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Review: How genocide was avoided in East Timor

Published: Nov 23, 2010

Robinson’s analysis and insight into the period surrounding the independence ballot makes for authoritative and gripping reading

Helene van Klinken

By chance I was reading Geoffrey Robinson’s new book in Atambua, which is situated close to Indonesia’s border with Timor-Leste. At the bus terminal just outside of town a drunken ex-East Timorese militiaman boarded our bus, blocking the exit while he harangued us for half an hour, angry that he had been forced out of East Timor. I had a flashback to ten years ago in this town, when East Timorese militias in an angry frenzy killed and burnt the bodies of three UNHCR staff members who were helping the tens of thousands of East Timorese living on the Indonesian side of the border. The ex-militiaman did not make clear what he wanted – not money or cigarettes, understanding and recognition perhaps. The locals were deeply resentful of such behaviour, but no one dared to throw him off the bus.

To understand what brought this man and others like him to West Timor we can do no better than read Geoffrey Robinson’s book. Robinson is an historian, based at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written extensively about the origins of political violence, including in East Timor. He is also a former human rights worker, who focussed on East Timor for Amnesty International, and in 1999 he was a political affairs officer for the United Nations which organised the referendum in East Timor. I also worked as a UN political affairs officer in East Timor prior to the vote. Robinson captures the tension and exhilaration experienced by all UN staff and volunteers working in East Timor in those dramatic months in mid-1999. His analysis of and insight into this period are unsurpassed and he tells the story of the vote with passion, recounting many anecdotes and observations out of his own experience. It is authoritative and gripping reading.

A history of violence

The book’s first chapters chart the history of the Portuguese colonial period and the Indonesian occupation, while the main focus of the book is the violence surrounding the vote on the autonomy option Indonesia offered the East Timorese on 30 August 1999. Robinson argues that a succession of military-dominated regimes in East Timor meant that military norms prevailed – violence was the way to solve political and social problems and maintain law and order. The military officers in charge trained East Timorese to suppress dissent among their fellows. The Portuguese trained local people as soldiers and militias often setting one group against another, with the effect of diluting opposition to Portuguese rule. The Japanese and Australians in World War II also used local people as militias and military auxiliaries. Indonesia continued this practice, training and deploying military auxiliaries and militia as local proxies in many different forms and reincarnations.

The Indonesian military also brought its own practices of mobilising the local population as militia forces. To understand the violence in East Timor during the Indonesian period and the militias in 1999, Robinson argues we also need to take into account the history. The militia were not only an Indonesian invention. The experience of ‘serving in or fighting against’ the colonial security forces also provided a ‘template for the use of violence and the skills needed to do so’.

To understand the violence in East Timor under Indonesian occupation and the militias in 1999, we need to take into account the history

From his wide study of political violence, Robinson argues that differences between groups do not spontaneously escalate to mass killings and genocide; rather the escalation is invariably instigated by state actors for their own political and ideological ends. While he deems incontrovertible the evidence that the Indonesian military ‘mobilized, armed, trained, supplied, and financed’ the militias, he also concedes that the military may not have had a master plan to destroy East Timor after the vote. It expected that intimidation would ensure a win for Indonesia. Based on their historical learning the militias knew how to act; indeed by 1999 the Indonesian military may not have been able to stop them.

Lessons to learn

Besides presenting a new perspective on the origin of the militias and of the violence in East Timor, Robinson argues that the lesson of East Timor teaches us how violence was stopped, a less common theme in the literature on political violence and crimes against humanity. He describes what he believes to be a ‘conjuncture’ of a unique set of historical circumstances that led to the swift and effective deployment of the Australian-led Interfet force with a strong mandate to use military force where necessary. He examines in some detail why the international community was willing to act in 1999 to prevent mass killing on a major scale, yet did nothing to stop it following the invasion in 1975 and the succeeding years.

The decision to intervene, Robinson argues, was also influenced by many groups of ordinary people, church-based organisations, NGOs and individuals. He takes the title of his book from an exchange he witnessed in the UN compound in Dili between an East Timorese woman sheltering there and a member of the visiting UN delegation on 11 September. Her plea, ‘If you leave us here, we will die’ – as well as the visit of the delegation and the personal bravery of some 80 UN staff who refused to evacuate and leave the refugees to the mercy of the militias – contributed to pressuring international actors to make the speedy decision to intervene. But of course the bravery of the East Timorese who turned out to vote in the face of violence and the restraint of Xanana Gusmão and the resistance fighters in not fighting back were definitive in convincing the world that the violence was one-sided.

Robinson acknowledges that the unique conjunction of so many individual and historical conditions calls into question whether intervention like this can ever be repeated. Nonetheless, he concludes on a hopeful note: the many different causes of mass violence make devising a simple formula to prevent it impossible, but the East Timor experience demonstrates that even when violence appears inevitable, ways may still be found to stop it.

Geoffrey Robinson, ‘If you leave us here, we will die’: How genocide was stopped in East Timor, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2010.

Helene van Klinken ( recently wrote a PhD about the transfer of East Timorese children to Indonesia between 1975 and 1999.

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

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