East Timor’s Suffering and Survival

East Timor, which gained its independence from Indonesia in 1999 after suffering years of genocide, is now a beacon of democracy in Asia but faces new colonial pressures from globalization, writes John Pilger.

By John Pilger

Filming undercover in East Timor in 1993, I followed a landscape of crosses: great black crosses etched against the sky, crosses on peaks, crosses marching down the hillsides, crosses beside the road. They littered the earth and crowded the eye.

A protest calling for East Timor to be given a larger share of revenues from offshore oil and natural gas.

The inscriptions on the crosses revealed the extinction of whole families, wiped out in the space of a year, a month, a day. Village after village stood as memorials.

Kraras is one such village. Known as the “village of the widows,” the population of 287 people was murdered by Indonesian troops. Using a typewriter with a faded ribbon, a local priest had recorded the name, age, cause of death and date of the killing of every victim. In the last column, he identified the Indonesian battalion responsible for each murder. It was evidence of genocide.

I still have this document, which I find difficult to put down, as if the blood of East Timor is fresh on its pages. On the list is the dos Anjos family.

In 1987, I interviewed Arthur Stevenson, known as Steve, a former Australian commando who had fought the Japanese in the Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1942. He told me the story of Celestino dos Anjos, whose ingenuity and bravery had saved his life, and the lives of other Australian soldiers fighting behind Japanese lines.

Steve described the day leaflets fluttered down from a Royal Australian Air Force plane; “We shall never forget you,” the leaflets said. Soon afterwards, the Australians were ordered to abandon the island of Timor, leaving the people to their fate.

When I met Steve, he had just received a letter from Celestino’s son, Virgillo, who was the same age as his own son. Virgillo wrote that his father had survived the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, but he went on: “In August 1983, Indonesian forces entered our village, Kraras. They looted, burned and massacred, with fighter aircraft overhead. On 27 September 1983, they made my father and my wife dig their own graves and they machine-gunned them. My wife was pregnant.”

Shaming Indonesia’s Accomplices

The Kraras list is an extraordinary political document that shames Indonesia’s Faustian partners in the West and teaches us how much of the world is run. The fighter aircraft that attacked Kraras came from the United States; the machine guns and surface-to-air missiles came from Britain; the silence and betrayal came from Australia.

Official portrait of Indonesian dictator Suharto.

The priest of Kraras wrote on the final page: “To the capitalist governors of the world, Timor’s petroleum smells better than Timorese blood and tears. Who will take this truth to the world? … It is evident that Indonesia would never have committed such a crime if it had not received favourable guarantees from [Western] governments.”

As the Indonesian dictator General Suharto was about to invade East Timor (the Portuguese had abandoned their colony), he tipped off the ambassadors of Australia, the United States and Britain. In secret cables subsequently leaked, the Australian ambassador, Richard Woolcott, urged his government to “act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show private understanding to Indonesia.” He alluded to the beckoning spoils of oil and gas in the Timor Sea that separated the island from northern Australia.

There was no word of concern for the Timorese.

In my experience as a reporter, East Timor was the greatest crime of the late Twentieth Century. I had much to do with Cambodia, yet not even Pol Pot put to death as many people — proportionally — as Suharto killed and starved in East Timor.

In 1993, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Australian Parliament estimated that “at least 200,000” East Timorese, a third of the population, had perished under Suharto.

Australia was the only Western country formally to recognize Indonesia’s genocidal conquest. The murderous Indonesian special forces known as Kopassus were trained by Australian special forces at a base near Perth. The prize in resources, said Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, was worth “zillions” of dollars.

Champagne Toasts

In my 1994 film, “Death of a Nation: the Timor Conspiracy,” a gloating Evans is filmed lifting a champagne glass as he and Ali Alatas, Suharto’s foreign minister, fly over the Timor Sea, having signed a piratical treaty that divided the oil and gas riches of the Timor Sea.

Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas celebrate the signing of an oil and gas agreement.

I also filmed witnesses such as Abel Gutteras, now the Ambassador of Timor-Leste (East Timor’s post independence name) to Australia. He told me, “We believe we can win and we can count on all those people in the world to listen — that nothing is impossible, and peace and freedom are always worth fighting for.”

Remarkably, they did win. Many people all over the world did hear them, and a tireless movement added to the pressure on Suharto’s backers in Washington, London and Canberra to abandon the dictator.

But there was also a silence. For years, the free press of the complicit countries all but ignored East Timor. There were honorable exceptions, such as the courageous Max Stahl, who filmed the 1991 massacre in the Santa Cruz cemetery. Leading journalists almost literally fell at the feet of Suharto. In a photograph of a group of Australian editors visiting Jakarta, led by the Murdoch editor Paul Kelly, one of them is bowing to Suharto, the genocidist.

From 1999 to 2002, the Australian Government took an estimated $1.2 billion in revenue from one oil and gas field in the Timor Sea. During the same period, Australia gave less than $200 million in so-called aid to East Timor.

