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Return to Timor-Leste

Sep 18, 2019 • 15m10s

Twenty years after Timor-Leste’s vote for independence, the country’s relationship with Australia remains fraught.

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Return to Timor-Leste

82 • Sep 18, 2019

Return to Timor-Leste

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, This is 7am.

Twenty years after Timor-Leste’s vote for independence led to bloody retaliation from Indonesia, the country’s relationship with Australia remains fraught. John Martinkus on what happened after the ballot and what’s happening in East Timor now.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Do you want a pen, or a piece of paper, or is it all…?

JOHN:

No I've been thinking all morning about what I'm going to say

ELIZABETH:

Because John, you’ve been a very long time foreign correspondent across many parts of the world, not just East Timor...

JOHN:

I basically started reporting foreign news in East Timor in about ‘95, and then after that I went to Aceh then I went to West Papua. Then, of course, I went to Iraq.

ELIZABETH:

John Martinkus is a foreign correspondent. He writes for The Saturday Paper.

JOHN:

We got kidnapped, we got blown up, we got shot at, the whole palaver. Then Afghanistan, I went to Afghanistan about six times. And that quite affected me. Yeah.

ELIZABETH:

John, you recently attended the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of East Timor gaining its independence from Indonesia. What was it like to be there and witness that?

Archival tape -- Unidentified man:

“The President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, his excellency Francisco Guterres, will lead us in a minute of silence to remember the fallen heroes of our fight to independence…”

JOHN:

To be honest, it was incredibly satisfying. The Timorese people, they have created their own country. A very united and very forward-looking people, very strong.

Archival tape -- [Music and crowds]

JOHN:

The Timorese are really good at putting on a show and they had lots and lots of speeches and marching bands and, you know, the whole palaver.

ELIZABETH:

And who’s there?

JOHN:

Everyday people, there were thousands of them. And they were there in that stadium and then there was also a lot of people outside. And it was great. I was very lucky because I was able to see some pretty top level guys who I'd known throughout the struggle, throughout the mid 90s and all. Back then they were just, like, guys in the jungle fighting. And now they’re the leaders, you know; they've got their country back.

Archival tape -- [Music, crowds and fireworks]

JOHN:

When the fireworks went off, everybody jumped, because we all thought it was gunfire…

Archival tape -- [More fireworks, crowds cheering]

JOHN:

...and then we just laughed about it because like, it's not gunfire, it's just fireworks to celebrate the twenty years.

Archival tape -- [Crackle of fireworks]

JOHN:

I mean nobody's really forgotten that time. And for me, personally, and like so many others I spoke to on the trip, it was like it was yesterday. We'd all shared this big trauma which was the Indonesian retribution to their vote for independence.

ELIZABETH:

You were in East Timor in early 1999, prior to that vote for independence being called, what was it like?

JOHN:

There was a remarkable, you know, change, actually, around about January when Howard sent a letter to Habibi which the Indonesian Prime Minister, he had just died. And he opened the possibility for a vote on independence.

But his program was like; ‘Oh maybe in 10 years we can have a vote’. Habibi sort of turned around and said; ‘Oh look, we'll just have the right down’, and then the UN got involved. And it was almost like the Indonesian military did all they could, before the U.N. came in, to find and kill those that they thought sought independence. It started really quickly.

Archival tape -- [Crowds, screams, glass breaking, gunfire]

ELIZABETH:

So John, it was announced on September 4th, 1999, that almost 80 per cent of East Timor’s population had voted for independence, and then there was further violence from the Indonesian government, wasn’t there?

JOHN:

Yeah, yeah. As journalists, we had access to documents that were leaked to us about the Indonesians plans to carry out this operation of retribution, they called it. And it basically detailed what they would do, which was they would depopulate Dili, they would depopulate Baucau, they would depopulate all the major towns. And that's exactly what they did. They drove around in trucks and they shot everybody and made them get on the trucks and, you know, took them over the border to West Timor, they put them on boats or, whatever, but they pretty much moved probably about 60 percent of the population of the country.

Archival tape -- Unidentified man 1:

“My sister is still in Dili, but I do not know their situation.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified man 1:

“Do you think they are alive?”

Archival tape -- Unidentified man 1:

“I do not know if they are alive or not alive or alright, I do not know.”

JOHN:

It was a terrible experience. You couldn't do anything because these guys were pointing M-16s at you, so you had to do what they said, and often we couldn't even really report it because no one was interested, you know? I was pitching stories to like, The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age or whatever, and they weren't picking them up. It was very frustrating to have to witness that and not be able to report it.

ELIZABETH:

And John, this came after decades of violent occupation.

JOHN:

In the 24 years of the occupation, there's been many estimates thrown around anywhere, anywhere between one hundred thousand to three hundred thousand. But the fact is, we're talking about a third of the population. Everybody's lost somebody, you know? Everybody has lost a family member or a close friend or whatever.

ELIZABETH:

And what about the scale of the violence that immediately followed the vote for independence?

