Vol. 16 No. 11 (November, 2006) pp.897-901


A NOT-SO-DISTANT HORROR: MASS VIOLENCE IN EAST TIMOR, by Joseph Nevins. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2005. 296pp. Cloth $49.95/£38.95. ISBN: 0801443067. Paper. $18.95/£13.50. ISBN: 0801489849.


Reviewed by Karol Soltan, Department of Government & Politics, University of Maryland at College Park.  Email: ksoltan [at] gvpt.umd.edu.


As the subtitle indicates, A NOT-SO-DISTANT HORROR by Joseph Nevins is in part a book about mass violence in East Timor, beginning with the Indonesian invasion in 1975, and ending with the killings and destruction after the independence referendum in 1999. But that story is here a backdrop for an argument about memory and responsibility.


The story of East Timor is dramatic and extreme. It can be told as a morality tale in a variety of ways.  East Timor can capture you easily, if you give it a chance. Nevins has been captured. He has made numerous trips to the island; he has provided help in its struggle against the Indonesian occupier for independence, and he has written much about the country (some of it under the pen name Matthew Jardine).  This will be a critical review of his book, so it is perhaps relevant that I have been captured by East Timor as well, although I was there only once in a 6 months stint working for UNTAET, the transitional government the UN provided for East Timor between 1999 and 2002.


If this were more a book about East Timor, especially about what happened there in 1999, I would sign on with some enthusiasm. When Nevins writes about that, he seems to me at his best. But this is a different book, so with some regret I must lodge a dissent.


The story of East Timor has considerable complexities, including the recent political crisis and breakdown of law and order there. But the essentials can be told briefly. Timor is a small island off the coast of northern Australia. Its western part was a Dutch colony and became part of Indonesia, when that country gained independence from the Netherlands. The eastern part of the island was a Portuguese colony, and it remained a quiet and far away outpost of the Portuguese empire until the 1974 coup in Portugal, which ended Portugal’s willingness to maintain its empire. The years 1974 and 1975 were, as a result, dramatic years in East Timorese history.  Portuguese authority collapsed, and briefly East Timor belonged to the East Timorese. Disaster followed. The dominant political forces in the country were so radical that only Albania recognized its independence (remember this is 1975, Albania was then the most purist and radical of all communist countries).  This did not help East Timorese prospects.  A faction within the country attempted to gain control by a coup. Indonesia was ready to intervene (having first encouraged the coup). Australia was not eager to have a Cuba-equivalent just off its shores. And the US was not too happy to have another country go communist so soon after the surrender of Saigon. So the Indonesians marched in, with the more or less explicit consent of the relevant [*898] Western powers. And East Timorese independence fell victim to the logic of the Cold War.


East Timor is a small and far away country, about which the world is largely ignorant. The expectation was, I think, that after a period of some protest its residents would reconcile themselves to being part of Indonesia, which was quite diverse anyway. The only thing that distinguished East Timor from the rest of Indonesia, given this diversity, was its colonial Portuguese past.  Not enough to suggest that an East Timorese identity could not accommodate itself to Indonesia. But it could not. What followed was a brutal Indonesian occupation, and a continuing battle against the East Timorese resistance. For many years no help came from outside, except for a few isolated voices in the West (including Noam Chomsky). The East Timorese fought alone, a nation of less than 1 million resisting an Indonesia of 200 million, with its modern arms supplied by the western powers.  The East Timorese could echo another stateless Asian nation, the Kurds: the mountains were their only friend. And the mountains of East Timor were indeed their great ally, making continued resistance possible.  


Slowly the East Timorese resistance evolved, and the world changed. Eventually, and crucially, Indonesia changed as well, so that in the last years of the second millenium East Timor had an opportunity to regain independence. In 1999 Indonesia allowed a referendum in the country with a choice of autonomy within Indonesia or independence. The campaign was full of violence and intimidation both by the Indonesian military and by pro-Indonesian East Timorese militias organized and controlled by the military, but nominally independent.  “If you choose independence, in six months you will eat rocks” was one slogan Nevins cites.


The East Timorese overwhelmingly did choose independence.  And the response of the Indonesian army and the militias can be seen as a concerted effort to leave nothing but rocks as they departed East Timor. In the weeks after the referendum, they carefully and systematically killed as many East Timorese as they could, stole everything that was worth stealing, and destroyed the rest. They burned house after house, block after block, leaving little to chance. They disabled power stations with considerable expertise so as to make them as difficult as possible to repair. The destruction was both unflinchingly brutal and thoroughly systematic. It was no doubt meant as punishment of the East Timorese for disobeying their Indonesian masters, and a lesson to the many other restive populations of Indonesia: should they dare to choose independence, they too will have only rocks to eat, and only rocks to sleep on.


A UN military intervention led by the Australians finally stopped the destruction, and the militias withdrew to Indonesian West Timor. For the next two years or so, the UN administered East Timor. Since 2002 the country has been independent.


This is not exactly the way Nevins tells the story. In fact, his book is in large part [*899] a sustained argument against telling the story of East Timor in the way I just did, because it neglects (forgets, suppresses) the large role of the western powers in the 24 years of war against the East Timorese. For Nevins, the reason the horrors of East Timorese history are “not-so-distant,” as his title indicates, is because “we” (the Americans and their allies or dependants) are to a great extent responsible for them. His goal is not so much to find the whys of these horrors, but the who.  And his further goal is to convince us that the US shares a great deal of the responsibility.


