Gravel in Jakarta’s Shoes

Benedict Anderson

  • Generations of Resistance by Steve Cox and Peter Carey
    Cassell, 120 pp, £55.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 304 33250 X

Oldest among its European competitors, the Portuguese transcontinental empire lasted the longest, collapsed the fastest, and left the most bloodshed and ruin behind it. It owed its durability to Portugal’s own backwardness and poverty – which ruled out the ambitious modernising colonialisms of industrial America, France, England and the Netherlands – and to its strategic position in Spain’s armpit, at the mouth of the Mediterranean, which earned it for centuries the backing of London’s naval might. It collapsed fastest because of the bizarre longevity of the Salazarist dictatorship, and its fanatical determination to fight three Vietnam Wars simultaneously – in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, thousands of miles apart from one another – with a half-mercenary pre-professional army and no prospect of success. Within a year of the April 1974 coup in Lisbon, engineered by disillusioned officers, the empire was gone. The bloodshed and ruin, however, were only indirectly the responsibility of Lisbon. The atrocious 12-year ‘civil war’ endured by Mozambique was orchestrated and financed by South Africa. Pretoria and Washington bear most of the blame for the 20-year conflict in Angola. But the holocaust in Portuguese East Timor, half a small island off the northern coast of Australia, was the doing of the Indonesian dictatorship of former general Suharto – with crucial support at the outset from the United States, and later, to lesser extents, of the Governments of the big EEC states, Japan and Australia.

The course of events is ably outlined by Peter Carey in the tightly-packed text that accompanies the grim pictures taken in 1991 by the courageous British photographer Steve Cox. No anti-colonial guerrilla resistance had developed in this remote outpost of empire when the Salazarist dictatorship fell. Though the Portuguese had been there since the middle of the 16th century a modern system of roads and transportation barely existed; the 600,000-odd indigenous, largely animist, population was overwhelmingly illiterate, and spoke two dozen or more local languages. The tiny literate élite, beneath a thin stratum of Portuguese clerics and officials, was substantially mestizo, descendants not only of Portuguese and local people, but also of African soldiers occasionally deployed on the island. There was no legislature, nor political parties, and only the shadow of a press. Needless to say, there was not the slightest suggestion of decolonisation.

The left-leaning officers who had taken power in Lisbon were fully occupied with the turbulent politics of Portugal itself, and with the problems of the African territories, in which there were substantial numbers of Portuguese settlers. East Timor was largely abandoned to its own devices. When General Costa Gomes, President of the Republic at this time, later declared that he had thought it would end up like Goa, and that the neighbouring Indonesians would peacefully absorb the territory, he was not being wholly insincere. Nehru had sent his troops into Goa in 1960, without a drop of blood being shed. But he was a humane man, and the freely-elected leader of a democracy; he gave the Goanese their own autonomous state government, and encouraged their full participation in India’s politics. In every respect, General Suharto was Nehru’s polar opposite.

For a year or so after April 1974, the Government in Jakarta did everything it could, short of an invasion, to gain control of East Timor. Leaders of the fledgling East Timorese parties were cajoled, bribed and threatened, their rivalries exacerbated and manipulated. These machinations culminated in August 1975 in an Indonesian-backed coup by the UDT, the more conservative of the two substantial political parties. But the coup was quickly countered by its left-leaning rival, Fretilin, and a brief civil war ensued in which several thousands lost their lives. The UDT leaders fled over the border into Indonesian West Timor, while Fretilin took control of the colony, and began to move towards formal independence, with wide popular support according to many foreign observers.

The only option now left to Indonesia was an invasion, duly launched on Pearl Harbor Day, 1975, within hours of the departure of visiting President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger. The assault was a bloody mess, with Indonesian troops firing on each other, and committing numberless atrocities in the East Timorese capital of Dili. The East Timorese troops, armed with high-quality weapons taken from the Portuguese garrison, gave a good account of themselves; and the Fretilin Government withdrew in good order to prepared positions in the difficult mountain terrain of the interior. For two years the independent Government held its ground and the bulk of the population – a source of mounting frustration in Jakarta.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in