timor was a dreadful blow to Indonesians, especially to their army. Yet they brought this humiliation on themselves. Perhaps they would have done better if Indonesia had been a democracy during its 23 years of control. But their confidence that they would easily win the referendum shows that they never listened to the East Timorese.

As for the future, Greenless and Garran are cautious. One key section of their book is headed Triumph or Tragedy -- and this is a questioning note they strike throughout. Indonesia's resentment towards the East Timorese will not easily fade. Neither will its rage with Australians, who were the prime agents of its humiliation. Yet East Timor must have Indonesian co-operation and Australia wants it.

For its part, Australia has a new aid-dependent neighbour that, as Canberra's Strategic Policy Institute told us the other day, cannot feed, police, develop or protect itself, let alone provide employment for its people. It has no tradition of representative government and has ominously named itself the Democratic Republic of East Timor. The shadow of New Guinea and the Solomons hangs over the island. But it has at long last been delivered the gift of independence.

One last point: by the time I had finished reading this book, the pages were falling loose around the room like ticker-tape. An excellent job by two good journalists, put out by a respected publisher and priced at $35 deserves better production.

Peter Coleman, a Sydney writer, is a former member of the federal parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee.

1300 655 191, Australian Books Direct, $31.59

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