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East Timor: Why did the Portuguese leave East Timor?

Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs - February 19, 1997

What is described as a "process of decolonization" by Portugal is in fact a record of failure and ineptitude. In July 1975, the Portuguese government ordered formation of a transitional government for East Timor to prepare for the election in October 1976 of a Popular Assembly that was to take responsibility for determining the future status of the territory. Under this plan, sovereignty was to have been granted to East Timor by Portugal as of October 1978. Prior to this plan, Indonesian President Soeharto said that his government had no territorial ambitions in East Timor or anywhere else, was opposed to colonialism and would accept Portuguese Timor's integration with Indonesia only if that was in line with the wishes of the people.

In August 1975, however, the colonial authorities in Dili simply packed up and left East Timor, after allowing the situation in the territory to deteriorate to the point of civil war. Worse, Portugal was guilty of practically instigating civil war by secretly turning over its arms and ammunition to one minority group, FRETILIN. The resulting civil war was the culmination of centuries of colonial neglect and a completely bungled and irresponsible decolonization process. By failing in its responsibility, Portugal has forfeited any right to still be considered the "administering power" of East Timor.

In the face of this, the East Timorese rightly assumed their inherent right to decolonize themselves, considering themselves no longer bound to any decolonization covenant with the erswhile colonial power. They did this by choosing independence through integration with Indonesia in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 1514 (V) and Principles VI, VIII and IX of General Assembly Resolution 1541 (XV) and as further confirmed by the relevant provisions of General Assembly Resolution 2625 (XXV).

Why did Indonesia become involved?

In the wake of Portugal's abdiction of responsibility, Indonesia was confronted with a situation that threatened to disrupt its national development and security. In much of 1975, Indonesia was not involved in the events unfolding in East Timor, although it had to bear the consequences of turmoil in the form of 40,000 refugees fleeing across its border into Indonesian West Timor.

On September 7, 1974, during this period of turmoil, the four major political parties existing in East Timor submitted a petition to the Indonesian government to integrate with the Republic of Indonesia. The implementation of this process took place on May 31, 1976, when the People's Assembly of East Timor decided to formally request that the Indonesian government accept the integration of the territory with Indonesia. It should be noted that the entire process was conducted in accordance with the traditional democratic principals of the East Timorese people, and in compliance with the relevant United Nations General Assembly resolutions. It was witnessed at every stage by scores of foreign diplomats and international media representatives, and culminated in the formal promulgation into law of the Statute of Integra-tion by the president of Indonesia on July 17, 1976.

Indonesia's involvement in East Timor was determined by a chain of events that occured more than 20 years ago. When the dictatorial Caetano regime in Portugal was overthrown in April 1974, and the new Portuguese government proclaime its intention to decolonize all its overseas provinces, Indonesia welcomed that decision, having over the years supported the bid of the East Timorese to exercise their right to self-determination. On that occasion, Indonesia reiterated its oft-stated position that, in having no territorial claim to East Timor, it would abide by any decision by the East Timorese regarding their political future through a proper and fair process of decolonization.

Prior to Portugal's abandonment of East Timor, Indonesia had scrupulously maintained that its territory comprised only the former Nederlands East Indies. This, in spite of the fact that East Timor is half and island situated in the middle of Indonesia's archipelago. If Indonesia had ever coveted that territory, as Portugal has alleged, would it not have been easier to move when Portugal under the Salazar/Caetano regime was so universally unpopular that there would have been little risk of international critisism, as in the case of Goa in 1964?

Indonesia's involvement rather, reflected a humanitarian response to a legitimate request for assistance made by an East Timorese majority, being violated by a violent minority who had been well-armed by the desserting Portuguese.

Indonesia from the outset supported the efforts of the new government of Portugal to decolonize East Timor and repeatedly reaffirmed its readiness to cooperate with Portugal in the peaceful and orderly implementation of the process of decolonization. Indeed, at the request of Portugal, Indonesia extended its active cooperation to the process as inter alia evidenced by the series of meetings held between high-level representatives of the two sides in New York, September 1974; Lisbon, October 1974; London, March 1975; Jakarta, August and September 1975; and Rome, November 1975.