In 2002, two months before East Timor won its independence, as Ben Doherty reported in January, “Australia secretly withdrew from the maritime boundary dispute resolution procedures of the UN convention the Law of the Sea, and the equivalent jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, so that it could not be compelled into legally binding international arbitration.”

The former Australian Prime Minister John Howard has described his government’s role in East Timor’s independence as “noble.” Howard’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, once burst into the cabinet room in Dili, East Timor, and told Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, “We are very tough … Let me give you a tutorial in politics …”

Today, it is Timor-Leste that is giving the tutorial in politics. After years of trickery and bullying by Canberra, the people of Timor-Leste have demanded and won the right to negotiate before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) a legal maritime boundary and a proper share of the oil and gas.

Australia owes Timor Leste a huge debt — some would say, billions of dollars in reparations. Australia should hand over, unconditionally, all royalties collected since Gareth Evans toasted Suharto’s dictatorship while flying over the graves of its victims.

The Globalization Threat

The Economist lauds Timor-Leste as the most democratic country in southeast Asia today. Is that an accolade? Or does it mean approval of a small and vulnerable country joining the great game of globalization?

A map showing East Timor in red.

For the weakest, globalization is an insidious colonialism that enables transnational finance and its camp-followers to penetrate deeper, as Edward Said wrote, than the old imperialists in their gun boats.

It can mean a model of development that gave Indonesia, under Suharto, gross inequality and corruption; that drove people off their land and into slums, then boasted about a growth rate.

The people of Timor-Leste deserve better than faint praise from the “capitalist governors of the world,” as the priest of Kraras wrote. They did not fight and die and vote for entrenched poverty and a growth rate. They deserve the right to sustain themselves when the oil and gas run out as it will. At the very least, their courage ought to be a beacon in our memory: a universal political lesson.

Bravo, Timor-Leste. Bravo and beware.

On May 5, John Pilger was presented with the Order of Timor-Leste by East Timor’s Ambassador to Australia, Abel Gutteras, in recognition of his reporting on East Timor under Indonesia’s brutal occupation, especially his landmark documentary film, “Death of a Nation: the Timor Conspiracy.” 

20 comments for “East Timor’s Suffering and Survival

  1. Realist
    May 8, 2017 at 17:56

    I remember that invasion being reported in the American media back in 1975. Not much concern or outrage expressed by our press. It was basically filler between major stories before the major networks invented info-tainment to replace real news. I think it was essentially treated as a local dust-up between third world primitives, not of much import or concern to America. In reality, it was so similar to many parallel struggles for autonomy in the undeveloped world at that time in history, including Angola, Zaire (Congo) and what was to be later called Namibia. Of course, it was de rigueur for the United States to support the monsters, like Jonas Savimbi and Mobutu Sese Seko, in thrall to our empire, freedom and democracy be damned. A decade earlier the hopes of local people in Nigeria and Rhodesia (later to become Zimbabwe) for true independence when colonialism collapsed in Africa was murdered by the United States along with their populist leaders like Patrice Lumumba. Young Americans know little of the global repression supported by their country and repeatedly instigated by its CIA. My generation lived through it but paid scant attention. In fact, they probably supported the carnage if it advantaged our corporations and economy. Biafra and Katanga were rebellions to be crushed. Why? Because the government and the media said so. The only military actions American citizens would come to care about were those in which our own draftees went to the slaughter, as in Vietnam, and even there they were duped until late in the game.

    • Bill Bodden
      May 8, 2017 at 18:57

      Your history, Realist, brings to mind other events that bring back bitter reflections of how our generation was lied to and a recognition that one of the great problems afflicting the world then, before, and still is the constant stream of lies fed to the people by the establishments and their paid fabulists in the media – and the gullibility of the people who bought into those lies. At least when our generation takes its leave of this world, we can look at some people, such as the staff at Consortium News and kindred sites, and go with the hope of better days ahead.

    • John wilson
      May 9, 2017 at 03:55

      There was no internet back then, realist, and precious little in the way of alternative news. Can you just imagine what ‘they’ must have got away back then?! I recall my own family would say all those years ago: ” it must be true because we saw it on TV or read it in the paper” Not much has changed since!!!

  2. May 8, 2017 at 16:28

    Something that bothers me about East Timor, besides its horrors as Pilger explains, is that Amy Goodman was there as a reporter–almost got herself killed. But now her program Democracy Now seems so confused about Syria. What gives?

    • mike k
      May 8, 2017 at 16:37

      Being a confirmed liberal/democrat has it’s problems.

  3. mike k
    May 8, 2017 at 14:04

    What is the biggest problem in the United States today? The bloated, corrupt, evil military industrial complex. What entity is most likely to destroy our world? Ditto the above.

  4. mike k
    May 8, 2017 at 13:55

    You can always tell who is the greatest most evil villain in the world: it’s who has the biggest military!

  5. mike k
    May 8, 2017 at 13:53

    When are we going to wake up and realize that the US pretension that we must wage war all over the world in order to have peace is PURE BULLSHIT!