The result is problematic. An effort to allocate responsibility makes for awkward history writing, since you need to consider at great length what would have happened if various players acted differently. And the judgments of moral responsibility which Nevins makes are both controversial, and not much argued for. It may well be that the conventional way to judge in these matters is profoundly wrong. But I would appreciate knowing why it is so.  On the other hand, the required moral argument would constitute quite a detour in a book that centers on East Timor.


The issue at hand is how to evaluate the degree of your responsibility for a killing if you did not pull the trigger, and did not order the trigger to be pulled. Nevins is not much interested in those more directly responsible, the Indonesian military and the militias they organized and controlled. We all agree their responsibility is primary, and hence, I would think, the story should rightly center on them. But the central point of this book is that I am wrong. We must, if anything, focus on the responsibility of the most powerful, hence of the US. What did the US do? It gave permission for the Indonesians to invade and continued to supply them with the arms used in the suppression of the East Timorese.


As far as I can tell, East Timor was barely on the radar screen of American decision makers. It simply did not matter. The continuing hostilities there were treated as an internal Indonesian issue. I will leave it to the reader to judge how serious American responsibility therefore is for the massive killings and other horrors of the 24 years of Indonesian occupation. It seems to me clear that there is some responsibility, but how much? Enough so that we should prepare a criminal case against Kissinger? Probably not: there is a difference between killing and letting die, and there is a difference between killing and providing the guns used in the killing.


It is very likely that the US could have prevented the Indonesian invasion. It did not do so. A communist East Timor was a reasonably likely alternative. In that context it was not just the Realpolitik of the Cold War that argued against an independent East Timor. It is worth remembering that communism was (and still is in a few places) a profoundly brutal regime, responsible for the death of millions. And the memory of the anti-communist bloodbath that took place in Indonesia in the 1960s should not be a reason to forget the communist bloodbaths. [*900]


This is a book, I have said, about responsibility and memory. It is an argument that we should not forget the responsibility of the powerful of the world, and that we should in this way preserve the hope of bringing them to justice. Among its polemical targets are such leaders of East Timor as Xanana Gusmao and Ramos Horta, as well as former President Clinton, who have all argued against a preoccupation with the past and the demand for justice, and in favor of forgiveness and moving on.


I have some sympathy with Nevins when he jumps on Clinton’s “Let us forget the past” bromides expressed on the occasion of East Timor’s independence, when pressed about the past role of the US. In various ways and for various reasons it is important to remember. And of course we can only remember selectively; we have neither sufficient memory cells nor sufficient patience to do otherwise. Nevins objects that our collective memory is a whitewash of the powerful, who control what we remember. For the perspective of the powerful he wants us to substitute the perspective of the victim, as he imagines it to be. So the deep internal divisions that are a continuing problem of East Timor, and which have dramatically weakened the country’s position in the past (making it relatively easy for outsiders to provoke a civil war, or to recruit a pro-Indonesian militia) or today are hardly discussed at all. Yet they are an important part of the tragedy of East Timor. The fear of internal divisions, with their potential for another civil war, was palpable when I was there in 2000. 


The spirit of the whole enterprise is well conveyed in a remarkable comment in the second paragraph of the book. Nevins is describing his impression when he arrived in Dili, East Timor’s capital, in May 2000. His impressions were very much like mine, having arrived in Dili also in May 2000. What drew our attention, and remained in our memories, was the systematic destruction we saw everywhere. It reminded me of my first memories of Warsaw in the 1950s, still only very partially rebuilt from the systematic destruction by the Nazis during the war. Nevins writes of the same destruction, that it was “reminiscent of Dresden and Tokyo following World War II” (p.3). Nevins, it seems, remembers only destruction and victimization for which the US and its Western allies were responsible. Destruction by the Nazis, and by the axis powers seems invisible to him. When I first read this passage I thought it was an odd form of distorted memory, but I was not going to make much of it in reading a book about East Timor. But one reads on, and it becomes clear this book is more about memory and responsibility, so this opening paragraph gains in importance. It reflects an oddly distorted memory.


I share a great deal with Nevins, including a special respect for the East Timorese, and their extraordinary achievement against long odds, but also including important political commitments that are not widely shared. I take it we would both agree on the desirability of a world order based on law and democracy, in which the ideal of equality before the law would be taken seriously. This is a wild idea and its [*901] proponents need to stick together. But it will not be strengthened by arguments that require the deep and unappealing moral transformation that this book urges. As far as East Timor goes: let us work to bring the Indonesians responsible for the horrors to justice (this is difficult enough), and leave Kissinger alone. And to diminish the distance from a US audience to the East Timorese, perhaps we can tell the story of their suffering and their victory as an example to inspire us, without requiring that we present the East Timorese, wholly implausibly, as thoroughly innocent saints. To achieve what they did, despite the odds, they had to overcome themselves as well as the efforts of the Indonesian army to dominate them, and the indifference of the rest of the world.


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Karol Soltan.