In fact, as late as November 1975, three months after Portugal's abandonment of East Timor, at a meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries in Rome, Indonesia urged Portugal to return to East Timor to complete the decolonization process in a just and orderly manner. Portugal, however, again failed to make good on its promise.

Indonesia's subsequent involvement was conducted as correctly and in a restrained manner as possible in response to the chaotic and tragic circumstances surrounding the decolonization process in East Timor. Thus, charges of "disrupting the decolonization process" or "annexing, invading or illegally occupying" another independent state are spurious. Indonesia's involvement in East Timor, on the contrary, contributed to the process of decolonization, inter alia, by helping to ensure that the democratically expressed will of the majority of the people was not overruled by the armed terror and unilateral imposition of a ruthless minority.

How has Indonesia aided East Timor?

Every part of the archipelago that is the Republic of Indonesia has been an integral and self-determining part of this strong and unified nation. It has been and remains a goal of Indonesia to ensure that the benefits of the development reach every part of our vast country, proportionate to the needs. Indeed, that is the single reason why East Timor receives the largest amount of development funds on a per capita basis, an investment that has produced thousands of miles of asphalt roads, hospitals, clinics, major housing projects for those displaced by civil war, and hundreds of schools, few to none of which existed under Portuguese rule.

What about the "population discrepancy?"

Of all the myths about East Timor developed and disseminated by Indonesia's detractors, none is more malicious and misleading than the allegation of the number of lives lost in East Timor during and after the process of integration. These critics charged that East Timor's population decreased by 200,000 or more, implying that about one-third of the population either perished or disappeared and that Indonesia should be held responsible.

It is a sad fact that the tragedy, created and prolonged by Portugal's missteps, that engulfed the East Timorese people after 1974 did exact a regrettable toll in human lives. It should be borne in mind, however, that two key factors contributed to any real change in East Timor's population:

First, the civil war that raged in East Timor in 1975-1976 claimed many lives directly and indirectly. Not only did many East Timorese die as a result of the FRETILIN reign of terror, but many also delayed plans for marriage and childbearing, and many families were separated. As a result, the 1980 census showed that children younger than five years of age accounted for only 14.15 percent of the total population, well below the percentage in other provinces. The hunger and disease caused by the disruption of civil war were joined by acts of FRETILIN aggression as major direct causes of loss of life. As might be expected in a violent and chaotic security situation, an abnormally low birthrate was an indirect result of the ongoing civil war. Second, thousands of refugees flooded across the border to West Timor during and immediately after the war. They settled either in West Timor or immigrated to other parts of Indonesia or other countries. A large number of East Timorese and Portuguese nationals have also emigrated to other countries or returned to Portugal under repatriation and family reunion program initiated in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The most recent census of East Timor, taken in 1990 by the Government of Indonesia, estimated the population at 748,000, and a December 1995 official estimate places the number at 843,100. In contrast, an internationally accepted census taken in 1980- by the government then showed a total population of 555,350, marking a decline of some 69,000 from the 1973 colonial estimate of 624,564. The true difference will never be known: colonial authorities themselves acknowledged that their figures for 1973 and earlier were estimates based on reports by "liurais" (village headmen), whose counts were never verified by the Portuguese government.

These figures and the apparent shortfall in population have been eagerly seized upon by Indonesia's critics. Through a process of mutual citation, they have not only been constantly repeated but gradually exaggerated to reach what has now become the fabricated and completely unsubstantiated claim of 200,000 lives lost.

This juggling of numbers represents a shameless distortion af the tragic facts surrounding Portugal's mishandled decolonization of East Timor. Moreover, it also demonstrates a complete and often deliberate misleading of the process of population surveying and census-taking performed prior to and following the departure of the colonial government.

Careful examination of the facts by several observers, including respected Western journalists, suggests that war-related deaths numbered around 5,000 with another 25,000 victims of malnutrition and disease brought about by a war-ravaged economy and a gross lack of health care services. That people have died is tragic enough, but the deliberate manipulation of the number of victims is highly irresponsible and dishonest. It is hoped, therefore, that this unsavory numbers game can finally be put to an end.

How are the cultural, social and religious traditions of the East Timorese protected?