  6. mike k
    May 8, 2017 at 13:41

    Willingness to take part in the military is the basis for all empires. Anyone can resist this. When everyone refuses to fight, we will have peace. So roll your eyes if you want, but do you really think war will end unless we stop fighting? Can people really be pacifists? Look up the history of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). You say, “That didn’t stop wars, did it?” No, maybe we need to keep trying and get more folks doing it. If enough refuse to support war, it will end. If we won’t do this, then we will merely prove that continued participation in war means that war will continue.

    • BannanaBoat
      May 8, 2017 at 20:37

      Silence is complicity and participation is criminal.

  7. Bill Bodden
    May 8, 2017 at 13:15

    When I was assigned to my first ship my supervisor told me I would encounter the best and worst of people with most people somewhere in between. He was referring to the people making up the crew. As I learned from ports of call, my supervisor’s dictum was equally applicable to nations. Australia proved not to be an exception.

    I was surprised in this article that John Pilger, one of Australia’s best, did not refer in this article to FORD, KISSINGER AND THE INDONESIAN INVASION, 1975-76 – http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB62/ – “Ford and Kissinger Gave Green Light to Indonesia’s Invasion of East Timor, 1975: New Documents Detail Conversations with Suharto”

    • evelync
      May 8, 2017 at 16:33

      Thank you for the link, Bill Bodden, including the background of American complicity in the massacres.
      Just this morning I read that Kissinger was quoted saying “the illegal we do immediately” :

      “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.
      As quoted in The Washington Post (23 December 1973); he later joked further on this remark, on 10 March 1975 saying to Turkish Foreign Minister Melih Esenbel in Ankara, Turkey:
      Before the Freedom of Information Act, I used to say at meetings “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” … But since the Freedom of Information Act, I’m afraid to say things like that.
      As quoted in “Sunshine Week Document Friday! Kissinger Says, “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer. But since the FOIA, I’m afraid to say things like that.” in Unredacted : The National Security Archive, unedited and uncensored
      Included in Cable P860114-1573_MC_b Wikileaks”


      The East Timorese – one more culture decimated by the Cold War Ideology (domino effect propaganda) as a pretense for violence against indigenous people for the purpose of stealing natural resources.

    • Sam F
      May 8, 2017 at 21:11

      Yes, my recollection of the earlier East Timor genocide supported by the US was 1.3 million deaths, but I have not studied this.

  8. Brad Owen
    May 8, 2017 at 12:00

    Yes globalization is just another tactic for maintaining Empire. What has proven to be the most effective version of Empire is the “Chartered Company” operations for Empire, pioneered by the Dutch East India Company (chartered in 1602) which happened to own Indonesia as their most valuable colony. The Brits followed the Dutch model, setting up “Chartered Companies” (British East India Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, Royal Africa Company, etc…). This is the early version of “NGO”s and “Economic Hitmen” privatized armies of mercs and “contractors”, doing business (by briefcase or gun or gunboat, whatever’s required) “in the name of The Crown (chartering authority)”. Suharto knocked off Sukarno (with a little help from colonial masters…and a former colony-turned-accomplice; USA) to continue protecting “investment portfolios” of now-covert colonial masters…oh yeah, let’s call it globalization, so much more friendly-sounding than imperial corporate colonization for Empire (we just won’t mention the Crowns anymore, nod nod, wink wink)

  9. mike k
    May 8, 2017 at 11:08

    It is tragic and deeply disturbing that the control of our world has been taken over by very evil people capable of the most horrendous crimes, but this is the reality we must face and work against if we seek a better more loving and peaceful world.

    • Bill Bodden
      May 8, 2017 at 12:55

      Very evil people running the world is nothing new, mike. The history of the world is replete with examples. The trick is to find the few examples where and when humanity prevailed.

      • mike k
        May 8, 2017 at 13:26

        You are so right, Bill. This problem of the scum taking over goes back to the beginning of civilization. Violent aggressive greedy types have been with us for a long time, creating inequality and misery. Their pretense to be special and elite above others has been part of their Mo since their emergence also. How to get rid of them and realize our higher potentials is one of the ongoing archetypal koans of our species. It looks like if we don’t solve this now, there may not be any more chances to do so.

    • John wilson
      May 9, 2017 at 03:40

      Mike; we need many more great journalists like Pilger to achieve the very laudable aim you yearn for. John Pilger is one of the few lone voices out there trying to make a difference. With the emergence of the so called “fake news” which the deep state and MSM etc want to sensor, and which is in reality aimed directly at people like John Pilger, the struggle for alternative news will only get harder. Bit by bit the dark forces of the secret state are starting to get a strangled hold on the net, so the future of free speech and alternative news looks bleak indeed.

      • Ann Tattersall
        May 10, 2017 at 21:54

        Printing presses and photocopiers are widespread. People who read printed material think more clearly than (modern) people who don’t, so they are essential to a movement that depends on strategy. A revolution depends on strategy. I think we will be o.k.

  10. mike k
    May 8, 2017 at 11:02

    The unspeakable ugliness and evil of the “real world” revealed. So different than the propaganda fed to the masses.

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