So what do you know about East Timor? Not much? Good. You must be British. Or American. Aussies will have heard of the place for reasons I’ll come to later. The first I heard of the place was about ten years ago on the Mark Thomas Comedy Product TV Show (Mark Thomas is the Michael Moore of the UK only much less fat) when he was going on about British arms companies supplying the weapons that the Indonesian army were using to kill civilians in East Timor.
So what follows is a potted history of this little nation. Like most of the islands that make up Indonesia, Timor was fought over by the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish and god knows who else for a few centuries until the island was split down the middle (with a little odd enclave) between the Portuguese and the Dutch.
Poor old East Timor, it was doomed from the start. In the league of Nations It Really Sucked To Be Colonised By, Portugal has to come joint top with Belgium. Look at the ex-Portuguese colonies around the world: Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and –urk – Cape Verde. Basketcases one and all. Portugal really quite spectacularly neglected pretty much all of it colonies, failed to build any decent infrastructure, educate the native population, or even prepare them for the transition into statehood.
Instead the Portuguese (under the universally loathed Salazar regime) just raped the land of its resources, orchestrated a devastatingly successful divide-and-rule policy, and then once day in 1975 pulled out without a thank you, goodbye, kiss-my-elbow NOTHING. In Mozambique they trashed the place on the way out – setting fire to buildings, sabotaging vehicles and – sickeningly – pouring concrete down wells. In Angola just ONE university graduate was left in a country the size of Western Europe. A country with a population of fourteen million. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened next. The civil war in Angola rumbled on for almost THIRTY years.
East Timor was spared the inevitable civil war only because Indonesia (at the behest of the US and Australia, by the way) invaded and annexed the country. Predictably, people fought back, some with arms, others (more sensibly and more successfully) through diplomacy. Step forward, Jose Ramos-Horta, current President and Nobel Laureate (he won the Peace Prize in 1996). We shall learn more about him later.
Anyway, after 23 years of violent repression of the East Timorese independence movement, something weird happened. President Habibie of Indonesia announced a referendum. I guess it kinda made sense at the time – there was a lot of international pressure to lay off East Timor – once the results showed that the overwhelming majority of East Timorese wanted to stay with Jakarta, they would have the UN off their back. Votes can be rigged right?
The canny East Timorese, in the face of intimidation and death threats, announced their intention to stay a part of Indonesian in public. When it came to the private ballot though, HA! Fooled ya! They voted for independence. By a landslide.
Indonesia’s army didn’t know what to do, so it did what tin-pot third-world armies do best: they trashed the place. Massacres, arson and looting were rife. Half a million people were displaced. This brought East Timor’s plight to the attention of Australia. Unfortunately, the East Timorese possibly didn’t realise they were on the doorstep of the Most Racist Country In The World™ and the only way they were going to get any help – humanitarian or otherwise – was if they handed over their future oil rights to the Howard administration for a song. But the plucky ETs held their ground (despite the fact their countrymen were being slaughtered in the streets) and (eventually) got themselves a halfway decent deal. That fat bastard Alexander Downer would have been happy for the massacres to go on (in his own words) “10, 20, 30 years… we can wait”.
What a nice chap. I sure hope you didn’t vote for him.
Anyway, the UN came in too late, left too early, came back looking sheepish and are still here now. The Indonesian army has gone and since 2001 East Timor (or Timor-Leste to be precise) has had a seat on the UN.
President Ramos-Horta survived an assassination attempt in 2008 (he was shot twice in the stomach) and is still going strong and still wanders about with a minimum of security. Which was my good fortune today as he was speaking at a school down the road. I turned up in my scruffs, clutching a couple of bags (perhaps full of AK-47s and rocket launchers) and was waved through the crowd peering through the school gates to take up a position just a few feet away from the man himself. Good job I’m not The Jackal eh?
After the speech he cut some cake, popped some champagne and declared the new tech wing of the San Miguel school (donated by the Rotary Club of Australia, by the way) open. Just as the tape in my camcorder ran out I managed to shake his hand and say hello. He was then whisked away much in the manner of Dungeon Master from Dungeons and Dragons.
Heads of states eh? I’m finally going places!
Afterwards I met up with my auld muckas Chesa and Simon, them wot’s tryin’ to get from Italy to Oz in a Fiat 500. They had to wait a couple of days longer than me in Kupang for Simon’s East Timor visa, but they got it in the end and now here they were in Dili. We met at the Castaway bar for a bit of grub and a natter. I stuck to the soft drinks – no, I’m not on the wagon (as if!), it’s just that the price of the booze here makes me pull a sad face.