Indonesia is a land of diversity, comprising 300 ethnic groups, which have as many local languages and dialects, each withits own culktural identity and beliefs. The people of West Timor and the surrounding island of eastern Indonesia have the same Melanesian ancestry, culture, language base and customs as the people of East Timor.

Indonesia's adherence to basic human rights and fundamental freedom is clear and unequivocal and flows from our national philosopy, Pancasila. Fundamental to those freedoms is the protection and preservation of the many cultural differences that exist within our different ethnic groups. The rich Hindu culture of the fabled island of Bali is but one example of a unique culture that has not only been preserved but allowed to flourish as part of Indonesia.

Since East Timor was integrated into the Republic of Indonesia, the government has worked carefully to ensure that cultural traditions are maintained, local languages are preserved and religious practices respected. This has included support for cultural institutions and organizations, expansion of economic opportunities for those involved in the commercialization of traditional handicrafts, and financial support for the construction and rehabilitation of facilities of worship an all of the major faiths represented in the province.

East Timor, like the rest of Indonesia, is a province of extraordinary ethnic, religious and cultural diversity - a piece of the mosaic that is the pride of Indonesia. And in this diversity, no one group is dominant. Respect and tolerance for different cultural and religious traditions is at the heart of Pancasila.

The increase in conversions of East Timorese to Catholicism in the past 20 years, from 29 percent under Portuguese rule to 92 percent today, is yet another signal of Indonesia's commitment to religious freedom. Indeed, in a 1989 visit to East Timor, Pope John Paul II said that Indonesia's record of religious tolerance was an example to countries throughout the world.

The protection of the cultural and social traditions of the people of East Timor cannot be denied.

What were the actions taken in connection with the November 12, 1991, incident in Dili?

The events of November 12, 1991, were tragic. They represent the antithesis of Indonesia's policies, its philosophy and its constitution, which is why the Indonesian government reacted swifftly and comprehensively to identify and prosecute those responsible and to implement measures to ensure that such incidents do not occur again. Following the event, Presiden Soeharto expressed on several accasions his regrets to the families of those killed or injured, and quickly estabilished a National Commission of Inquiry to investigate the cause and to recommend actions to be taken. The army chief of staff also estabilished a Military Honor Council to evaluate the conduct and actions of military officers and to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. The findings of the reports of both the Commission and the Council were made public.

What is the status of the missing persons from the incident in Dili?

On June 25, 1993, the Indonesian armed forces commander submitted a progress report to President Soeharto on the results of Indonesia's continuing search for the persons allegedly unaccounted for the following the November 1991 tragedy in Dili.

This report followed an earlier report submitted in July 1992, when the alleged number of those missing was 66 individuals. Since that time, the government has undertaken an exhaustive search involving a number of official agencies as well as civic and social institutions, community leaders and the general public. The names of those reported missing have been widely circulated.

The search has also included assistance from those earlier reported missing and who have since returned to their homes. These actions have reduced the list to 54 individuals allegedly missing. The search continues. In this connection, it is pertinent to note that the Indonesian minister of foreign affairs is personally communicating the results of the search to the United Nations Secretary-General in his continuing efforts to find a just, comprehensive and internationally acceptable solution to the question East Timor.

What is Indonesia's position on human rights?

As a conscientious member of the United Nations and, since 1991, a member of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Indonesia accepts and recognizes the universal validity of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. But, as the United Nations rightly enjoins us to do, the promotion and observation of human rights should be put within the context of international cooperation. And, international cooperation presupposes, as a basic condition, respect for the sovereignty of states and the national identity of peoples.

Human rights values are essentially ethical and moral in nature. Hence, any approach to human rights issues with different intentions or ulterior motivations, in other words, politically motivated intentions, should be eschewed.

Human rights are vital and important by and for themselves. Indonesia, therefore, cannot accept linking questions of human rights to other issues, such as economic and development cooperation, or worse, making them into political conditions to such cooperation, as such linkages will detract from the value of both.

