In 24 years under the Indonesian yoke, some 1,02,800 Timorese lost their lives. In some cases, "the lucky were those who died." Women were especially singled out to break the will of the East Timorese.

Is there justice in this world? It would seem not. Last Monday's assassination attempt, in his own home, on East Timor's President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta, and the subsequent arrival of additional Australian troops to restore order in a land cursed by violence for the past 35 years, took place 10 days after the passing away of the former Indonesian strongman, General Suharto. The latter died of old age in his bed without having to answer f or the many crimes committed under his rule, including in East Timor. Whereas the rest of Portugal's former colonies, from Angola to Mozambique, from Cape Verde Islands to Goa, after their share of post-independence troubles, have finally settled down more or less peacefully to take on the daunting tasks of development, that is not a privilege granted to Timor-Leste - which is the country's official name.

In what used to be known as the Third World, and is now referred to as the Global South, there are countries in which the legacy of foreign intervention at the height of the Cold War left such a deep trauma that they are still reeling from it.

Guatemala has never recovered from the U.S.-led 1954 intervention that overthrew the elected government of President Jacobo Arbenz. Since then Guatemala has witnessed some of the worst massacres and human rights violations in the Americas, with entire villages razed by a succession of military dictatorships. Something similar happened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose founding father, Patrice Lumumba, was cut down in 1961 in another plot masterminded in the North. That opened the gates to three decades of "Mobutuism" and, in the 1990s, perhaps Africa's worst war. This left a country the size of Western Europe at the mercy of a dictator of whom it was said that the country's currency, printed in Berlin, would be turned over directly to him, on his Congo River island abode, "fresh from the printing presses." And we all know what has happened in Iran ever since Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was ousted in 1953 in another trans-Atlantic scheme designed to foil the emergence of a democratic, nationalist leader seen as not ready "to play ball" with Western interests.

Though much smaller, East Timor has been the victim of the same syndrome. In many ways it is a microcosm of the tragedy afflicting small, developing nations that happen to be located next to a significant regional power ruled ruthlessly, and find themselves caught between a rock and hard place in the harsh game of superpower rivalry.

After the Portuguese "Carnation Revolution" in 1974, which led to the dismantling of the Portuguese colonial empire, the stirrings for independence became stronger, and the East Timorese proclaimed their independence in November 1975. Though Portugal granted it, and the Portuguese colonial authorities moved off-shore to let the newly emerging nation take its course, this was not acceptable to Indonesia. In open violation of international law, General Suharto ordered troops to move into East Timor and occupy the territory in December 1975, thus annexing it. To its eternal shame, the international community, and most prominently the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which objected so strongly when Saddam Hussein attempted something similar with Kuwait in 1991, stood idly by.

For the next 24 years the East Timorese were under the Indonesian yoke, under the rule of a country with a different language and a different religion. According to the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR in its Portuguese acronym), which took testimony from 7,000 witnesses and delivered its report in October 2005, some 1,02,800 Timorese lost their lives as a result. As was said of another great 20th century tragedy, in some cases "the lucky were those who died."

East Timorese women were especially singled out. According to the report, "members of the Indonesian security forces openly engaged in rape, sexual torture, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence," leading them to "keeping lists of local women who could be routinely forced to come to the military post... so that soldiers could rape them." This was used as means of terror, to break the will of the East Timorese.

When Indonesia was hit by the "Asian crisis" of 1997-1998, and Suharto quit, Jakarta had no alternative but to buckle under international and local pressure and accept a referendum on East Timor's independence. The referendum was held in September 1999, and won by the pro-independence forces with some 78 per cent of the vote. Once again, however, the Indonesian military went on the rampage, openly supporting and encouraging pro-annexation militias, with a deadly toll of another one thousand Timorese. In an early application of what we would get to know later as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the United Nations, with peacekeeping forces led by the Australian military, took action and moved in.

Poster boy of U.N.

For four years the country was run by a United Nations special authority. East Timor became in many ways the "poster boy" of the U.N.'s nation-building effort - hailed for its long and heroic independence struggle, for being the first country of the new century, for its seeming progress towards reconciliation. The project gathered some of the "best and the brightest" among international civil servants (including Sergio Viera de Mello, later tragically killed in Baghdad), who toiled at the uphill task of creating the conditions for launching it into independent nationhood.

Upon independence, on May 20, 2002, one of the smallest (population 1.2 million) and poorest countries in Asia (with a per capita income of $750) set upon the rocky road of carving for itself a place among the international community. It did so led by such larger-than-life figures as Xanana Gusmao, its first elected president, and a man idolised for heading the armed struggle against the Indonesian occupation and spending six years in a Jakarta jail as a result, and Jose Ramos-Horta, a journalist who managed to escape a few days before the December 1975 invasion, and was thus spared the carnage that befell most of the East Timorese political leadership at the time. Ramos-Horta, who speaks five languages, and was at one moment mentioned as a possible candidate to succeed Kofi Annan as U.N. Secretary-General, led the international struggle for the East Timor issue for 24 years, against enormous odds.

The finds of rich oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea have raised hopes of a future economic bonanza, and the government has reached an agreement with Australia to exploit those deposits jointly. But for now, its young population (half of which is under 25 years of age) has to endure the hard times that go with a 50 per cent unemployment rate, no foreign direct investment, and an economy that depends almost solely on coffee and marble exports.

Most of all, however, the tragedy of East Timor is that it has not been able to come to terms with its evil past. The massive human rights violations committed in the last quarter of the past century have been approached in various ways, but the culprits have gone largely scot-free. The U.N. set up a Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) to do so. But upon its turning over the cases to the local courts, given the Timorese government's lack of interest in pursuing the issue, nothing much happened. Many in the human rights community pressed for a Special International Criminal Court like the ones set up for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, but the U.N. Security Council was not interested: after 9/11, the Western wooing of a large, moderate Muslim nation like Indonesia took priority.

White-washing exercise

In its post-Suharto, "softer and kinder" version, Jakarta said it would bring to book the military involved in the 1999 rampage through ad hoc tribunals. But, predictably, none of them was found guilty. The 2,500-page report of the CAVR and its recommendations, although handed over by then-President Gusmao to the U.N. Secretary-General, has largely been ignored. And a subsequently appointed bi-national (East Timorese-Indonesian) Commission on Truth and Friendship, whose ostensible purpose is to bring the two countries together, is seen by many as a white-washing exercise.

Both President Ramos-Horta and now Prime Minister Gusmao have gone out of their way to preach reconciliation on all fronts, even meeting repeatedly with the rebel officer Alfredo Reinado, who led the attacks on them on Monday (and who was killed in the attacks). Yet a wounded nation must first heal those wounds and look at its past with a cold eye before it can move on and ahead. That is what transitional justice is all about. That is what the Catholic Church in East Timor has been saying all along, as it claims that the truth is not enough, that a measure of justice, through punishment of the culprits of massive human rights violations and through reparations for the victims and its relatives (also denied until now) is needed. The tragedy of East Timor provides an object lesson in these matters for all those who want to see it.

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