Since 2002, East Timor is a recognized southeastern Asian country, but it previously fought for many decades to get its independence. Until 1974, East Timor was a colony of Portugal but in 1975, after of a military coup, Portugal allowed its colonies to seek independence. Three political parties formed in East Timor and after a civil war, the Fretilin party won. It declared the independence of East Timor on November 28th, 1975, but less than two weeks later, Indonesia invaded the region and declared it as their 27th province. In the first years of Indonesia’s occupation, 200,000 Timorese were killed (1/3 of the population) either because of the actions of the Indonesian army or as a result of famine and starvation. The occupation lasted until 1999, and so did the mass killings (Arenas 1998, 133-134). Sadly, even after the outrageous genocides that happened in the 20th century, the international community not only closed their eyes to the conflict/genocide, but the international response to East Timor’s annexation by Indonesia exacerbated tensions in the region. Indeed, the United Nations did not clearly define the right to self-determination, the United States supported Indonesia’s actions despite knowing about the killings occurring in East Timor and the West did not take proper and decisive actions against Jakarta.
As just stated, the United Nations did not have a clear definition of the right to self-determination which led to the use of violence both from Falintil (the resistance army of the political party Fretilin) and Indonesia to obtain control of East Timor. The principle of self-determination was accepted in the post-1945 era, but debates arose for a clear definition. Indeed, the United Nations Charter omitted the word “right” in the definition and countries debated if self-determination was a right or just a principle. Moreover, when looking at the definition, the “right” to self-determination seemed to be more a function of power. Indeed, if the people of a powerful country want to convert a region into a new state, the existing country can justify its disapproval by saying that this undermines its territorial integrity and right to self-determination (Jardine 1998, 197). On November 28th, 1975, Fretilin declared East Timor independent by using the principle of self-determination. Nine days later, Indonesia invaded East Timor and used the same principle to justify their invasion and asserted that East Timor had in fact used their right of self-determination and freely decided to become their 27th province. From this, Indonesia “self-determined” that East Timor’s independence would undermine its territorial integrity and therefore prohibited it. However, Indonesia’s claim of East Timor did not meet the requirements of a legitimate integration of a territory (act of self-determination) since they hand-picked the Timorese delegates that voted for the annexation and coerced people to sign a document about wanting Indonesian protection. (Jardine 1998, 196). Still, because of Indonesia’s strong international relations, the United Nations did not take any meaningful steps to prevent the illegitimate annexation of East Timor. Falintil had to use non-judicial methods that often resulted in violence to obtain their independence (Jardine 1998, 199). Therefore, the United Nations misleading definition of self-determination was used by Indonesia to justify their annexation and use of force in East Timor.
Moreover, the United States supported Indonesia’s illegitimate annexation of East Timor. Firstly, they took measures to ensure that the United Nation would be ineffective against Indonesia. In December 1975, after voting in favor for a Security Council resolution on East Timor, the United States vetoed all the attempts to implement it. They argued to the United Nations that the international community needed the permission of Indonesia to intervene in East Timor (Zunes 2000, 330). Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1975-1976), even stated in his memoirs that “this task [to block the resolution] was given to [him], and [he] carried it forward with no inconsiderable success” (Jardine 1998, 199). Secondly, President Ford gave Suharto, then Indonesia’s president, assurance that the U.S. would understand if Indonesia believed it was necessary to take actions against the rising power of left-wing forces in East Timor. The United States turned their eyes from East Timor’s killings because Indonesia also argued that they were fighting against communism (Murphy and Suryodiningrat 2010, 375). The United States even provided over 90% of the military equipment to Jakarta during the 1975 invasion (Jardine 1998, 200). Thus, the United States directly supported Indonesia’s violation of an international law by blocking any help East Timor could have received and by providing military equipment to the perpetrator.
Finally, the West closed their eyes on Indonesia’s illegitimate annexation of East Timor because of Indonesia’s importance in the international community. A majority of states did recognize that East Timor was under an illegal foreign occupation. To stop the slaughter happening in East Timor, they could have easily threatened Indonesia of ceasing military cooperation or of banning them from access to any further international loans. However, because of their relations with Jakarta, most western countries did nothing to prevent the genocide (Zunes 2000, 330). As an example, Japan, a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 1975, voted against any resolution that directly condemned Indonesia. The two countries had important economic relations that Japan did not want to lose, even if it meant to close their eyes on an illegitimate military invasion (Gorjao 2002, 755-756). Moreover, Australia, a close neighbor of Indonesia and East Timor, did not intervene in the conflict between its neighbors. The priority of Australia was to keep a good relationship with Indonesia. For them, security interest was more important than East Timor’s right of self-determination. (McDougall 2007, 869-870). Moreover, Australia was interested by the oil fields found in the Timor Sea. Legally, this body of water belonged to East Timor. However, Indonesia claimed it as its possession since they annexed the region. To get some areas of the Timor Sea, Australia decided to officially recognized East Timor as part of Indonesia. This recognition was a violation of international law. Again, a country decided to close their eyes on the right of self-determination of its neighbor to preserve an economic relation (Nevins 2004, 4). Western states only started to get involved after the Santa Cruz massacre. On November 12th, 1991, Indonesia’s army fired at innocent people that were gathered at the Santa Cruz Cemetery. Thousands of East Timorese were killed. However, western journalists were present, filmed the event and shared it with their news organizations. It is only there that the western governments condemned the massacre and finally passed resolutions against Indonesia. Still, thousands of East Timorese had already been killed and their right of self-determination denied by Indonesia (Jardine 1998, 199-200). Thus, the international community prioritized their own interest rather than the lives of the East Timorese.
Given these points, it is clear that how the international community responded to East Timor’s annexation is a cause for Indonesian’s use of force. Firstly, the principle of self-determination had some flaws and allowed Indonesia to claim East Timor as its own. Secondly, the United States provided military equipment to Jakarta and supported their actions against East Timor. Finally, western countries prioritized their economic relations with Indonesia and did nothing to help the East Timorese. It is sad to see that even after the Holocaust and many other genocides, states still put their own interest before everything else. It is only when East Timor began to be discussed in newspapers that states decided to act. It is only when they could be seen as savior that states decided that East Timorese’s lives deserved to be saved.
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