As is well known, there are various categories of human rights: civil and political rights, economic and social rights, the rights of the individual human being and the rights of the community, the society and the nation. It is universally accepted that these categories of rights are indivisible and inter-related, and that there should be balance in the appreciation and promotion af all rights of in their integral whole. Undue emphasis on one category of countries and of developing countries in particular, the international community should, therefore, take into account the situation in relation to all categories of human rights.

This is consistent with the basic principles contained in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. Article 29 of that declaration addresses two aspects that balance each other: On the one hand, there are principles that respect the fundamental rights and freedom of the individual; on the other, there are stipulations regarding the obligations of the individual to society and the state.

It is clear, therefore, that implementation of human rights implies the existence of a balanced relationship between individual human rights and the obligations of individuals to their community. Without such a balance, the rights of the community as a whole can be denied, which can lead to instability and anarchy, especially in developing countries.

While human rights are indeed universal in character, it is generally acknowledged that their expression and implementation in the national context should remain the competence and responsibility of each government while taking into account the complex variety of problems, of different economic, social and cultural realities, and of different value systems prevailing in each country. This national competence not only derives from the principle of sovereignty of states, but is also a logical consequence of the principle of self-determination.

In Indonesia, as in many other developing countries, the rights of the individual are balanced by the rights of the community, in other words, balanced by the obligation to respect the rights of of others, the rights of the society and the rights of the nation. This not only conforms to the cultural traditions and customs prevalent in most developing countries where, often, the interest and the rights of the community prevail over those of the ondividual, but is also fully in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Moreover, in the application of human rights in developing countries, including our own, it should be borne in mind that in most of these countries there are other fundamental rights and concerns besides certain civil ang political freedoms to which equally urgent attention should be given, such as the right of the vast majority of the people to be free from want, from hunger, from ignorance, from disease and from poverty. Attention must also be given to the right to development and the right to be free from external political and economic coercion in pursuit of development in an atmosphere of peace and national stability. Precisely because human rights are indivisible no singular emphasis should be put on certain aspects of those rights.

Indonesia is of the firm view that in evaluating the application and implementation of human rights in individual countries, the characteristic problems of developing countries in general, as well as the specific problems of individual societies, should be taken fully into account. Similarly, there should be a balanced approach toward respect for the fundamental rights of the individual and the rights and interest of society and of the nation as a whole.

Finally, the primary objective of actions in the field of human rights is not to accuse nor to assume the role of judge and jury over other countries. Rather we aim to work together to develop a common consciousness in the international community and to encourage improvement in the observance of these fundamental rights and freedoms. We should not try to remake the world in our own image, but we can and should try to make the world a more humane, peaceful and equitably prosperous place for all.

For its part, the Indonesian government has consistently endeavored to adhere to the humanitarian precepts and basic human rights and freedoms embodied in its state philosophy, Pancasila, its 1945 constitution, and its national laws and regulations. Indeed, these precepts, rights and freedoms, as embodied in the constitutional and legal system, derive from age-old traditions, customs and the philosophy of life of the Indonesian people.

The philosopical basis of Indonesia, Pancasila, which translates to Five Pillars or Five Principles, embraces humanitarian precepts that are mutually interlinked and inseparable. These five principles are:

- Belief in one, supreme God- Just and civilized humanity- The unity of Indonesia- Democracy, led by the inner wisdom of consensus arising out of deliberations among representatives- Social justice for the whole of the Indonesian people

The 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia, which is based on Pancasila, also contains humanitarian precepts and basic principles of human rights. These principles have been incorporated into a number of national laws and regulations. It is also important to note that the 1945 constitution has many principles that are similar to those contained in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As in many developing countries, Indonesia's culture and its ancient and well developed customs have traditionally put high priority on the rights and interest of the community. This means that the interests of the majority often prevail over individual or group interests without, however, in any way harming the rights and interests of those individuals and groups. Indvidual and group rights are always fully taken into account, based on the principle of "musyawarah-mufakat," which translates to deliberations to attain consensus and which is firmly embedded in the nation's socio-political system and unique form of democracy.

Indonesia is commited to the promotion and protection of human rights in all its provinces. As a result, it has, following the seminar on the promotion of human rights in Jakarta in 1989 and the symposium held in 1990, estabilished a National Commission of Human Rights, the efforts of which have been praised by numerous countries.

