Review: A not-so-distant horror: Mass Violence in East Timor

Review: A not-so-distant horror: Mass Violence in East Timor
Published: Nov 25, 2007

Joseph Nevins

Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 2005 ISBN 0801489849 A$24.00

Joseph Nevin, in his book A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor, challenges the idea that external powers simply failed to act in the face of the brutal occupation of East Timor. He demonstrates convincingly that foreign governments such as those in the USA, UK, Japan and Australia among others, actively colluded with and supported the Indonesian authorities before the 1975 invasion, throughout the occupation, and during the violent transition to independence in 1999. Yet, like those responsible in Indonesia, they have not been held to account for the atrocities which ensued.

His account is intensely personal, yet powerfully researched and analytical, with responsibility for the lives and deaths of East Timorese people at the forefront. Nevin is morally perturbed that their ‘ground zero’ of September 1999 didn’t rate in comparison to 9/11, perhaps because the horror seemed too distant; yet he shows that those responsible for enabling it to happen were in fact all ‘close to home’ in the complicit western countries, and actively frustrating the UN’s ability to bring about justice.

This book draws attention not only to the support which successive pro-Indonesian governments provided, among them lethal military equipment, weapons, and military training, financial investment, trade, aid, and diplomatic comfort, but also the way these governments have re-written history to suggest that they ‘did all they could,’ or that their ‘generosity’ helped establish the new nation. In fact, as Nevin shows, they have survived with impunity, some continue to frustrate Timor-Leste’s aspirations, and their failure to acknowledge responsibility means an absence of reparations. Thus Timor-Leste’s absolute poverty, a form of structural violence, is the result of such treacherous memorialising and the complete failure of international accountability. Nevin documents this all too well.     ii

Reviewed by Janet Hunt (

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007