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Subject: review of A Not-So-Distant Horror

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A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor Reviewed by Jim Glassman

Volume 96, Issue 4, Page 843, Cover Date December 2006

Journal Name: Annals of the Association of American Geographers

A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor. Joseph Nevins. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005. xx and 273 pp., maps, photos, notes, and index. $49.95 cloth (ISBN 0-8014-4306-7); $18.95 paper (ISBN 0-8014- 8984-9).

Reviewed by Jim Glassman, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

It is unlikely that there is anyone in the field of geography, or, for that matter, the social sciences more generally, who is better positioned to write this book than Joseph Nevins. Nor is there anyone who can more legitimately ask the difficult questions that the book raises specifically, questions regarding the moral responsibility of people in the West for the destruction of life in East Timor. Writing for years under the pseudonym of Matthew Jardine, Nevins traveled back and forth between East Timor and the United States, supporting the struggle for East Timorese independence by bringing information about the plight of Timorese to audiences in the country whose government so decisively backed and supplied the Indonesian occupation.

Building on both the information he gathered through this process and the broader scholarly and journalistic literature, Nevins pieces together an account of East Timor’s occupation, resistance struggle, and liberation, sparing the reader none of the terror that accompanied the final stages of the struggle for independence in 1999. Indeed, A Not-So-Distant Horror refuses to abstract from the human suffering that drew global attention to East Timor in that year, starting not with scholarly chronological sequencing of the events that led to Indonesian occupation but with the author’s trip to East Timor’s ground zero’’ (the razed capital city of Dili) two months after the post-September 1999 referendum violence.

Only after this does Nevins reconstruct an account of what happened and how, and even then the purpose of the narrative is not so much to recount events but to construct a geography of moral responsibility that is mobilized by the jolt one receives from the scenery at ground zero.

In all of this, Nevins clearly means to provoke. How, he asks, can Americans be so sensitized to the destruction of ground zero in New York, the devastating consequences of the attacks of 11 September 2001, yet so oblivious to a ground zero where an equal number of humans perished, only in this case from arms and training originally supplied by governments like the United States? With this question as backdrop, Nevins’s book aims to sensitize.

After taking us to ground zero, Nevins looks at how East Timor got to that point, examining the development of independence struggles under Indonesian occupation (chapter 2), the maneuverings of the major international actors that backed Indonesia (chapter 3), and the run-up to and staging of the referendum on independence, with its tragic aftermath (chapters 4 and 5). Having laid out historically the development of East Timor’s ground zero, Nevins then turns in the remaining chapters to questions regarding the role of the international community in East Timor (chapter 6) and the degree to which various actors responsible for Timorese suffering will (or won’t) be held accountable (chapters 7­9).

Nevins deals early in the book with theoretical issues that ground notions of international responsibility, including conceptions of state sovereignty and its erosion through various transnational processes. This links Nevins’s account to arguments like those of John Agnew, who has insisted on the ‘‘territorially trapped’’ character of social science research that takes the national context as a watertight container. As Nevins puts it, ‘‘territorially trapped’’ accounts ‘‘typically do not give adequate weight to the role of social actors and institutions outside the countries directly involved in an interstate conflict in facilitating, and aiding and abetting or allowing it to unfold or both’’ (p. 17).

But Nevins’s purpose in invoking this literature is not to unpack theoretical issues in critical geopolitics; rather, it is to lay the foundations for his claims about international moral responsibility and the importance of collective memories of violence (e.g., pp. 20­21). Toward this end, Nevins does an especially effective job of foregrounding the callousness and complicity of various U.S. power-brokers. Paul Wolfowitz (today known for his role as George W. Bush’s Undersecretary of Defense, in promoting the current U.S. war in Iraq) is shown to have played an instrumental role, as Reagan’s Ambassador to Indonesia in the 1980s, in selling the Indonesian occupation of East Timor to the U.S. Congress (pp. 45­47). Indeed, even as late as 1999, Wolfowitz was insistent that ‘‘independence for East Timor was simply not a realistic option’’ (p. 115). It is not merely Reagan-Bush officials who are culpable in their unstinting support for Indonesian occupation, however. As Nevins points out, the Clinton administration continued supplying Indonesia with military and economic assistance right through the 1990s, and Clinton comes off as snide and dismissive in his response to questions about this from journalist Alan Nairn (pp. 139­40). In fact, it was not until very late in the day that the Clinton administration began to challenge Indonesia’s referendum violence (pp. 124­125). Moreover, it is not only U.S. officials who have feigned innocence and/or denied culpability, as Nevins shows through his examination of the responses of Australian officials to claims about their own considerable culpability -- Australia having played a major role in backing Indonesia’s occupation from the 1970s up until the post-referendum period (pp. 147­48).

All of this, in many respects, makes for a very compelling case. Nevins is on target in assigning moral responsibility to those who backed Jakarta’s violence. Moreover, he is not simply constructing a high-minded moral accounting system but is concerned about the consequences of our understanding of the East Timor situation for concrete projects of justice specifically, the holding of parties who authored violence responsible and the payment of reparations to East Timor. It is only if our historical memory of the violence in East Timor allows us to see the differing forms of international complicity, he contends, that we can adequately make the case for agendas such as an international human rights tribunals or reparations from countries that backed the violence.

Here, however, it seems to me that if the moral case is compelling, Nevins’s analytical account becomes slightly less so. In fact, one of the rather vexing pieces of the East Timor justice puzzle has been that the current Timorese leadership shows no commitment to demands for either an international human rights tribunal or a serious program of reparations, much to the frustration of international backers of the Timorese independence struggle. Nevins notes this phenomenon in passing (pp. 153­54), and certainly it reflects to a great extent the harsh realities of global power politics. Timorese leaders have some reason to feel that they can realistically expect little from the international community (particularly the U.S. government), and what little they can get is likely to be conditioned on forms of ‘‘good behavior such as forgoing charges against Indonesian military officials or demanding reparations from the United States and Australia. Yet this suggests that such power relations are precisely in need of analysis if we are to understand not only how East Timor has gotten to where it is today but where it is likely to go in the near future. The moral claims that Timorese can make against various groups directly or indirectly responsible for their suffering are compelling; the likelihood of those claims resulting in the international community redressing Timorese suffering to any great extent is at best questionable.

To no small extent, moreover, the unlikelihood of holding authors of violence responsible or of obtaining significant reparations may have to do not only with the raw power equation of international relations but with the evolving class interests of the new Timorese leadership itself. An analysis of such interests, which Nevins doesn’t undertake, might help us better understand how Clinton was able to shrug off his own responsibility for violence with the following claim, in response to Nairn: I think the right thing to do is to do what the leaders of East Timor said. They want to look forward, and you want to look backward. I’m going to stick with the leaders’’ (p. 140). This claim, however opportunistic, in fact dovetails with Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos- Horta’s assertion that ‘‘We shouldn’t just look to the past.We need to look at the good relations we have with the U.S. in 2001, not our relationship in 1975’’ (p. 153). It also dovetails with Timorese President Xanana Gusmao’s characterization of the Indonesian occupation as the result of a historical mistake which now belongs to history and to the past’’ (p. 154). If the Timorese leadership is itself abandoning the project of social justice for which Nevins so convincingly speaks, perhaps it would be useful to know more about why this is the case.

That having been said, A Not-So-Distant Horror is a very worthwhile book. If it does not fully chart the geopolitical and economic terrain on which Timorese reconstruction is occurring, it nonetheless charts the terrain of a transnational moral geography that can inform struggles over social justice.


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