Is Indonesia willing to resolve the dispute with Portugal?

Although at the time of the last voting on the East Timor issue at the U.N. General Assembly in 1982 Portugal was hardly in a position of strength, Indonesia agreed to the appeal by the United Nations Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, to start a dialogue with Portugal under his auspices. The purpose was to reach a just, comprehensive and internationally acceptable solution, under the general mandate of the Secretary General, through continuing strerile debate in the General Assembly.

Since 1984, we have been engaged in such a tripartite dialogue among Indonesia, Portugal and the U.N. Secretary-General, under the general mandate as referred to above and not on the basis of, or pursuant to, any specific General Assembly resolution. This dialogue has been, on the whole, constructive and has contributed to removing many earlier misunderstandings and to resolving many outstanding humanitarian issues.

In 1993, resumed discussion between the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Portugal, under the auspices of United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, focused on the development of confidence-building measures as a means of fostering an atmosphere propitious to resolving the dispute. The spirit of those measures has inspired some personalities in Indonesia and Portugal to enhance personal contact between the people of the two countries through the establishment of the Portugal-Indonesia Friendship Association (PIFA). Established in Portugal on October 21, 1993, the association promotes mutual understanding between the peoples of Portugal and Indonesia through cultural and economic channels. This organization is a private initiative of leading Portuguese citizens and is a clear indication that some in Portugal recognize that the misinformation campaign being waged in their country is not based on fact.

At the lattest meeting, held in Geneva in June 1996, besides having discussed in greater detail the substantive issues, the ministers also considered the proposal of tthe All Inclusive Intra-East Timorese Dialogue held in March 1996, in Burg Schlaining Schloss, Austria, and agreed to proceed with consultations on the establishment of an East Timorese cultural center in Dili and the continued development of human resources in East Timor. These efforts stand as clear testimony that Indonesia has consistently sought to find a just, comprehensive and internationally acceptable solution to the question.

How does the Government of Indonesia respond to allegations of human rights groups about human rights violations in East Timor?

The Government of Indonesia is well aware of the concern of some international organizations regarding human rights in East Timor. While we believe much of the concern is without foundation, we do accept that there have been incidents that run contrary to our commitment to the universal validity of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. When we have been made aware of such incidents, such as the well publicized tragedy in Dili in November 1991, we have acted swiftly to correct them and to bring to justice those individuals, be they civilians or military officials, who are responsible for the incident.

We are especially pleased to see that our efforts are also acknowledged by various personalities including elected officials from many foreign countries and a number of journalists.

We are also proud of the fact that in 1993, a National Commission on Human Rights was established in Indonesia and only on July 9, 1996, a branch was opened in Dili, East Timor. This branch office serves not only to monitor and report all events concerning human rights violations, but most of all, to implement the National Action Plan. In this regard, the organization is commited to conducting its duties with impartiality and objectivity.

It is our belief that many of the unsubstantiated charges regarding human rights abuses in East Timor are being disseminated by representatives of the government of Portugal or by organizations receiving the support of that government. Portugal's motivation in this regard stems from its profound sense of guilt in abandoning a colony for which it did nothing for hundreds of years.

It is hypocritical for a former colonial power to support the condemnation of a country that has brought peace and stability to a region that was neglected for centuries. The government of Portugal relinquished its responsibilities for the administration of East Timor in 1975 when its accredited representatives abandoned the territory and left a vacuum (and weapons and ammunition) that fueled a civil war that has been the source of a great deal of death and destruction.

If the discussions that have taken place under the auspices of the Secretary-General are to be succesful, we feel it is imperative that Portugal stop its efforts to discredit Indonesia through the dissemination of baseless accusations and its support for activities that serve only to hinder the process of development in East Timor.

History will show that the very foundation of Indonesia was built on a search for freedom and justice and that commitment of the government to ensuring rights for all has brought these basic human rights to all of the country's approximately 200 million people. This is something the people of East Timor did not have under Portuguese colonial rule and gained only as peace and stability replaced civil war, following integration with Indonesia.

The above materials taken from the book EAST TIMOR : Building for the Future; Issues and Perspectives; second edition. Published by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Indonesia; October 1996.