The Common Good
September-October 1999

A Moment of Destiny

by Miriam Young | September-October 1999

It's now or never for East Timor.

In June I stood with a small group of foreigners to witness the opening of the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor, UNAMET. Thousands of Timorese filled the street and surged up the driveway, sitting on the walls and perching in the trees. As the United Nations flag rose up the flagpole in the courtyard, the crowd cheered, clapped, and sang, shaking all the trees. The roar seemed to go on forever.

I was deeply moved thinking how long the Timorese had waited for this moment, and sobered as I realized the tremendous expectations they had in the United Nations. Their outcry was an expression of 24 years of suffering, combined with an undying hope that the international community would respond to their struggle. Yet just before the flag-raising, a U.N. official turned to me and said quietly, "Frankly, if we can pull this off, it will be a miracle."

It just may take a miracle given all the obstacles the United Nations faces in order to fulfill its mandate: to organize and supervise a free and fair election in less than two months’ time. Almost since the day in 1975 when Indonesia invaded the tiny half-island and "annexed" it as it was being let go by its colonial power, Portugal, the United Nations has tried to resolve East Timor’s status. Under Indonesian President Suharto the effort went virtually nowhere. But Suharto’s fall last year from three decades in power, coupled with the country’s severe economic crisis, led to a U.N.-brokered agreement between Indonesia and Portugal. In August, the Timorese will vote to accept or reject an offer of autonomy from Indonesia. Rejection of the proposal would effectively be a vote for independence.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has already postponed the original August 8 date by two weeks due to logistical and security concerns. The task of recruiting personnel and setting up an entire infrastructure for the ballot is enormous, given the short time span and the lack of practically any local organization other than the Catholic Church. But the more serious concern is security.

A widespread campaign of terror and intimidation is being carried out by recently created local militias whose members claim to support integration with Indonesia. Clearly organized and trained by the Indonesian military, they have carried out brutal massacres and threatened to kill all independence supporters, publishing lists of those to be liquidated. As one Timorese pointed out to me, "What we have here is not ethnic cleansing but political cleansing." Thousands of people have been displaced and are hiding in the jungle without access to food or shelter, prompting fears of a humanitarian crisis.

CHURCH LEADERS and human rights organizations claim that the military and the militias are trying to create a civil war in order to make it impossible for the referendum to take place. But I heard repeatedly the view that, left alone, the Timorese would be able to solve their problems and reconcile their differences among themselves.

East Timor independence leaders such as Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta have long advocated a transition period before full independence. But with only a sliver of history to decide on their future, it is now or never for the Timorese. And the stakes for all involved are high.

For the new government in Jakarta, which is to be a coalition of parties under Megawati, the status of East Timor will affect its relations with the powerful military and raise concerns about the unity of the nation. Indonesia’s reputation in the international community, however, depends in part on its ability to live up to the commitments it signed onto in the U.N. agreement.

Giving up the territory after years of military operations and loss of lives would force the Indonesian army to admit its failure to integrate East Timor into Indonesia and spell the end of its extensive economic interests in the territory. Those Timorese who have opted to cooperate with Indonesia and hold positions in the civil administration stand to lose their jobs and livelihoods.

For the vast majority of Timorese, this is their moment of destiny. As I watched a procession on Corpus Christi Sunday flow through the streets of Dili, I was struck by the sheer peacefulness that emanated from the midst of the faithful. They have suffered immeasurably for 24 years and their suffering is probably not over. Yet they have resisted Indonesian rule with few resources and little outside support. I have great faith in the strength and wisdom of the Timorese people to achieve their own Timor Loro Sa’e, their Land of Sunrise.

MIRIAM YOUNG is executive director of the Asia Pacific Center for Justice and Peace, a non-profit organization based in D.C. She traveled to East Timor in June. The center was invited by the Protestant Church of East Timor to lead an interfaith delegation to monitor and witness the U.N.-supervised referendum in East Timor this fall.

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