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In 1975 the father of my primary school friend was killed in East Timor. In 1999 I was able to play a small role in observing the independence Referendum, followed by training of pro-democracy activists in 2000 and finally to attend the hand-over to full Timorese sovereignty in 2002. It took a long time, but finally the good guys won. This is my perspective.
The Good Guys Won This One.
Rwanda is a funny place to start a discussion about East Timor – but it is relevant.
|Ntarama Church. The smell of the rotting bodies
never leaves me.
The 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the only genuine Genocide since WWII, left nearly 1 million people dead in 100 days. The post WWII calls of ‘never again’ sounded especially hollow against the revelations that the UN had advance notice of the Rwandan killing. UN member states could have prevented the 1 million deaths, but chose not to.
The ‘good men’ stayed silent and many people died.
I worked in Rwanda and images of that country remain with me.
|Signing the ‘All clear’ 1999.
In 1999 I found myself in East Timor as an observer at the independence referendum. This was, in part, a personal journey for me. My best friend in primary school was the son of one of the Australian journalists killed in 1975 and our families remain friends still.
As an eight going on nine year old, the death of Greg Shackleton in 1975 was an early lesson for me in the world of International Politics – a world that often abandoned people in a search for statistics and political stability. No matter how hard this lesson was for me, it was harder for my friend who has lived life without a father.
Along with many others, I hoped for years for a free expression of will for the people of East Timor. A seemingly forlorn desire became an unexpected reality as the Asian financial crisis and considerable political change pushed Indonesia into accepting a UN sponsored referendum.
There was, at last, hope that a wrong could be righted. Perhaps, I thought, international politics could spit out the right answer.
Following the announcement of the referendum result the killing that filled Australia’s consciousness started. Instead of stepping in and stopping the killing the ‘International Community’ was pulling out, seemingly abandoning the people of East Timor to their fate. Images of Rwanda came back to my mind.
Would the world stand by and watch death re-visit us on a monumental scale? Would the world stand by and do nothing?
Fortunately intervention came, partly through leadership of the Australian people, and the Australian Government behind them. The killing stopped and a process of transferring East Timor to the people of East Timor, began.
Last Sunday I was lucky enough to attend the Independence Day ceremony and to witness the culmination of the 25 year struggle for freedom and justice. The UN flag would come down and be replaced by the new standard of East Timor. Sovereignty would peacefully transfer and the referendum result would become effective. I would witness the first ever birth of a nation that passed through a UN transitional administration. Justice would be done and Greg’s death would in part mean something. Closure could begin.
The ceremony had many highlights. The children danced for the future of Timor. Former Falantil guerrillas symbolically passed the new East Timor Flag to the new East Timor Defence Force.
The guerrillas carried no weapons and wore t-shirts, not fatigues. The symbol was strong. The guerrilla movement was dead, not because they were beaten, but because they won.
A group once branded ‘terrorists’ were handing over their struggle to a new government. The new government will now face the challenge of building their country – it is a challenge perhaps larger than gaining independence.
As powerful as the ceremony of handover was, it was not the closing of a chapter for me – that came a day later.
Greg Shackleton’s widow, Shirley, and I went to visit a ‘free’ Balibo, the town in which Greg and four other journalists were killed in 1975.
|Outside the Balibo house with Shirley.
A day after Timor achieved its independence we visited the house in which her husband was killed and the house upon which the journalists painted our national flag in the vein hope of protection from the invading Indonesian Army.
The image of the journalists painting the flag is one that helped galvanise Australian Public opinion to Timor’s cause, even when our governments failed to lead us.
Shirley and I quietly chatted about events. We rang her son and spoke of the celebrations and the ceremony marking the independence.
Although many issues surrounding the deaths of the Balibo Five remain, a door has begun to close. We still need to know what the Australian government knew. We still need to know exactly what happened to Greg and his colleagues. It would be good to know where their remains are.
Challenges remain for the Timorese also. They need our help to build a country; particularly over the next few months as the UN pull out starves their economy.
But a process has ended and some personal closure has been achieved. Many people died but a good result has come. – This time, the good guys won.
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