A ground-breaking study has revealed how the 21st century’s first new state, Timor-Leste, achieved independence from a much more powerful Indonesia by laying down the gun.
Twenty-two years ago thousands of East Timorese marched through the Santa Cruz cemetery in Timor-Leste’s capital Dili. The peaceful procession which snaked its way through the bleach white tombstones was calling for liberation from Indonesian rule.
The demonstrators had been warned by the Indonesian authorities that if they marched they would be killed. Still they poured into the streets, and tragically the dust that they kicked up with their feet was soon stained red as the Indonesian military opened fire on the unarmed marchers. More than 200 people, including many young children, died that day; sacrificing their lives for their country and the far-off promise of freedom.
The dust has long settled and the blood stains have faded, but the Santa Cruz massacre was a turning point for Timor-Leste’s independence movement. It’s not solely because the massacre was captured on film by the international media and the grisly images were beamed around the world. The demonstration showed the power of peaceful and non-violent resistance, and that even when bullets fly, might does not always prevail. According to three experts from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific it was only after laying down the gun that the Timorese gained their independence.
In their latest book, Networked governance of freedom and tyranny, John Braithwaite, Hilary Charlesworth and Aderito Soares from the College’s Regulatory Institutions Network argue that the Timorese resistance won independence from a much more powerful Indonesia when the fight was taken from the battlefield to international corridors of power and diplomatic networks.
“Timor-Leste shows how the shift from violent resistance to non-violent resistance that connected up international networks worked more effectively than armed struggle,” says Braithwaite, who led the six year study resulting in the book.
“At first, the resistance was a case of asymmetrical conflict where you had a very powerful Indonesian state on the one hand and a rather weak insurgency on the other. The Timorese resistance only became effective when it moved from violent to non-violent resistance. In particular, the movement became effective through the diplomatic leadership of José Ramos-Horta who linked up the Timorese movement with nodes of diplomatic support around the world.”
At the time Ramos-Horta was a young man who hadn’t been to university and had limited English skills. He worked as a cleaner at night in New York so that he could lobby the United Nations and build an international network of diplomatic support for Timor-Leste during the day. But as inspiring as Ramos-Horta was, Braithwaite believes that it was not as individuals that the resistance’s leaders made a difference.
“Leaders like Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta were really important in being able to inspire people to the possibilities of non-violent struggle, as well as diplomatic struggle and clandestine resistance as an alternative to trying to fight the Indonesian military machine with the gun.
“But, while the leaders of the resistance were visionary, more important was their ability to connect to international networks of resistance and bring these networks with them. So yes, individuals are important in history. But, not as individuals so much as individuals who connect up networks of governance across a global space.
“On top of this, a strategic decision was made by leaders in the independence movement to link up with the Indonesian democracy movement. The support of the Indonesian democracy movement, which of course was successful in its own struggle when Indonesia became a democracy in 1998, created the historic opportunity to implement the independence that Timor-Leste had been long struggling for.”
According to Braithwaite, recent studies confirm that East Timor is not a one-off case. An international study of 323 resistance struggles around the world found that 56 per cent gained most of their objectives through non-violent struggle. This compares to a success rate of only 26 per cent for resistance movements using violence. Braithwaite says that in the case of East Timor there were two key moments when the role of non-violent struggle came to the fore: the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre and the 1999 independence referendum.
“The Santa Cruz massacre was a turning point because it marked another turn away from violent struggle toward non-violent resistance. And it was an exceptionally courageous form of non-violent resistance.
“Also after the historic 1999 independence referendum, the East Timorese military forces were held in cantonment, even though certain leaders of the Indonesian military had mobilised militias which were slaughtering civilians and burning 70 per cent of housing and public buildings across the country. Not reacting to this through military force helped ensure that East Timor received UN and US backing for General Cosgrove’s forces to go in and restore order as well ensuring civil war did not break out.”
Ten years after achieving formal statehood there are still people in Timor-Leste who are fighting for full freedom and equality. And, as is all too common around the world, it is women still having to resist and fight for liberation. The problems women face in today’s Timor include high rates of fertility and maternal mortality, violence and limited access to the public worlds of the economy, education and politics.
As part of the study, Professor Charlesworth examined how East Timorese women helped win independence, their prominent role in the resistance and how this compared to their situation today.
“Women played a great number of roles in the campaign for independence,” says Charlesworth. “From the very earliest days of the resistance, there were women who were remarkably charismatic in the first reaction to the Indonesian invasion of 1975. One can think of Rosa Bonaparte, who was quite an extraordinary woman who’d returned from her studies in Portugal and was very active in the resistance, but then was killed in a massacre in early 1976 in Dili harbour.
“Women were also involved as fighters in the mountains and many women played a role among the ‘clandestinos’, the underground, in providing food, uniforms for troops, and looking after children. There were many women killed and raped during that period. Overall women were very active and they are credited now with keeping many of the networks of resistance alive through passing on information.”
But, according to Charlesworth the central role which women filled in the resistance movement has not translated to positions of prominence in today’s Timor-Leste.
“This is something that is quite common after there has been a period of fighting for freedom in which women are deeply involved,” explains Charlesworth. “We see this currently in Egypt.
“What often happens is that once formal settlement for peace arrives, women tend to get pushed to the margins. In the case of East Timor, during the UNTAET era when the UN was in charge of East Timor, their main interlocutors were mainly men; they were dealing with people like Gusmão, Ramos-Horta and so on. And you don’t find many women involved in that period.
“Today we also see that over 30 per cent of Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians are women and there are a number of high-profile women politicians. However, there certainly is a sense among women’s groups in Timor-Leste today that they have been pushed to the margins and that the major political players all tend to be men and that women’s interests also tend to be given short shrift.
“Overall, you could say that women in Timor-Leste face considerable social, economic and political disadvantages.”
Networked governance of freedom and tyranny is published by ANU E Press and is available for free download at http://epress.anu.edu.au/