East Timor and the nonviolent option

East Timor Religious Outreach demonstration at the Indonesian Consulate in San Francisco, CA in the 1990s. Photographer unknown.

Thirteen years ago today — August 30, 1999 — the people of East Timor took to the polls in a United Nations-sponsored referendum on the future of their country, with over 80 percent of this small Pacific nation voting for independence from Indonesia. In the run up to the vote, international observers had witnessed shootings, beatings and a climate of intimidation aimed at pro-independence Timorese and fomented by paramilitaries supported by the Indonesian military. After the overwhelming vote favoring freedom, the Indonesian violence dramatically escalated. Many East Timorese were killed, with as many as 500,000 displaced. This calamitous destruction galvanized international outrage, and within a few weeks a U.N.-mandated International Force for East Timor was deployed, with the task of restoring peace and overseeing the country’s transition to independence. East Timor became an internationally recognized, independent nation on May 20, 2002.

Controlled by the Portuguese since the 16th century and rich in timber and offshore natural gas, East Timor had been decolonized in 1975, only to be promptly invaded and occupied by Indonesia in a military operation green-lighted by U.S. President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. A brutal counter-insurgency campaign was waged for decades against the armed resistance that sprang up after the invasion. Though U.N. resolutions condemned Indonesia’s land grab and the massive violence that ensued, Western governments did nothing to challenge this arrangement.

In the late 1980s, the resistance set a new course, largely shifting from armed struggle — which had proved ineffective in dislodging Indonesia’s withering domination — to a strategy focused on nonviolent campaigns inside East Timor, in Indonesia and internationally. As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan report:

The first major protest occurred in November 1988, when Pope John Paul II was invited by [Indonesian] President Suharto to [East Timor’s capital] Dili, an act meant to bestow further legitimacy on the forced annexation. During the pope’s mass, which was attended by thousands, a group of East Timorese youths ran up to the altar and began shouting pro-independence slogans and unfurled banners calling on Indonesian forces to leave. The demonstration, covered by the media, embarrassed Indonesia, showed the face of East Timorese opposition to the outside world, and helped lower the levels of fear among the East Timorese.

Three years later, the Indonesian military opened fire on a pro-independence procession to the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, killing 271 participants. Unlike past atrocities, this one was filmed and photographed by Western journalists. Amy Goodman and Alain Nairn, who were badly beaten during the military attack, managed to get the story out. This event helped spark the emergence of an international solidarity movement, including the founding of the East Timor Action Network.

In 1994 my friend and colleague Rev. John Chamberlin visited East Timor and made an irrevocable commitment to work for its freedom. A United Methodist minister based in San Francisco, California, Chamberlin created East Timor Religious Outreach, and cajoled a handful of us to help organize a series of marches and nonviolent civil disobedience actions at the Indonesian consulate beginning in 1994 and carrying on through the 1990s. These were small but heartfelt protests, vigils and prayer services held at the consulate’s modern building a stone’s throw from Fisherman’s Wharf. Our actions drew a lot of notice from the streams of tourists headed up Columbus Avenue toward North Beach, especially when a few of us would scale the gate and, ensconced in the doorway, proceed with our speeches until we were handcuffed and led away by the police. Eventually, we were invited to join the National Council of Churches East Timor Task Force, where we helped develop an organizing plan for alerting and mobilizing religious communities to the Timorese struggle. This included staging a national strategy retreat for religious leadership, organizing delegations of clergy to visit East Timor, and attempting to build momentum for a shift in U.S. policy.

Most of the time, though, it felt like no progress was being made. And we in the U.S. were not the only ones who felt this. At one point José Ramos-Horta (the de facto East Timorese ambassador who traveled the world pleading his country’s case and seeking international support) came to town and, in a meeting he had with a couple of us, shared his personal sense that things had bogged down. He couldn’t see a way forward. He would continue the work, but nothing seemed to be breaking. We got to talking about a model that I had found helpful in organizing — Bill Moyer’s “Eight Stages of a Successful Social Movement” — but the thickness of the fog was impervious to models, even those that might hint at a hidden momentum feeding on all that had taken place since the beginning of the struggle.

There comes a point when you enter a nowhere land, where the future is utterly unclear. In spite of this impenetrable mystery, though, you carry on — which is what Ramos-Horta and many others did.

Then, unexpectedly, the skies began to clear.

Ramos-Horta and Catholic Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, drawing new international attention to the conflict. Next, a largely nonviolent pro-democracy movement brought regime change in Indonesia in 1998. The internal and international pressures for a shift by Indonesia on East Timor accelerated, which led to the 1999 referendum.

Ken Preston, my colleague at Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, served on an United Nations-certified delegation to observe the referendum 13 years ago. As soon as he returned to the U.S. we held a press conference in front of the Indonesian consulate, where he recounted the widespread human rights violations he had witnessed. In contrast with this violence, though, Preston detailed the nonviolence of the Timorese people, including the decision by the resistance not to deploy the remaining armed fighters that were stationed in the hills. As Chenoweth and Stephan spell out:

During this post-referendum violence, [long-time Timorese leader Kay Xanana] Gusmão called on the FALANTIL guerrillas to remain inside their cantonments and not to resist with military force. Gusmão later defended this decision, saying, “We did not want to be drawn into their game and their orchestration of violence in a civil war… We never expected such a dimension in the rampage that followed.” On September 14, 2000, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to authorize an Australian-led international force for East Timor.

As Ramos-Horta underscored in a July 17 essay directed at the Syrian opposition, the Timorese resistance opted for nonviolent methods for strategic — but also moral — reasons, and thereby, as another commentator puts it, “transformed the violence of the occupation into a weapon against the opposition.”

There is no end to the challenges of independence, including the monumental problems of poverty, political divisions, injustice, and violence, which Ramos-Horta (who has served as East Timor’s prime minister and president) experienced directly when he survived an assassination attempt in 2008. As we are learning, successful nonviolent people-power movements that end dictatorships and occupations do not automatically create thriving societies. Nonviolent change is messy. Hence the need for persistence and its role in dispelling the fog. Ramos-Horta has practiced this kind of persistence, and so have people like John Chamberlin, who has been back to East Timor almost every year since his first trip in the early 1990s. Though he will be retiring officially from the ministry next year, he tells me that his work for East Timor will go on and on.

We are living in a special time that is disclosing many lessons concerning the power, techniques and gumption that people-power movements for monumental change require, from the Filipino movement that toppled Marcos to the Arab Spring that brought down dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. There are many keys to the effectiveness of this nonviolent option, including a stubborn relentlessness even when the feedback loop runs dry. East Timor is yet another case of this persistent and harrowing journey that, like all the others, offers us clues for taking action as we move forward into the unknown future of nonviolent transformation.

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