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Subject: TAPOL: Book review - A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor

TAPOL Bulletin 180, October 2005

Book review

A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor
By Joseph Nevins

2005, Cornell University Press; 273 pages

The tragedy of East Timor is firmly located in the imperial projects of some of the world's most powerful countries - notably the US, but also Australia, Japan, the UK, New Zealand and others - according to this compelling account of the tiny country's inspiring struggle for independence.

While those most directly responsible for the violence and suffering inflicted on the East Timorese people throughout the period of Indonesia's brutal occupation from 1975 to 1999 were the Indonesian army, its military and political leaders, and its militia proxies, Joseph Nevins convincingly argues that blame must also lie with those western countries that provided Indonesia with crucial military, economic and diplomatic support.

They were guilty not only of active complicity in the dreadful crimes perpetrated against the Timorese, but also of maintaining the less visible forms of structural or institutionalised violence inherent in a world order which favours the strong (and the friends of the strong such as Indonesia) against the weak.

The latter form of oppression includes maintaining crippling global socioeconomic inequalities. In this sense, suggests Nevins, East Timor's independence has had its 'painful limitations'. The struggle for self-determination and sovereignty over natural resources, therefore, goes on. This is particularly the case in relation to the oil reserves in the Timor Sea, estimated to be worth between $12 and $20 billion over the next three decades, which Australia is intent on appropriating.

The strength of Nevins' account and analysis derives from his experiences as a long-time advocate for East Timor and regular visitor to the territory since 1992. He vividly juxtaposes the horror and the normality of the terror. Thus in 1992, just a few months after the horrific Santa Cruz cemetery massacre, people were going about their lives - attending a wedding, playing volleyball, going to the market - as they would almost anywhere in the world, but the level of fear and tension was palpable, he recounts.

This was because 'the brutality in East Timor was of an established sort, one that comes about when a purveyor of violence has sufficiently won the upper hand, when the stronger party can implement its policies through seemingly normal practices... The occupation had become institutionalized. The violence was in the structures built upon the corpses of the dead and the collective trauma of those who had survived.'

Nevins examines the US role at length, but also touches on the part played by the UK, which was one of Indonesia's largest arms suppliers during its occupation of East Timor. The 40th anniversary of the bloody events which led to General Suharto's seizure of power in 1965/66 has just passed and Nevins reminds us that British support for the Indonesian military dates from that dark period in Indonesia's history.

He provides us with a useful insight into the way in which power corrupts moral principles through the career of the late Robin Cook, Labour Foreign Secretary between 1997 and 2001. In 1978, as a young MP, Cook had written a scathing critique of arms sales to repressive regimes being particularly disturbed by the sale that year of the first batch of British Aerospace Hawk aircraft to Jakarta. In 1994, he told parliament that Hawk aircraft had been 'observed on bombing runs in East Timor in most years since 1984'.

As Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair, he changed his tune completely. He denied saying that Hawks were operational in East Timor and controversially allowed the delivery to Jakarta of more Hawk aircraft, armoured vehicles and other military equipment licensed for export by the previous Tory government. A picture of Cook shaking hands with Suharto then bizarrely appeared in the Labour government's first annual human rights report in 1998.

In his published diaries, discussing the contested sale of Hawk spares to Zimbabwe, Cook commented: 'In my time I came to learn that the Chairman of British Aerospace appeared to have the key to the garden door to Number 10 [the Prime Minister's residence]. Certainly I never once knew Number 10 to come up with any decision that would be incommoding to British Aerospace, even when they came to bitterly regret the public consequences, as they did in overruling me on the supply of Hawk spares to Zimbabwe.' ['The Point of Departure: Diaries from the Front Bench', Robin Cook, 2003]

This exemplifies the immense influence and political power wielded by arms companies within government, but interestingly does not say anything about Cook being overruled on the supply of Hawks to Indonesia (for more on government/arms industry links, see Campaign Against Arms Trade's 'Call the shots' campaign at

Nevins does credit the Blair government with raising East Timor's diplomatic profile, pressing Indonesia to respect human rights, and as president of the EU, facilitating the visit of a high-level delegation in June 1998. However, he rightly makes the point that whereas these initiatives were significant, London's continuing military and economic support for Jakarta was likely to have sent the message that it was 'business as usual'.

The book considers in some detail the difficult question of whether western governments could have done more to prevent the violence and scorched-earth devastation of East Timor in 1999 and concludes that had they acted in a manner consistent with their international obligations, it is likely that the TNI would not have gone as far as it did.

The latter chapters deal with the critical issue of accountability: how false representations of the past lay the foundations for injustice; the role of truth and reconciliation commissions; the absence of any notion that countries that aided and abetted Jakarta's crimes should be held accountable; and the lack of international political will and desire to force the issue of justice. This matter seems to have stalled yet again with the UN Security Council and Secretary-General dragging their heels over their response to a Commission of Experts' report completed in May 2005 [see TAPOL Bulletin, No 179, p. 11].

Nevins correctly asserts that the impunity enjoyed by the world's powerful for their complicity in the violence perpetrated by the Indonesian military increases the likelihood that such shameful conduct will reoccur (as it has in Iraq and elsewhere). The whitewash of the military's ugly history in East Timor also has profoundly detrimental implications for the populations of restive regions in Indonesia such as West Papua, where the TNI has perpetrated widespread and ongoing atrocities, and insidiously undermines Indonesia's fragile transition to democracy.

Paul Barber

[Please note copies are available via ETAN.]

TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, 25 Plovers Way, Alton Hampshire GU34 2JJ, UK
Tel/Fax: 01420 80153

Defending victims of oppression in Indonesia, 1973-2004

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