Subject: Book Review: Risking all to vote for freedom [If You Leave Us Here We Will Die: How Genocide Was Stopped In East Timor By Geoffrey Robinson]

via Joyo News

The Australian

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Risking all to vote for freedom

By Peter Rodgers

If You Leave Us Here We Will Die: How Genocide Was Stopped In East Timor By Geoffrey Robinson Princeton University Press, 319pp, $54.95

GEOFFREY Robinson is a campaigner, determined to prove that Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 led to genocide and that a second Indonesian-created genocide in 1999 was prevented only by UN- led armed intervention. The broad-brush nature of the UN Convention, which he relies on, gives him a head start. Its definition of genocide includes the killing of or causing harm to national, ethnic racial or religious groups ``with intent to destroy, in whole or in part''.

Early in the book Robinson writes that there is no evidence that the Indonesian army commanders who planned the operation in East Timor in 1975 intended to kill one-third of the population. Yet, he argues, the very nature of the ``culture of terror'' fostered within the Indonesian military ``inevitably and predictably led to a massive loss of life''.

Estimates of the death toll in East Timor in the four years after the Indonesian invasion in December 1975 vary from about 100,000 to as high as 350,000, of a total 1974 population of 653,000. Were these deaths the result of genocidal intent or an especially grievous form of ``collateral damage'', mainly malnutrition and disease?

Robinson is fond of citing his earlier writings to support his arguments, so I will follow suit. In October 1979, I visited East Timor as a Jakarta-based journalist. There was then an enormous humanitarian problem in the territory with a concerted relief effort under way by the International Red Cross and the US-based Catholic Relief Services.

Even with the disruption and despair around him the CRS regional director, Frank Carlin, told me he had seen nothing to confirm allegations of genocide, despite the intensity of the problem in East Timor being greater than anything he had seen in 14 years of relief work in Asia.

Robinson notes the Suharto ``New Order'' regime's preoccupation with national security and internal stability. Given that the regime had come to power on the bones of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian dead, given that the Cold War was still very much a feature of international politics, and given that Vietnam had just fallen to communism, the regime's obsessive fear of anything leftist was hardly surprising.

Robinson strongly criticises the policies of the US administration under Gerald Ford. He argues that had Ford delivered a clear message of American opposition, ``it is quite possible, and indeed it is more than likely'' that Suharto (who Robinson says had been ambivalent about the wisdom of military action in East Timor) ``would have called off or substantially altered the operation''.

If that is correct, then the country that deserves greater censure is Portugal. It was the colonial power in East Timor and had a military presence there. At the time when Portugal could and should have exercised its authority, it scurried away, fuelling Indonesian paranoia about instability.

If regional and international politics help to explain Indonesian obsessions and actions in 1975, almost a generation later the world had changed dramatically. Despite Indonesian claims, partly justified, to have achieved greater development in East Timor than the Portuguese had ever attempted, the territory was still a serious economic and political headache. With the collapse of the Suharto regime and the coming to power of the quixotic president B. J. Habibie, the situation changed dramatically.

Habibie's offer of ``wide-ranging autonomy'' soon transformed, in effect, into a referendum under UN auspices on independence. The strongest chapters of the book deal with this extraordinary period, seen in Australia as a time of national diplomatic triumph. That said, John Howard rates only two mentions plus a footnote and Robinson observes that Australia ``was not alone in urging Indonesia to do more to resolve the East Timor problem''.

Robinson argues that Habibie and most of his cabinet agreed to the referendum because of their confidence that ``the vote could be won'' and the East Timor issue settled permanently. The fatal flaw in the process was Indonesia's insistence that it alone would have responsibility for maintaining law and order during and after the referendum. This gave great opportunity for a campaign of violence and intimidation by Indonesian-backed militias. Robinson makes a much stronger, persuasive case for Indonesian perfidy in this period than he does for the charge of genocide post-1975.

The dilemma for the UN and those countries, including Australia, with a keen interest in East Timor, was that to proceed with the referendum was to court Indonesian-inspired violence. To postpone the vote risked losing a one-off opportunity to break the mould in East Timor.

Robinson, then a member of the UN's political staff in East Timor, writes that by July 1999 the ``unambiguous advice going to New York was that the referendum should not go ahead, and the principal reason given was the unacceptable security climate. In the end . . . that proposition did not prevail.''

The ballot was held on August 30, and almost 99 per cent of those who had registered voted. With the announcement on September 4 that 78.5 per cent had voted for independence the territory erupted, leaving 1500 people dead, hundreds of thousands displaced and Dili burning. Robinson writes that despite that aftermath, ``it is far from clear that it would have been preferable, morally or politically, to postpone the vote''.

The eruption galvanised the international community in a way not seen before. On September 12, US president Bill Clinton declared the Indonesian military had ``aided and abetted militia violence in East Timor, in violation of the commitment of its leaders to the international community''. The UN Security Council approved an armed multinational force, led by Australia, which arrived quickly. This, Robinson writes, ``prevented a second genocide''.

There is valuable and thought-provoking material in this book. But it seems curiously contradictory in parts, reflecting perhaps Robinson's background of human rights campaigner, UN official and now professor of history at the University of California.

The book's conclusion, for example, declares that ``the violence in 1999 was the result not of deep-seated hatreds but rather of strategic planning by [Indonesian] state officials and agencies''. Yet only three pages later we are told it is possible ``that the behaviour of the militias in 1999 was not the product of an army master plan at all''. Given the general tenor of the book, this reads like a poorly conceived attempt at even-handedness.

Peter Rodgers worked in Indonesia as a diplomat and journalist and received the Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year award for his reporting on East Timor.

Back to January 2010 Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu