“The church bears anxious witness to facts that are slowly leading to the ethnic, cultural and religious extinction of the people of East Timor.”

—From the statement of the apostolic administrator and Council of
Priests of the diocese of Dili, January 1, 1985.

At least a hundred thousand people have died since Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975, and probably many more. No one knows exactly how many. Some estimate that the invasion and ten years of war and military occupation may have wiped out as much as one third of the population, estimated at about 680,000 in 1975. Many have died from famine and disease, while others have been killed by aerial bombardments and fighting with the Indonesian army. Many have “disappeared” after arrest or have been summarily executed. Of those who remained, thousands have been taken to live in “resettlement centers” under army surveillance. Between eight and ten thousand Indonesian troops are said to remain in East Timor, facing an armed resistance that has been continuous.

The present strength of resistance is difficult to assess, however, since East Timor has been virtually sealed off from the outside world since 1975. Incoming and outgoing mail is checked and phones are tapped. No Timorese are allowed to leave, and no one may enter without special military authorization, which is rarely granted. The few people who are allowed to visit are employees of international humanitarian agencies, who cannot speak out without jeopardizing their work, or diplomats and journalists, whose movements are restricted to prevent them from finding out what is really happening.

The lack of information is also partly the result of East Timor’s geographical and historical remoteness. Timor is a small island of 13,094 square miles at the extreme eastern end of the Lesser Sunda island chain, 364 miles off the north coast of Australia. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to land there in the early sixteenth century. As others before them, they were attracted to the island’s rich supply of sandalwood. The Dutch gradually supplanted Portugal in the East Indies and settled in the western parts of Timor. The Dutch and Portuguese parts of the island soon developed quite separate identities. In East Timor, one indigenous language, Tétum, became the lingua franca together with Portuguese. By the early 1970s a third of the once-animist population were reported to be baptized Roman Catholics. Before the Indonesian invasion, some 80 percent of the people in East Timor lived in small hamlets on the island’s upland slopes, cultivating rice, corn, and root crops, and herding water buffalo, goats, and pigs.

West Timor became part of Indonesia with the rest of the Dutch East Indies in 1949, but Indonesia under President Suharto showed little interest in the eastern part of the island until Portugal’s Caetano dictatorship fell in April 1974. The new government in Lisbon was committed to self-determination in the Portuguese colonies, and began the process of decolonization in East Timor. Indonesia launched its invasion in December 1975, claiming as one justification the need to free its “brothers” from a harsh and cruel colonial master. It has also blamed the destruction caused by its own invasion and occupation on “four hundred years of Portuguese neglect.”

Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor are illegal. Indonesia has no legitimate claim to the territory or its people under international law, and up to the early Seventies its leaders explicitly disavowed any claims to the territory. In its conduct toward the East Timorese, Indonesia has behaved with appalling brutality. Yet hardly anyone outside East Timor has seemed to care. Indonesia is the fifth most populous nation in the world, containing the world’s largest Moslem population; it is an important oil producer and a founding member of the Nonaligned Movement; and it occupies an important strategic position on the sea lanes between the Pacific and Indian oceans. As a consequence most governments have supported or quietly consented to Indonesia’s actions.

In the view of independent critics of Indonesia, however, some governments carry a greater burden of responsibility for what has happened. More than any other government, neighboring Australia, which has close relations with Indonesia, could have interceded effectively on behalf of the East Timorese, but it failed to act. Portugal has a clear case against the Indonesians, but it has failed to pursue it with strong conviction. The US and much of Western Europe adopted a benevolent attitude toward Indonesia, thereby lending support to its brutal behavior. The Nonaligned Movement has remained virtually silent, and the United Nations has stood inertly by while the right of a people to self-determination has been violated in what amounts to an act of recolonization.

The information painstakingly collected in the books and reports under review partly explains this international failure of nerve. It also presents a desolating picture of what has happened to East Timor and its people since 1975. Some governments now concede that perhaps there was reason for concern, and even the Indonesian government admits to “mistakes.” However, it claims that the situation has improved, and that the future for the East Timorese has never looked so promising. New roads, high rice yields, schools and hospitals—in a word, “development”—are transforming the lives of the East Timorese for the better, or so we are told.


But no such convenient distinction can be drawn between past and present. “We recognize,” a group of leaders of the Catholic Church of East Timor stated on January 1, 1985,

that the Indonesian government has undertaken development in several sectors of social life in East Timor…. On the other hand, since 1975 to the present, the people of East Timor have suffered the horrors of war, a war they did not want. There is no harmony among its children, the well-being and happiness desired by all are far from being a reality for the majority of its people.

The Indonesian government has tried to discredit this statement by referring to a remark by the apostolic administrator saying that he did not personally write it. Its authenticity, however, is not in question. It was drawn up collectively by the Council of Priests of the Dili diocese and the Apostolic Administration.


No one would argue that conditions of life were once pleasant in Portuguese Timor. By the nineteenth century it was a miserable, unhappy backwater; its capital, Dili, was described by Conrad as “that highly pestilential place.” A major rebellion against Portuguese rule was put down in 1910 when some three thousand East Timorese are said to have been killed. Violence returned to East Timor in 1941, when, despite Portugal’s neutral position, four hundred Australian troops landed in the territory just after the attack on Pearl Harbor to prevent Japan from using it as a base against Australia. Japan responded by sending in 20,000 troops. The Australians were evacuated after a year, but the Japanese stayed on for the rest of the war. According to James Dunn, Australia’s consul general to East Timor from 1962 to 1964, who has written the most comprehensive account of East Timor, Timor: A People Betrayed, the price paid by the East Timorese, who had cooperated with the Australians, was probably some sixty thousand lives, a devastated country, an economy in ruins, and widespread starvation.

The postwar reconstruction of East Timor by the Portuguese went slowly, but by the 1960s conditions had markedly improved. Dunn describes the economic and social advances he observed when he was consul general and later when he was the leader of a team of Australian relief workers in 1974 and 1975. By the early Seventies, East Timorese occupied responsible positions in the Portuguese administration and were a significant presence in both the church and the army.

Under Salazar and his successors all political activity was forbidden in East Timor, but soon after the new Portuguese government came to power in 1974, three political parties were formed, two of which had widespread political support and were committed to eventual independence. The Uniao Democratica Timorense (UDT) included among its leaders senior civil servants and plantation owners who had done relatively well under the Portuguese. The UDT proposed that independence gradually be achieved after a long period of association with Portugal. In the first part of 1974, according to some observers, it probably had the support of more than half the East Timorese. The Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independente (FRETILIN), which was supported by the small intellectual community, lower civil servants, teachers, and students, advocated complete independence after a brief transition. In January 1975, the two groups, many of whose leaders were related by blood, agreed on a common program for independence. The coalition broke down in May 1975, however. The third party, the Associacao Popular Democratica Timorense (APODETI), whose following Dunn puts at 5 percent, favored integration with Indonesia, which used it as a front for its activities with East Timor.

Jose Ramos Horta, a founding member of FRETILIN and subsequently its foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations, gives an insider’s account of the events leading up to the Indonesian invasion in “Funu”: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor. Horta writes of FRETILIN: “We were all very clear about the ultimate goal and were fully aware of the complexities leading to independence. However, none of us had any coherent ideological vision beyond independence. Marxism was far from our minds—the only revolutionary writings that we were familiar with were those of Amilcar Cabral”—the revolutionary leader in the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.

Indonesia called FRETILIN communist, and said it found the idea of an independent East Timor with FRETILIN in power unacceptable. Through outright bribes and political propaganda, the Suharto government tried to exploit political divisions within East Timor, particularly those between the UDT and FRETILIN, which boycotted talks with the UDT and Portugal in June 1975. Horta recently claimed in an interview that UDT leaders visiting Jakarta in July 1975 were told that if they carried out a coup, Indonesia would support an independent East Timor under their control. Whatever took place during this visit, in August UDT leaders staged a show of force against FRETILIN and seized control. FRETILIN forces counterattacked and defeated the UDT in a conflict which lasted some three to four weeks, FRETILIN by now having the support of most of the Timorese in the Portuguese army as well as better organization in the countryside. According to International Red Cross officials in East Timor, about 1,500 people died in the fighting between the UDT and FRETILIN. On August 29, the Portuguese administration withdrew to Atuaro, an island off Dili.


FRETILIN assumed responsibility for administering the territory after its victory, but did not declare Timor’s independence from Portugal. According to Dunn and other observers in East Timor at the time, it carried out this responsibility remarkably well. No property was confiscated and some members of the UDT took part in the civil administration. By mid-October, however, Indonesian troops were making major incursions across the border from West Timor. The Indonesian government denied this, claiming instead that the UDT was making a comeback, that “civil war” continued, and that FRETILIN was murdering children, looting, and terrorizing the entire community. A group of five Australian and British journalists who went to the border area in October in an attempt to report on the incursions almost certainly were killed in cold blood by Indonesian troops.

FRETILIN now appealed to the Portuguese to return, and asked other governments to send observers, but they met with no success. Faced with this refusal to act and an increasing military buildup by Indonesia, FRETILIN proclaimed an Independent Democratic Republic of East Timor on November 28, 1975. On December 4 Indonesia stated that it had a “moral obligation” to protect the people in the territory and to ensure that decolonization could be realized in accordance with the wishes of the entire population of Portuguese Timor. The invasion was delayed by a couple of days so as not to compromise the visit to Jakarta of President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger on December 5. But on December 7, thousands of Indonesian troops landed in East Timor by sea and by air.

Portugal immediately informed the president of the UN Security Council of the invasion, calling the intervention an “act of aggression,” and broke off relations with Indonesia. Meanwhile Indonesia continued to deny that its forces were involved and stated that the principal towns had been “liberated” by UDT/APODETI forces supported by Indonesian “volunteers.” On December 18, 1975, a “Provisional Government of East Timor” was established in Dili, headed by APODETI’s leader (who had been imprisoned for a number of years after World War II for collaboration with the Japanese). On May 31, 1976, the Indonesian government announced that a “People’s Representative Assembly” had called for integration with Indonesia. A “bill of integration” was adopted into Indonesian law on July 17, 1976, and East Timor was proclaimed Indonesia’s “Twenty-seventh Province.”

In Dunn’s, view, the Indonesian attack on Dili was one of the most brutal in modern warfare. Hundreds of people were gunned down at random on the streets or publicly executed. Houses were ransacked, women and young girls were raped. Many eyewitness accounts of the troops’ brutality have since become available. In one incident cited by Dunn, some 150 people were executed during the first day after the invasion:

This shocking spectacle began with the execution of more than twenty women who, from various accounts, were selected at random. Some had young children who wept in distress as the soldiers tore them from the arms of their terrified mothers. The women were led to the edge of the jetty and shot one at a time, with the crowd of shocked onlookers being forced at gunpoint to count aloud as each execution took place.

A Catholic priest in Dili at the time reported that as many as two thousand citizens were killed in the first few days following the invasion. Thousands of Timorese fled in fear and took refuge behind FRETILIN lines.

FRETILIN had an army of some twenty thousand men. Many had been in the army of Portuguese Timor and were well trained and equipped, Portugal having recently replenished its arsenal in East Timor with modern light weapons. According to most accounts, after several months of heavy fighting FRETILIN remained in control of the countryside.

Indonesia, however, followed with several military offensives. Dunn quotes a letter written in November 1977 by a priest describing an offensive which began some three months earlier and was said to have involved some thirty thousand troops:

The bombers did not stop all day. Hundreds of human beings died every day…villages have been completely destroyed, some tribes decimated…and the war enters its third year with no promise of an early end in sight. The barbarities, the cruelties, the pillaging, the unqualified destruction of Timor, the execution without reason, in a word all the “organized evil,” have spread deep roots in Timor.

The victims of this offensive were largely civilians. They were herded into “resettlement centers” where many died of starvation and disease. FRETILIN’s forces were by now near collapse and in 1978 the movement’s leader, Nicolan Lobato, was killed by Indonesian troops. Some FRETILIN fighters took refuge in the mountains and managed to build up strength during the next few years.

By 1979 international concern about reports of famine and death forced the Indonesian government to allow a limited international relief mission into the territory. Dunn reports that the first group of aid workers estimated that between one tenth and a third of the population had perished, and that more than two hundred thousand East Timorese were in resettlement camps in inhuman conditions, many of them near death. In November 1979 Indonesia’s foreign minister acknowledged that the food situation might be worse than in Biafra or Cambodia. Meanwhile the policy of the Indonesian government toward the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) seems to have been to keep it out of East Timor when it was most needed, during the first four years of the occupation. The ICRC was allowed to begin a relief operation only in October 1979. Less than two years later it was obliged to suspend its work and leave, just before Indonesia launched a second major offensive.

