On Sunday (30 August), it will be 10 years since the people of East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia. Following 24 years in which more than a quarter of the population was killed or died as result of the occupation, the vote of almost 80 per cent in favour of independence was not surprising.
What was extraordinary was that in what had become a war zone, 98.6 per cent of registered voters turned out to vote. Many had trekked long distances over rough tracks, coming down from the relative safety of the mountains to line up before dawn at polling stations across the territory.
Heavily armed Indonesian police and soldiers stood at, and inside, polling centres. The Indonesian army’s proxy militias strolled in and out intimidating voters. In the village of Balibo, Indonesian intelligence officers directed the Halilintar (Lightning) militia and paid cash to ‘voters’ trucked in from West Timor.
Yet wearing their best clothes, the East Timorese defiantly voted, before returning to their homes or to the mountains.
By early afternoon on the 30th, the first polling station, at the village of Ritabou, near the troubled town of Maliana, was already in flames. Thus ended the brief hours of ‘truce’ that divided the violence leading up to the ballot and that which followed it. An orgy of violence and destruction spread from there, engulfing whole communities, a whole people.
At Maliana, the people had been told they would be safe at the police station. Once inside, the police helped the militias stage a massacre. Hundreds were similarly murdered at the cathedral in Suai on the south coast. Balibo on ballot day had been dangerous. A few days later, it was the scene of another massacre, of students trying to return to Dili.
Officially, around 1,4000 people were said to have been killed across East Timor, although many more have never been accounted for. Unofficially, the UN Serious Crimes Unit investigating these war crimes estimated that three to four thousand people were murdered, their bodies believed to be buried across the West Timor border or dumped at sea.
In a clever strategy of intimidation, ballot observers and UN staff had been directly threatened but rarely harmed. Yet the day after the ballot, my house in Maliana was in flames. At one of 13 militia roadblocks between Maliana and Dili, a screaming militia member affected by drugs and alcohol put an M-16 rifle to my head. The TNI gave the militias amphetamines the locals called ‘anjing gila’ (‘mad dog’), describing its effect. East Timor began to burn more furiously with the police, sent under a deal with the UN to protect it, standing by and watching, or helping to burn it.
After the 30th, our observer group had been leaving as they could, the last main group going out on the 4th of September on the deck of a refugee filled cargo boat, leaving the port under gunfire as the flames spread. In the following days, a third of the population was forced at gunpoint across the border to become hostages, and more fled to the hills.
It was only the strength of public Australian feeling that forced the deeply reluctant Howard government to form Interfet, and an American requirement that Australia lead it. After the TNI and militias withdrew across the border, the first emergency months were devoted to keeping people alive. The hard work started after that.
In the lead up to the ballot, the expectations of independence had been impossibly high. The reality disappointed, as it so often has after a semi-competent colonial power departs, taking administrative capacity, jobs and money with it.
Indonesia not only pulled out its trained staff, but murdered many of the few skilled people who would have remained. More than 70 per cent of the country was burned and, beyond a few roads, there was no infrastructure to speak of left.
After promising the people of East Timor that it would not leave, the UN returned to begin building a new country. It brought very mixed skills and interest and consequently produced very mixed results. As local and returning elites vied for greater political control, the UN was only too happy to hand over power and then withdraw too early.
The result was a fledgling government with limited capacity faced with growing disenchantment and dissent. The dominant group in the government, including the prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, had received their political training in Mozambique, which was not known for its tolerance or pluralism. In the face of dissent, the government increasingly trended towards authoritarian responses.
The people of East Timor had, however, not voted out Indonesia to replace it with domestic authoritarianism, but the party of government, Fretilin, had wrapped itself in the cloak of independence. The stage was set for a split, which in 2006 almost plunged the fledgling country into civil war.
Having left too soon, the international community returned, elections scheduled for 2007 were held and the government was changed. Despite some post-election violence, the situation increasingly settled.
Particularly in 2008 and into 2009, the economy has grown, largely due to government spending on the back of oil receipts. The drought that had plagued recent years also ended and the markets are again full of food, in part assisted by government purchases of subsidised rice. Public works and infrastructure development is visible, notably in Dili.
A sense of security and stability has returned to East Timor. After two years when people would not venture out after dark, public life in the evening has returned to Dili, and other centres are even more tranquil.
East Timor continues to face many obstacles. It takes many years to turn around illiteracy and limited health care, and economic growth, while good at 13 per cent, is still off a very low base.
But East Timor is not a failed state and is decreasingly likely to become so. It has overcome the common post-colonial challenge of slipping into an easy authoritarianism. There have been elections and democratic consolidation. Its people have embraced electoral politics, voluntarily turning out for elections in numbers equal to compulsory voting in proudly democratic Australia.
It is ten years since the brutality and destruction surrounding East Timor’s brave and defiant vote for independence. There have been difficulties over that decade, hardly surprising given this nation’s traumatic birth.
Ten years on, East Timor is a small country and still vulnerable, but after the Indonesian occupation, and the events of 1999, its people are now beginning to enjoy at least some of the fruits of political freedom.
*Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury, of the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University, is author of ‘East Timor: The Price of Liberty’ (Palgrave, 2009). He was in-country coordinator of the 1999 Australian non-government observer group, and again for the 2007 elections.