WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At its core the problem of East Timor, and indeed much of Indonesia, has a lot to do with greed rather than the Muslim-Christian divide portrayed in the media.
From the first century AD until the 16th Indonesia was comprised of various Hindu kingdoms among which the Majapahit Empire became the most powerful. Sumatra was then known as the "island of gold," and Java as the "rice island."
Muslim traders began arriving in the 13th century, and Islam spread peacefully through the islands. Descendants of some Hindu kingdoms retreated to the islands of Bali and Lombok where they flourish to this day. In the early 16th century the Hindu kingdom of Mataram converted to Islam.
With the fall of Muslim Spain in 1492 (as in the Americas, Africa, and South Asia), came 350 years of brutal colonial rule and exploitation. First to arrive were the Portuguese in 1511 AD. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch (1602 to 1799 AD), the British (1811 to 1815 AD), and again the Dutch (1816 to 1908 AD).
The colonial masters took slaves, forced the natives to grow crops for export which resulted in famines, and destroyed the thriving inter-island trade.
By 1908 nationalist movements began seeking self-government, and Indonesia declared independence on August 17, 1947. Sukarno, a leader of the independence movement, became president. He was overthrown in 1965 by Suharto in a U.S. backed military coup in which it is reported that one million people, mainly Chinese, were killed.
When the Dutch and Portuguese formally partitioned East Timor between them in the 19th century, East Timor remained a part of the Portuguese colony. The governor of Portuguese Timor, in 1974, granted permission for political parties, and five emerged.
Said to be lacking popular support Fretilin, seeking independence from Indonesia, resorted to terror. Civil war broke out, and on August 27, 1975 the governor and Portuguese officials abandoned the capital Dili. The U.S. armed, trained Indonesian military intervened. It is reported that between 70,000 and 200,000 Timorese were killed in subsequent fighting.
Fretilin, supplied with arms from the Portuguese army arsenal, declared East Timor independent. The four other parties in East Timor declared their independence and integration with Indonesia. East Timor became the 27th province of Indonesia, but this claim was not recognized by the UN.
Rich in natural resources, Indonesia's primary problem is the equitable sharing of these resources. Foreign interests, and internal corruption, add to the inherent difficulty that while Java is Indonesia's most heavily populated island, many of the resources are located in less populated islands.
According to former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, Edward Masters, Indonesia did more in 35 years to develop barren, infertile East Timor
than Portugal did in four centuries.
Indonesia allocated development funds to East Timor at a rate six times the national average. In 1975, less than 10% of Timorese were literate, there were only 50 schools, and no colleges. By 1994 East Timor had 600 elementary schools, 90 middle schools and three colleges. Under the Portuguese East Timor had only two hospitals and 14 health clinics. By 1994 there were 10 hospitals and nearly 200 village health centers. In 1975 it had 20 km hard surfaced roads, by 1994 there were 500 km. The number of Catholic Churches in predominantly Catholic East Timor quadrupled under Indonesian rule
But Fretilin continued to resist Indonesian rule, and offshore oil discoveries made matters worse.
"Australian oil technicians say that the Timor seabed could yield some of the world's most productive oil fields," reported the Multinational Monitor. A treaty was signed in 1989 by Australia and Indonesia. This Timor Gap Treaty came into force in 1991 and is due for review in 2031. Australia needs this oil, and massive revenues are said to flow to both governments. Independence for East Timor would likely give it a larger share of these revenues.
The division of natural resources is also at the core of secessionist movements in Aceh, Irian Jaya, and in the neighboring Philippines.
On Aceh in 1971 Mobil Oil discovered one of the world's richest onshore reserves of natural gas, estimated at 40 billion cubic metres. Aceh provides an estimated 11% of Indonesia's total exports, but less than 10% of this wealth is reinvested in the province. Mobil Oil, is reported to have caused massive environmental damage, and is said to be linked to the Indonesian military's land seizures, bombings, and massacres.
On Irian Jaya military repression, and massive environmental damage has been linked to Freeport McMoRan, a Louisiana corporation.
In April 1967 Freeport McMoRan became the first foreign company granted an operating permit following the 1965-66 U.S.-backed coup that installed General Suharto. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is credited with having introduced company officials to President Suharto. Mr. Kissinger sits on Freeport's board earning $25,000 a year, and is paid an annual retainer of $200,000 for consultation work.
In 1999 Freeport McMoRan received approval to almost double production, which will increase land seizures and environmental damage. With reserves valued at $40 billion, the Freeport project is the largest single gold deposit in the world and the third largest open-cut copper mine.
