East Timor: A lesson in why the poorest threaten the powerful

Source: The New Statesman

The island led to freedom by the militants of Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta is still seen as a colony by Washington and its local sheriffs, Australia and Indonesia, hungry for resources.

Milan Kundera’s truism “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” described East Timor. The day before I set out to film clandestinely there in 1993, I went to Stanfords map shop in London’s Covent Garden. “Timor?” said a hesitant sales assistant. We stood staring at shelves marked “South-East Asia”. “Forgive me, where exactly is it?”

After a search, he came up with an old aeronautical map with blank areas stamped “Relief Data Incomplete”. He had never been asked for East Timor. Such was the silence that enveloped the Portu­guese colony following its invasion by Indonesia in 1975. Yet not even Pol Pot succeeded in killing, proportionally, as many Cambodians as the Indonesian dictator Suharto killed and starved in East Timor.

In my film Death of a Nation, there is a sequence on board an Australian aircraft flying over the island of Timor. A party is in progress, and two men in suits are toasting each other in champagne. “This is an historically unique moment,” babbles one of them, “that is truly uniquely historical.” This is Gareth Evans, Australia’s foreign minister. The other man is Ali Alatas, Suharto’s principal mouthpiece. It is 1989 and they are making a symbolic flightto celebrate the signing of a piratical treaty that allowed Australia and international oil and gas companies to exploit the seabed off East Timor. Beneath them are valleys etched with black crosses where British- and American-supplied aircraft have blown people to bits.

Zillions of dollars

In 1993, the foreign affairs committee of the Australian parliament reported that “at least 200,000”, a third of East Timor’s population, had perished under Suharto. Thanks largely to Evans, Australia was the only western country that formally recognised Suharto’s genocidal conquest. The murderous Indonesian special forces known as Kopassus trained in Australia. The prize, said Evans, was “zillions” of dollars.

Unlike Saddam Hussein, Suharto died peacefully in 2008 surrounded by the best medical help his billions could buy. He was never at risk of prosecution by the “international community”. Margaret Thatcher told him, “You are one of our very best and most valuable friends.” The Australian prime minister Paul Keating regarded him as a father figure. A group of Australian newspaper editors, led by Rupert Murdoch’s veteran retainer Paul Kelly, flew to Jakarta to pay their tribute to the dictator; there is a picture of one of them bowing.

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