The tragedy in East Timor began nearly a quarter century ago after Indonesian forces provoked a brief civil war in the territory and then invaded and occupied it outright. Massive suffering followed, with an estimated 200,000 people, nearly a third of the original population, perishing as a direct consequence of the Indonesian assault.
It is worth stressing from the outset that roughly 90 percent of the weapons available to the Indonesian army when it invaded East Timor were American-supplied. Moreover, there was diplomatic support for Indonesia by successive U.S. administrations, starting with the presence of then-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Jakarta only hours before the full-scale Indonesian invasion in 1975.
Yet only in the past decade has East Timor finally received sustained American media attention, beginning in 1991 with the massacre at Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, the capital. This horrific event, captured on video by British journalist Max Stahl and seen by shocked television viewers around the world, provoked grassroots pressure from faith-based groups with its documentation of injured and dying young Timorese praying and singing amid gravestones in a church cemetery. This had an immediate and profound impact on people from varying religious traditionsnot just Roman Catholic, the religion of most East Timorese.
Five years later Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, East Timors foremost spiritual leader and someone heavily influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and he has become an international symbol of nonviolent resistance. From the time Belo took up his post in 1983, he has counseled his fellow East Timorese against armed struggle, and he has opposed demonstrations that might result in bloodshed.