In the neighboring Philippines, National Steel Company, writes Fred Hill author of Teasing the Tiger: A Third World Study of Muslim Mindanao, the Philippines' largest steel mill is destroying Lake Lanao--essential for the survival of neighboring communities. Located in the Muslim countryside, it is the major employer in the area. But except for 5 or 10 Muslims its 4000 employees are Christian Visayans, many of whom were brought there in the 1970s. The media publish reports about "Muslim" violence in Mindanao, but not the reasons for their frustration.
And similarly in East Timor the violence has little if anything to do with Muslim-Christian enmity. Christians live in peace with Muslims in West Timor, and elsewhere in Indonesia. About half of the pro-Indonesian militia leaders have Christian names. Greed, the greed of corporations, government officials, individuals is at at the core of problems. The religion card is used to divide, rule, and exploit the people and the land--just like colonial rulers did in earlier times.
[Enver Masud visited Indonesia in the early 1950's when his father was the UNESCO Mission Chief, and several times in the mid-1990's as an engineering management consultant for The World Bank. He is founder of The Wisdom Fund.]
[Economic factors were a key incentive in making Australia one of
the first countries to recognise Indonesia's illegal invasion of
East Timor after the territory declared independence from Portuguese
colonial rule in 1975.--Jonathan Steele, "Anger in East Timor as Australia plays tough over gas
reserves," The Guardian, October 14, 2003]
[Since the East Timorese independence referendum in 1999, the Australian
government has received approximately $1 billion dollars in taxes on oil
taken from the Laminaria Corallina field, which is fully situated in East
During the same period, East Timor has received absolutely nothing from this
oil field. One billion dollars is four times the amount of "aid" that has
been "given" to East Timor through AusAID since 1999.--Max Lane, "East
Timor: Australia's double betrayal," Green Left Weekly, March 24, 2004]
[East Timor risks becoming "another Haiti" because of an attempt by
Australia to exploit offshore oil and gas reserves between the two
countries, according to its president, Xanana Gusmao.--David Fickling, "Timorese
fury at 'immoral oil grab," The Guardian, April 19, 2004]
[The president of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao, has accused Australia of
robbing his tiny country of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in
potential oil and gas revenues.--Vaudine England, "Australia accused in E
Timor oil wrangle," Guardian, December 4, 2004]
[THE US knew well in advance of and explicitly approved Indonesia's invasion
of East Timor in 1975, newly declassified documents say.--"US backed
Timor invasion," Agence France-Presse, December 2, 2005]
[A United Nations truth commission had just released a report, based on
official files, that credits Suharto with the deaths of 180,000 people in
East Timor. It says that the United States played a "primary role" in this
terror. Britain and Australia are named as accessories to this vast
suffering.--John Pilger, "War by Media,"
johnpilger.com, April 14, 2006]
[One such moment occurred for Suharto in December 1975, when Portugal
relinquished its claims to the tiny island nation of East Timor. It declared
independence; nine days later Suharto's army invaded, on the pretext that
its neighbor was communist. Two hundred thousand people-nearly a third of
the island's population-were killed during the long occupation, to which the
United States gave its blessing. Gerald Ford, the only president to have
been a member of an actual prayer cell (when he was in Congress, with
Representatives John Rhodes, Al Quie, and Melvin Laird, a cell that
reconvened in 1974 to pray with Ford about pardoning Nixon), told Suharto,
"We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the
problem and the intentions you have." Kissinger, with Ford in Jakarta,
added, "It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly [because] the
use of U.S.-made arms could create problems." Suharto did not succeed
quickly-the killing continued for decades-but he never lacked for champions
in the U.S. Congress, which saw to it that American dollars kept his regime
in bullets until he was driven out in 1998.--Jeff Sharlet, "The
Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American
Power," Harper Perennial, June 2, 2009]
[East Timor is considering legal action over a multimillion-dollar helium
production facility in Australia, renewing tension between the nations over
vast, contested resources in the Timor Sea.--Anthony Deutsch, "Australia
gas deal renews tension," antiwar.com, May 14, 2010]
[A six week-long strike at the world's third-largest copper and biggest gold
mine has brought to the surface local discontent with both Indonesia's
central government and the United States-based mining giant
Freeport-McMoran, a conflict that threatens to spiral into a destabilizing
separatist uprising in the remote and restive Papua province.--Jacob Zenn,
loses Midas touch in Indonesia," atimes.com, October 27, 2011]
[The U.S. gave Indonesia the green light to invade and occupy East Timor, an
act that resulted in the death of over 200,000 people, or one-third of the
Timorese population, a kill ratio greater than Pol Pot's genocidal mania in
Cambodia.--Conn Hallinan, "The '65 Massacres: Complicity and Cover-Up,"
counterpunch.org, January 24, 2012]