That campaign, “Operation Security,” began in April 1981 and involved rounding up East Timorese males from the ages of fifteen to fifty-five. They were then used as human “fences” to march in front of Indonesian troops converging on FRETILIN positions. Many hundreds are reported to have died in this offensive, which, according to the apostolic administrator of East Timor, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes,1 both failed to destroy FRETILIN and estranged the East Timorese even more from the Indonesians. Without men and boys to work in the fields, the corn and rice crops were not planted before the rainy season of September 1981 and reports of renewed famine and starvation began to circulate. These were again denied by Indonesia. But Rod Nordland, an American who was one of a group of journalists invited to East Timor in May 1982, managed to meet independently with several Timorese. In an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer published on May 28, 1982, he reported conditions of acute malnutrition and hunger as well as widespread fear and repression. His article contains an interview with the de facto Indonesian ruler of East Timor at the time, Colonel Kalangi, who was provincial secretary to the Timorese governor. He succinctly summed up the Indonesian philosophy:

You don’t give a little bit, a little bit, you go all at once. Like what we did here, is all at once—bok!—and then explain to the rest of the world why we are here. This is how to do it, like the Russians in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, FRETILIN continued its resistance. Military manuals containing instructions to Indonesian troops serving in East Timor2 indicate that the army had to contend with a resistance force of considerable strength with wide support among the local population. Indonesia denies the documents are authentic.

“Operation Clean Sweep,” launched in August 1983, was intended to eliminate FRETILIN once and for all after the breakdown of a cease-fire established in March 1983. “We are going to hit them without mercy,” Indonesian General Moerdani said. “This time, no fooling around.” The offensive was again accompanied by arrests, extrajudicial executions, and “disappearances” of the civilian population. Recent reports from FRETILIN forces in the eastern region of East Timor, made public by Jill Joliffe in the Christian Science Monitor of April 29, 1986, suggest that the resistance against “integration” still continues.

Life as they knew it, however, has ceased to exist for the East Timorese. In the interview with Nordland, Colonel Kalangi explained that people had been moved from the mountains to the resettlement villages to make it easier to control the population and to provide food and medical aid. “It is the new Indonesian civilization we are bringing,” he said, “and it is not easy to civilize the backward peoples.” Under Indonesian control, the East Timorese in the resettlement centers live under constant surveillance and need special permits to leave their immediate neighborhoods. The military manuals recommend, for example, the appointment of informers to watch over groups of between ten and fifteen families and the establishment of inspection posts to check on everyone who enters or leaves the villages. They also advise that the villages should be patrolled, and that “when people go to their gardens and fields, no one should go alone.” Since many of the resettlement centers are located on unproductive land, the people in them cannot grow enough food to meet their own needs.

The occupation by the Indonesian army has been systematically brutal. Curfews are imposed periodically, and house-to-house searches occur regularly. There is no freedom of expression, association, assembly, or movement. A major Amnesty International report, published in June 1985 and entitled East Timor Violations of Human Rights, documents systematic torture by Indonesian troops and arbitrary killing and political arrest and imprisonment of East Timorese from the invasion of 1975 through 1984, both during the offensives and in “normal times.” The information was obtained and substantiated with difficulty, and is incomplete. It concludes, however, that throughout this period gross and persistent violations of human rights have occurred.

The Amnesty report gives the names of those who are reported to have been summarily executed or to have “disappeared” after arrest. A handful of those reported as “disappeared” have turned up in military custody since publication of the report. The fate of most of them remains unknown. Appeals to the Indonesian government to account for them have failed; so have requests for full inquiries into these and other reports of violations of human rights and for action to prevent their repetition in the future.

The Indonesian government ascribes such reports to an “orchestrated campaign”against it and states that it does not “deem it necessary to address the baseless and well-worn allegations that have been made many times in the past.” In fact Indonesia denies that it has been fighting in East Timor, claiming instead a pattern of fratricidal violence. In an interview reported in the Jakarta Post of June 29, 1985, Indonesia’s foreign minister, for example, stated that four hundred years of Portuguese rule had given the territory “a prolonged cycle of violence” attributable to bloody vendettas among the East Timorese, and alien to the rest of the Indonesian archipelago.

