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  • Mahima Ray


“Politics change on the opinion of time" – John Boyle O'Reilly.

The international community has witnessed politically violent turn-overs, take-overs, leaders changing sides, brutal and subtle Balkanisation, diplomacy, compromise under the veil of diplomacy and much more than what can be put into words. This analytical piece shares a few insights into how the superpowers have an unquestionable vote in every matter and how regional organisations fail to maintain what they swear to stand by through the chapters of the East Timor tragedy. The humanitarian crisis in East Timor is a coruscating example of biased international diplomacy, downright ignorance of human rights, critical malfunction of associations, media censorship and uncountable human lives at stake that are erased from the papers.

To begin with, adhering to Suharto’s regime of forcefully making East Timor the Archipelago's 27th province, superpowers such as the United States and Australia perpetually aided Indonesia in keeping complete control over Timor due to its strategic significance during the post-cold war era. Australian government saw good relations and stability in Indonesia (Australia's largest neighbour) as providing an important security buffer to Australia's north. Therefore, they preferred no frictions. For US, President Gerald Ford and his administration, East Timor was a place of little significance, overshadowed by US–Indonesian relations. The fall of Saigon in mid-1975 had been a devastating setback for the United States, leaving Indonesia as the most important ally in the region. Ford consequently reasoned that the US national interest had to be on the side of Indonesia.In the timeline after 1975, Indonesia efficiently managed to keep this annexed territory off its international charts. Backed by superpowers and a complete ban of foreign journalists on the land, Indonesia managed to divert any significant international criticism. As a vanguard state, Indonesia also secured the unfeigned support of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members. What was surprising about all these events was the ignorance of human rights violations on such an acute level against the East Timorese population. The global media houses, politicians, human rights organisations, and NGOs were muted and shunned from highlighting these violations.

Despite desperate attempts at normalising this invasion, regional factions from East Timor staged daily protests, approaching this take-over with sheer disapproval. The Indonesian army open-fired on the protestors on one such occasion, killing at least 273 and injuring many others. What was still surprising to observe is that there was no appeal for intervention even then. U.S. senators called it "an internal matter," interfering in which would potentially breach Indonesian sovereignty. The U.S. and Australia kept supplying arms and ammunition to Indonesia, training Indonesian soldiers and maintaining cordial relations. It is to be noted that there was no severe pressure from Congress despite open human rights violations. Even ASEAN continued to maintain a united front. Indonesia greatly appreciated this move by ASEAN members not to interfere in its member's internal affairs.

Relations between the U.S., Australia and Indonesia continued to be cordial and firm till 1999; the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 played the role of a catalyst for the difference. With the simultaneous collapse of Indonesia's financial and domestic framework, external relations were relentlessly affected. Following this crisis, a subsequent divergence of interest was marked, leading to the first call for intervention in East Timor after almost 20 years. This specific event was also seen as Indonesia's and ASEAN's failure to resist sovereignty violation by the superpowers. Even through this, ASEAN maintained its relations with Indonesia. The violation to regional autonomy happened despite the cohesive force and the existence of ASEAN which is to guard and fortify the regional system and security; proving that the association's cohesion was not a singular factor in countering the external violation by the superpowers. If anything, it showcased that even a consolidated front was weak and chronically inefficient in taking any significant measure in protecting the Southeast Asian states against external powers.

With the withdrawal of superpower support, communal violence broke out between Indonesian military and the East Timorese population, which immediately called for the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces and a subsequent vote for East Timor's independence. All the aforementioned events faced violent outbreaks of politically instigated riots. Eventually, the voting turned against Indonesia’s unjustifiable authority and Indonesia was compelled to withdraw its authority over East Timor. The main reason underpinning this loss was the lack of backing of the superpowers due to interest divergence. All in all, the series of events proved to be an aggregate failure of the system against the superpowers and showed how the superpowers have a say in every matter across the globe.

Analysing the whole trajectory of occurrences, the paper draws attention to the observation of Amitav Acharya, who stated that "regional solutions to regional problems must not be conflated with self-reliance, but rather with the right not to be ignored or side lined by outside powers." Going by this, ASEAN's aim is not to establish Southeast Asian self-reliance but to efficiently channel out external interference. Likewise, the exemplary case of East Timor negates the stance of ASEAN. External interference occurred without ASEAN's support notwithstanding sharp disapproval by its members. One may infer from the following analysis that ASEAN's unwillingness to dilute its policy of not interfering with its member's internal affairs led to its inability to respond to the crisis effectively. How it actually catalysed the crisis is not often talked about. Acharya's argument, while critically analysed, misses the fact that the non-interference statute of the association, in reality, opened the portal for external intervention into Southeast Asia; thereby, violating ASEAN's norm of regional autonomy. As Alice Ba had pointed out, "practice of not interfering in their neighbour's affairs added another layer to already difficult intra-ASEAN debates."

The second most striking argument to take into consideration is the composite ignorance of human rights by nations who claim to uphold all human rights principles. Time and again, the United States has proved to act against the determinants of rights, freedom, and violations. This superpower has repeatedly been seen to turn a blind eye to issues and problems of human rights, women's rights, freedom and independence of the press, etc. The East Timor humanitarian crisis is another glaring example of its hypocrisy. Till the time Indonesia was serving a beneficial purpose to the U.S., it was granted unquestionable authority over the captured territory. Foreign journalists were banned, global politicians were threatened, general public and activists were arrested for just speaking up or for keeping record of this event. Indonesia made all of it possible due to the integrated alignment of the external powers. This exhibits the ironic stance of the external powers who are throned to uphold the freedom and safety of global citizens. The same injustice kept repeating itself until the UN interfered and placed human rights over Indonesia's claim of national sovereignty and demanded an immediate power-withdrawal. From all this, it seems only right to infer that the superpowers have no true value for human rights principles and operate solely on basis of personal advantage and benefits.

The third and last observation is the aphonic slant of the whole globe despite existing evidence of human rights violation. It unearths how helpless weaker states and associations are in the face of any external intervention. Despite profound proof of such violations, East Timor received little to no aid from the international community. The solitary and exclusive reason being the support of superpowers to Indonesia. One may be tempted to reopen and analyse the realist claim of ‘power defining international order’ even amidst an allegedly liberal world order today The Australian government cooperated with the Indonesian military and President Suharto to obscure details about conditions in East Timor and to preserve Indonesian control of the region as well. Throughout the occupation, reports emerged from the province regarding human rights abuses. Moreover, protests against the blank cheque-support extended to Indonesia by Australia notwithstanding the violation of human rights in East Timor engulfed the nation with the support of a prominent East Timorese living in Australia. According to Professor James Cotton, writing in his book on the invasion, Suharto in fact avoided visiting Australia, with the knowledge that there would be public protests. One may also note how a shift in the interests of one superpower can disrupt operations of nations together. Lastly, it shows how global journalistic ethics surrender to these superpowers; violating the code of conduct, tampering with the truth, ignoring human sufferings at the hand of the powers. Therefore, the East Timor humanitarian crisis is an exemplification of misuse of power in a superpower-centric world.

Cover Image: Source

About the author: Mahima Ray, a second-year student pursuing law at Jindal global law school, is intrigued by diverse fields of studies, including dynamics of Indian politics, international affairs, women’s rights and social justice. She has previously worked with several NGOs and organisations as a content writer and editor

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