JOHN:

Yeah. Look, the U.N. says about 2,600 killed after the ballot was announced, which I think is about right. But also what they don't put into that equation is the amount of people who were killed before, because the violence really started in about late ‘98.

And yeah, there were massacres in Suai, there were massacres in Cassa, there were massacres in Liquica. You know, it just went on and on and on.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back

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ELIZABETH:

John, Australian peacekeeping forces arrive in East Timor on the 20th of September, 1999. Its two weeks after the independence vote.

JOHN:

That’s right, yep.

Archival tape -- Unidentified man:

[Crowds cheering]

JOHN:

What the Australians did in the first few days, they secured the airport, they secured the port, and a few streets behind the port on the waterfront.

Archival tape -- Unidentified man:

“You wanna open up your bag, mate? Open her up.”

JOHN:

But they only secured a tiny part of the capital. And what was going on in the rest of the country at the same time was there was still 16000 Indonesian soldiers there, and there were still militias and there were still police. And they were kind of in a bit of a desperate situation. They were trying to sort of shoot their way out.

ELIZABETH:

The Indonesian forces?

JOHN:

Yeah, yeah. I remember going back to West Timor probably about a month or so later, and it was awful. Like, there were refugee camps and and then people there were treated really badly and there was like rapes and stuff like that going on and, you know, people couldn't defend themselves. They killed some nuns and priests and...yeah, yeah, it was a very, very bad time.

It was kind of like this just absolute vacuum of authority, and the Australians did restore order. They did do their job and they did do a good job and, you know, all credit to them. But it just took them a while.

As a journalist there, you know, we'd been calling for like, a year, for armed intervention, because the situation was just getting so bad and so bad. You know, it just kept getting worse.

Archival tape -- Unidentified man:

“So it makes us very disappointed because, for me, I think the [forces] were very late. I didn’t know about their strategy, but to me, they were very late.”

ELIZABETH:

What’s the Timorese view of Australia now?

JOHN:

Yeah, look, it's problematic. The Timorese are and will always be forever grateful for Australia’s intervention. That period, post independence, there was a fair level of resentment from the Timorese because they had lost everything. They're very proud people and they're very tough people, and they don't like being pushed around.

ELIZABETH:

And of course the case of Witness K continues to strain the relationship as well.

JOHN:

Yeah, they were really annoyed about that, you know? Really angry about it.

ELIZABETH:

And senior figures in East Timor remain critical of Australia on this as well.

JOHN:

Yeah, exactly. I mean, Horta was quite, well, I spoke to him at length in Delhi last week and he was quite blunt about that. He was like, this is wrong. This shouldn't be happening. This case shouldn't be pursued. And he’s calling for the case to be dismissed. Like, no bones about it. Like, that's what he says.

They view it as Australia acting like a colonial power. And they're very sensitive to that, because they have been colonized by the Portuguese and the Indonesians etc. And that case underscored this kind of like, almost a bullying from Australia. And they were furious, you know. And the fact is, I mean, Scott Morrison only answered three questions in the entire day he was in Dili. A pretty ordinary performance, you know, given the gravity of the ceremony and the event.

ELIZABETH:

How is life in East Timor, twenty years after independence?

JOHN:

Well it's still pretty hard. You know, if you just go to the centre of Dili and you hang out in the sort of ex-pat bubble, it seems like everything's great, you know, you’ve got power and Wi-Fi and hotels and all that sort of thing, you know. But for the average East Timorese, if you go two or three kilometres out in the suburbs, life is still pretty hard. I mean, talking basic stuff like electricity outages, really bad phone signals, no internet, no hot water, no reliable clean water you can actually drink. You know, just simple stuff like that. You know, people still die of dengue and malaria and kids still die of diarrhea and stuff. And, you know, that's that's no good. They've still got a long way to go. But they' re getting there. And because they do have this really very strong community spirit, which I don't think I've seen any other country and I think that's a result of the whole shared trauma that they've all gone through.

ELIZABETH:

John thank you so much for being here and talking through your reporting.

JOHN:

No problem

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

In NSW, a spill motion against premier Gladys Berejiklian was cancelled after being brought by three MPs angered over the state's abortion reforms. At the same time, NSW sports minister John Sidoti has stood down from cabinet ahead of a potential investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption into his property interests. He denies wrongdoing.

And a class action lawsuit will be launched against the commonwealth over the robo-debt collection scheme. Run by Gordon Legal, it will argue that the commonwealth unlawfully seized money on the basis of a flawed algorithm. The action was announced by Bill Shorten, from his role as shadow minister for government services.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Thursday.

[Theme ends]

Twenty years after Timor-Leste’s vote for independence led to bloody retaliation from Indonesia, the country’s relationship with Australia remains fraught. John Martinkus on what happened after the ballot and what is happening now.

Guest: Foreign correspondent John Martinkus.

Background reading:

Remembering Timor-Leste’s independence in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of envelopeaudio.com.au text: Envelope Audio).

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timor independence indonesia ramoshorta timorleste




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82: Return to Timor-Leste