East Timor’s Catholic Church, meanwhile, has made its views known only on very rare occasions. Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, the apostolic administrator from 1977 until 1983, broke his silence in 1981 after six years of fruitless private complaining, but then complied with the Vatican’s invitation to resign in April 1983. His successor, Monsignor Belo, has spoken openly, but with similar rarity. Many governments accept the Indonesian version of the facts and consider information from nongovernmental organizations to be obsolete. In March 1985, for example, the UN Commission on Human Rights, in a closed meeting, decided to drop consideration of the human rights situation in East Timor, despite the copious information from nongovernmental sources documenting a consistent pattern of human rights violations throughout the occupation. The Indonesian government claimed this decision as a victory and a vindication.


“After nine years of occupation by the Indonesian government of this territory…the war which they would have us believe is a civil war goes on and continues to grow, which is witnessed by the constant arrival of Indonesian troops together with heavy war material, the deployment of more than ten military helicopters for operational purposes and of several airforce combat craft.”

—From the statement of the apostolic administrator and Council of
Priests of the diocese of Dili, January 1, 1985.

The international reaction to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor provides an absorbing lesson in the ways governments and their representatives at the UN conceive foreign policy. “I don’t see what you are getting excited about,” an official of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs said to James Dunn in 1975. “The plain fact is that there are only 700,000 Timorese; what we are really concerned about is our relationship with 130 million Indonesians.” This, in effect, continues to be the Australian position. Other governments seem to have followed essentially the same policy. The British ambassador in Jakarta, for example, in July 1975 advised that it was in Britain’s interest that the territory be absorbed “as unobtrusively as possible,” and that “if it comes to the crunch and there is a row at the UN, we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides against Indonesia.” The US ambassador to Indonesia, David Newsom, was reported as saying that if Indonesia were to intervene, the US hoped it would do so “effectively, quickly and not use our equipment.” In his book A Dangerous Place, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the US ambassador to the UN in 1975, wrote of East Timor: “The Department of State desired the UN prove entirely ineffective in whatever measures it took. The task was given to me and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

Ramos-Horta’s book describes his anger at the abandonment of East Timor by almost everyone, but he is especially bitter about betrayals by the West. There was, it is true, a brief “row” in the days following the invasion. Both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council formally deplored Indonesia’s intervention and called for the immediate withdrawal of the troops. The assembly, however, was not unanimous. The US, Canada, and several Western European states were among the forty-three to abstain: India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines were among the ten to vote against.

The General Assembly continued to adopt similar resolutions on East Timor each year until 1982, but support for them declined. Both Dunn and Horta explain how the votes reflect the perceptions of different nations of their relations with Indonesia. India, they say, has drawn a false parallel with its own control of the former Portuguese colony of Goa and has supported Indonesia in part for this reason. The US, Japan, and Australia evidently believe that supporting Indonesia serves their own strategic and economic interests. Arab countries (except for Algeria) support Indonesia for reasons of Islamic solidarity. France, West Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden value their commercial interests with Indonesia. Yugoslavia prefers not to act against a fellow member of the Nonaligned Movement. The USSR supports resolutions on East Timor but avoids doing anything else so as not to disrupt its own relations with Indonesia. Several Eastern European governments abstain or do not vote at all in what Horta claims to be a private deal between Moscow and Jakarta.

When, shortly after the 1975 invasion, the Security Council asked Secretary-General Waldheim to send a special representative to East Timor to assess the situation and to seek a resolution, Indonesia, without protest from its allies, made sure he saw little of East Timorese victims. His report, as is often the case with UN reports on controversial issues, was a minor Byzantine achievement, an effort to present a balance among different claims rather than an accurate record. In April 1976 the Security Council responded by reiterating the terms of its initial resolution. It asked Waldheim to arrange for the representative to continue his task and to report back as soon as possible. The US and Japan abstained. Waldheim did little to follow up the matter; and the council has not dealt with it in the decade since, although it remains on its agenda and the case has not been closed.

Formally the UN continues to recognize Portugal as the administering authority in East Timor; in its official view the East Timorese still are deprived of the right of a non-self-governing territory to self-determination. If the question were voted on today in the General Assembly it is more than likely that Indonesia’s jurisdiction over East Timor would be recognized. But the question will probably never be put directly. When the General Assembly last discussed the question in 1982, it asked the secretary-general, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, to “initiate consultations with the parties concerned with a view to achieving a comprehensive settlement.” At each session since then it has deferred consideration of East Timor, ostensibly so as not to interfere with these efforts. This September, the secretary-general reported for the fourth time on the “progress” being made in the “consultations.” Like his previous reports, this one said only that talks between Indonesia and Portugal are continuing under his auspices, and that he still is unable to report to the General Assembly.

