Then and Now

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The Independent Online
October 1996: The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to two East Timorese, Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, who have campaigned against the Indonesian occupation of their country and oppression of its people. "We want to put the spotlight on this conflict," says the Nobel committee chairman, Francis Sejersted. "This was about to become a forgotten conflict and we wanted to contribute to maintaining momentum." The award is welcomed by the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, the Vatican and the former colonial power, Portugal. Australia, one of the few nations to recognise the annexation, gives a conspicuously muted response.

December 1975: Indonesia invades East Timor. The UN Security Council passes a resolution demanding withdrawal, but it is destined to remain a dead letter. Otherwise, the West's response is notable for its restraint. After all, the Cold War is at its height and communists have just overrun South Vietnam and are rampant in Cambodia and Laos. Indonesia appears as a bastion against the tide. A populous state covering a huge area, it is under the rule of a stable dictatorship relatively friendly to the West. Days before the invasion Gerald Ford, the US President, and Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State, have visited Jakarta, learned the attack was imminent, but done nothing. Portugal, which the UN regards as still having responsibility for East Timor, is too absorbed in its own revolution to react. Australia, New Zealand and Britain fail to express outrage even when a group of their citizens - journalists - are killed. A leak reveals that a few months earlier the British ambassador in Jakarta, Sir John Archibald Ford, sent a message to London anticipating the Indonesian action. "The people of East Timor are in no condition to exercise the right of self-determination. If ... there is a row in the United Nations, we should keep our heads down and avoid siding against the Indonesian government." Britain's interest, he says, was that Indonesia "should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible". In the years that followed, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese are killed.