The Ghost of Timor – Part 4

The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you’ll find him
His father’s sword he hath girded on
And his wild harp slung behind him.”

Joe Strummer

As a child I never liked to travel. I wasn’t opposed to seeing new places and things and was unlikely to see many of those in early 70’s Australia from the back of a 1970 Holden Premier station wagon anyway. The furthest my family ever got in that was Queensland’s Gold Coast – yes that Gold Coast – which was a fair effort considering the state of Australia’s roads in 1979.

No, the reason wasn’t the distance or the destination. It was that whenever we travelled much further than the state’s border, I got carsick. I believe the correct term is motion sickness and I don’t know why I got it and none of my sisters ever did, even though we shared the genes and the same car, I just did. The problem was somewhat alleviated by my parents allowing me to lie in the back of the car. Something that would be considered illegal and tantamount to child abuse now, but no one had a problem within the 70’s. I loved that I could stretch out in the boot on those long trips making a nest amongst the suitcases and just fall asleep. I hate modern safety society.

And as an adult I didn’t fare any better. Commercial jets were bad enough, though I’m happy to say that things have improved since then. But put me in a single engine Cessna or, God forbid, a boat and I was doomed. I remember that my old girlfriend Liz once insisted that we go whale watching on the Southeast coast of Australia. We spent two hours chasing our tails in rough seas off Eden with nary a whale in sight and me on the point of throwing myself in the water to end it all and make the pain go away. We were just about turn for home and end my misery when another boat radioed the tourist fleet that they had spotted a flipper some miles distant. In order to save their no sighting refund guarantee, the vessel set off in hot pursuit to track down the elusive mammal. I don’t know the exact nautical term for the effect waves has on a small boat travelling at top speed is, but I came up with one for the effect it was having on me: Fucked!

So, you can imagine how I was feeling that September day in 1999 when I found myself sitting off East Timor’s Dili harbour after a ten-hour crossing from Darwin on a military catamaran. The tropical heat did nothing improve my situation nor did the sights and smells of the 500 other landlubbers suffering to various degrees as I was, all crammed into the hold with their diesel fuelled trucks and tanks. By the time we were ready to disembark I was at my wits end and, like anyone who feels that that have suffered unjustly or unduly, I was looking to blame someone else for my predicament. I decided that the guilt lay squarely at the feet of one party. I blamed Portugal.

As far as I was concerned, Portugal set the wheels in motion for my current dilemma when they decided that the world wasn’t as flat as they had been led to believe and set off to find a way around Africa in the 15th Century. They eventually found their way down around the Cape of Good Hope and across Indian Ocean to the spice islands of the East Indies dropping off trade posts in strategic locations as they went.

They happily settled down in what eventually became known as East Timor for the next five hundred years growing rich off the spice trade and only occasionally trading pot shots with locals and the Dutch until 1942.

’42 was terrible year for most of the world. World War Two had been in full swing for over two years and far from looking doomed, the Axis were at the height of their power in Europe, the Middle East and the Atlantic. With most of Britain’s Army and Navy hanging on by its fingertips in places like North Africa and the North Atlantic it came as a rude shock to everyone when the Imperial Navy of Japan bombed the US fleet at Pearl Harbour just months earlier and formally declared war on anyone they could find who wasn’t German.

Japan had chosen its moment well. The Western Allies were completely unable to withstand what they had been planning for years. Within days of Pearl, they had fanned out across the Pacific and Southeast Asia picking off the spoils of empire the jewel of which, as far as they were concerned, was the oil fields of the now Dutch East Indies.

Where they could the Allies, Britain and the Netherlands in that part of the world mostly, put up a spirited defence but it was a lost cause. One of the few places where the Japanese got a bloody nose was Timor. Australian and Dutch soldiers held on there for the best part of a year inflicting heavy causalities on the invaders all the while being supported by the inhabitants of Portuguese Timor. When the allies eventually retreated back to Australia the Japanese set about seeking revenge on the now defenceless civilian population.

Japan was eventually defeated in 1945, and the European colonial powers sought to re-establish their power in the region but for most of them it was a lost cause. The Netherlands cut a deal with the inhabitants of the East Indies which became Indonesia in 1949. The islands of the archipelago were now entirely free of foreign control. Almost entirely, because Portugal still clung to half an island at the extreme eastern end of the region, East Timor.

Portugal had been largely untouched by the ravages of the Second World War and was in a much better position to re-establish itself in its colonial possession. And Portugal also had a different policy in regard to its colonies than did Great Britain or the Dutch. As far as Portugal was concerned, its colonies were a part of Portugal, not a colonial possession. Going back into Timor was the same as going to Lisbon.

Portugal held on to Timor for the next thirty years until a coup in Lisbon brought a government to power that’s stated policy was the abandonment of all its colonies. This was just the moment the Timorese nationalists had been waiting for all those years. But, as independence movements too often do, throwing off the shackles of the previous authorities led to a brief three-week civil war as the various factions vied for power.

Unfortunately for the Timorese, its huge neighbouring state of Indonesia also saw the Portuguese coup as an opportunity and annexed the tiny nation in 1975. Thousands were killed but there was little the international community could do about it. The Vietnam war had just ended and no one in the West wanted to get involved in a land war in Asia.

The next 25 years were not a good time for anyone concerned. The Timorese suffered; the Indonesians paid a heavy price to maintain control; and Australia nervously watched Indonesia for signs that they had decided to look just a little bit further south. (Note: in 1999 Indonesia’s population was 211m. Roughly ten times that of Australia’s 18m.)

The 1991 massacre of more than 200 demonstrators by the Indonesian military was a turning point for the independence cause and brought increased international pressure on Indonesia. Following the resignation of Indonesian President Suharto, new President Habibie, prompted by a letter from Australian Prime Minister Howard, decided to hold a referendum on independence. A UN-sponsored agreement allowed for a UN-supervised popular referendum in August 1999. A clear vote for independence was met with a punitive campaign of violence by East Timorese pro-Indonesia militias supported by elements of the Indonesian military. In response, the Indonesian government allowed a multinational peacekeeping force, INTERFET, to restore order and aid East Timorese refugees.

Which is how I came to be plucked out from my comfort zone of the balmy surrounds of Sydney’s overpriced Eastern Suburbs and sent to war. And as reached for a paper bag for the 100th time that day, wishing I was dead, I knew who was to blame. “Thanks for nothing Portugal.”

The Minstral Boy – Joe Strummer

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