Portugal’s policies toward East Timor have shown the ambivalence of a relatively weak former colonial power turned by events into a defender of the principle of self-determination. Opinion within the government has been divided. Dunn and Horta describe some questionable Portuguese dealings and compromises with the Indonesian government both before and after the invasion. Within the UN, Portugal has not presented the case for the East Timorese as vigorously as it might have, and it has also been let down badly by its Western allies. However, its former president, Ramalho Eanes, who has always taken a principled stand on self-determination, informed the General Assembly at the 1985 session that Portugal would never reject its international and historical responsibilities toward East Timor.

The Nonaligned Movement has been silent on East Timor since 1979, despite its general insistence on the right to self-determination and the need to eliminate colonialism and to protect the rights of colonial peoples. At its summit meeting in Colombo in 1976 and in Havana in 1979 it endorsed the position taken by the General Assembly and the Security Council. At the meeting of nonaligned foreign ministers in Havana in 1981, however, Indonesia succeeded in having mention of East Timor dropped. The member nations split on the question, according to Horta, for the simple reason that Indonesia was a leading member of the “third world.” At the 1983 summit meeting in New Delhi, the final declaration again made no reference to East Timor. In this case, according to Horta, India blatantly supported Indonesia. At the meeting last August in Zimbabwe, Indonesia threatened to leave the conference if complaints over East Timor were written into the draft declaration. It succeeded in suppressing any mention of East Timor.

The Indonesian government has claimed as victories the decisions of the Nonaligned Movement to keep silent, of the General Assembly to defer consideration of the question, and of the Commission on Human Rights to drop the case. The only forum that actually discusses East Timor in what has become a somewhat forlorn annual ritual is the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization. Each summer, representatives from FRETILIN and a few nongovernmental organizations (such as the International League for Human Rights and Amnesty International) come to the UN to “petition” the committee. On August 15, to cite a brief example, the civil rights lawyer Floyd Abrams, representing Asia Watch, testified to the committee as follows:

Reports we have received indicate an exceptionally high mortality rate among children between the ages of one and five in the Baucau region of East Timor. And according to our information, this problem is not limited to the Baucau region. We appeal both to the government and to responsible international organizations to facilitate proper nutritional and medical care for people in need as quickly as possible. We also urge the Indonesian government to grant full access for agencies seeking to address these problems.

Indonesia always rejects the discussion as interference in its internal affairs. The “petitions” are normally preceded by statements of concern from the handful of former Portuguese colonies in Africa and by Portugal itself. Portugal usually says little, in recent years referring instead to the importance of the consultations being made under the auspices of the secretary-general. Committee members respond with silence to the information presented.

Indonesia then delivers a rebuttal which does not vary much from year to year. It says that the people of East Timor became independent by choosing integration with Indonesia; and with integration East Timor enjoys the full benefits of development, freedom, and security. It ends up by speaking to the “ever greater progress being made in all aspects of life in East Timor.” This August, however, the Special Committee heard twenty-one petitioners for East Timor, an unusually large number, which reflects a growing international sense that governments and the UN have failed badly in the case of East Timor.

And so the diplomatic show continues. Most diplomats pragmatically pursue their “national interests” when dealing with East Timor, while Indonesia applies pressure to make sure that East Timor is not mentioned at all this year or at any future General Assembly or international gathering. The visits of friendly governments to East Timor will continue, and journalists will be invited for “day trips.”


there is a Timorese culture that is made up of words, attitudes, emotions, reactions, behaviour, ways of being and seeing the world. It is in these things that the people recognize their own culture and in it their own identity…. The attempt to Indonesianize the Timorese people…represents a slow assassination of Timorese culture. To kill their culture is to kill the people themselves.

—From the statement of the apostolic administration and Council of
Priests of the diocese of Dili, January 1, 1985.

The irony, or rather danger, of discounting ethical obligations is that in the end this brings profit to no one. The betrayal of the East Timorese is particularly instructive because it shows the abandonment by virtually every country on the globe not only of a persecuted people but of the values and principles proclaimed in the aftermath of World War II—of nonintervention, of the right to self-determination, and of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. And if the nations of the world continue to ignore their commitments, then the plight of the East Timorese at least raises the question of how large a population has to be for its destruction to warrant our attention.

This Issue

December 4, 1986