In East Timor, a story of terrible tragedy gives way to a future of hope

Ellen J. Kennedy
Ellen J. Kennedy is executive director of World Without Genocide, based at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
Photo Courtesy of Ellen J. Kennedy

Imagine a beautiful island in the South Pacific with water in every shade of blue -- cobalt, teal, aqua, turquoise. Add sunlight shining on the waves and sparkling like diamonds tossed onto the sea. Coconuts and bananas ripen on the trees, coffee grows on the hillsides, and fish are abundant.

To this picture of a paradise, add oil -- huge amounts of offshore oil in the Timor Sea. The story of East Timor, a small island nation north of Australia, is one of terrible tragedy. For more than 400 years the Portuguese controlled the eastern part of Timor, while the western portion belonged first to the Dutch and then to Indonesia. In 1975 the Portuguese left and the East Timorese people declared themselves to be an independent nation. But independence wasn't so simple.

The East Timorese freedom movement, headed by Jose Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmao, was left-leaning and pro-Marxist. This was at a time when the United States and our allies believed in the "domino theory" -- that if a country became Communist, communism would spread rapidly and one country after another would fall under its influence. This was the era of the Vietnam War, the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, and the devastation of Laos, all designed to contain Communism.

The governments of both Australia and Indonesia wanted that offshore oil, and didn't want another leftist country at the United Nations -- or on their doorsteps.

The Indonesian government, secretly armed by the United States, moved into East Timor. And from 1975 to 1999, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese perished. The country's infrastructure was obliterated; virtually all the roads, schools and institutions were destroyed.

Jose Ramos-Horta, now president of East Timor, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his tireless campaign to call the world's attention to the genocide of the East Timorese. He raised international pressure through the United Nations and civil society groups in Portugal, Australia and the United States.

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Indonesia's new president, B.J. Habibie, finally agreed to hold a referendum for East Timor. The people could choose whether to become a separate nation, be absorbed into Indonesia, or have limited autonomy under Indonesian control.

The United Nations organized a massive effort to enable the people to vote. And in 1999 they voted, in overwhelming numbers and with a resounding choice: independence.

The immediate response was another outbreak of horrific Indonesian-led violence, so heinous that the United Nations, in an unprecedented move, took complete control and governed East Timor for 18 months.

I went to East Timor last month, curious to learn how the country is rebuilding after more than 30 years of conflict. There is great hope for the future, despite many obstacles.

In this poorest nation in all of Asia, with very high rates of illiteracy, at least 75 percent of children are now in school. I visited one secondary school of 3,000 children, and it had only two toilets. Teenage girls, unable to take care of their monthly hygiene needs, regularly miss a week of school every month. Girls' dropout rate is high because this problem exists in nearly all the schools.

And even if the schools' problems of space and equipment are solved, there is an even greater challenge. The official language of the country is Portuguese, but only about 5 percent of the people can speak it. The legal system, in shambles after decades of fighting, also operates in Portuguese, which means that people can't understand the laws or the courts.

Most of the population is rural and the villages lack electricity, clean water, roads and adequate sanitation. Communication, transportation, nutrition and health care are serious challenges.

The legacy of conflict is not only the physical devastation of a people and its society, but also a violence that infects a culture. For decades, children have grown up with periods of brutality. Many people have built up a tolerance of violence -- against women and children in particular -- and they settle disagreements with fists, stones and knives.

But there is much that is encouraging. The United Nations and dozens of other non-governmental organizations are working with the local people to rebuild the economy, provide access to medical care and promote human rights. New farming strategies are increasing crop yields; diagnosis and treatment of diseases like leprosy have been effective; and education of youth on peaceful conflict resolution is making a difference. The democratic government, headed by Ramos-Horta and Gusmao, is respected throughout the country.

My organization hopes to help bring Ramos-Horta to Minnesota and to William Mitchell College of Law in 2013. This will be an opportunity for Minnesotans to reach out and support this new nation as it shapes its future.

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Ellen Kennedy is executive director of World Without Genocide, located at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.