The Guardian February 17, 1999

Inside East Timor

Bill Fisher, an activist for the South Australian-based Campaign for an 
Independent East Timor (CIET), visited the East Timor last year. He was 
interviewed by Richard Stone on his return to Adelaide.

"Economically, the future for East Timor is very good", said Bill. "It is 
viable as a country. While Indonesia has plundered the economy, it still 
retains the potential for considerable development with oil, coffee, 
tourism and several other industries."

"While more discussions within the broad-based, united front independence 
movement have focused on the expulsion of the military", said Bill, "there 
has been some planning for afterwards.

"Emphasis has been placed upon agricultural development. Only about ten per 
cent of the existing economy is industrialised, and then, by small-sized 
workshop-type enterprises. The remainder of the economy is predominantly 
subsistence agriculture.

"There has also been Australian assistance with infrastructure projects 
such as clean water provision", he said.

Indonesia received massive amounts of international aid and military 
assistance, (including Australian), but has still failed to conquer the 
East Timorese.

"The feeling of being oppressed by the military, is strong. The mood within 
the country is of rebellion and defiance", said Bill.

Following its brief independence from Portugese colonialism in the mid-
1970s, East Timor was quickly invaded by its stronger neighbour, Indonesia. 
The US Government approved the invasion the day before.

During the years of occupation, Indonesia has plundered East Timor's 
economy for marble, coffee and sandalwood and anything else which was seen 
as exportable.

Organised resistance

Addressing the issue of the independence movement, Bill explained that it 
is organised into three tiers: the armed guerrillas; the unarmed 
clandestine movement which provides active assistance to the guerrillas; 
and the student movement, which remains very strong and possesses extensive 
contacts with its counterparts throughout Indonesia.

"The independence movement has mass support", said Bill, "the only 
opposition within the country to it comes from those who are reticent or 
who have economic interests with Indonesia such as business people. Figures 
such as Xanana Gusmao and Bishop Belo, have widespread support within the 
movement and are viewed as men of the people."

Communications within the independence movement tend to be very efficient 
and take place by word of mouth. "Most East Timorese are very well 
informed", explained Bill.

Provision of satellite television reception within the country from 
overseas stations such as Portugal has also increased awareness of the 
mounting international opinion and support swinging in their favour.

This has been a significant development since the brutality of the Santa 
Cruz massacre in the early 1990s.

The independence movement retains a strong identification with its 
counterparts in the former Portugese colonies of Angola, Mozambique and 
Guinea Bissau. Through these contacts, lessons of struggle have been 
learned as well as an awareness of the assistance given from Cuba and the 
former socialist bloc in the African independence struggles.

The training of activists within the East Timorese independence movement 
appears extremely effective. As the guerrillas possess strong support from 
the mass movement, their activities are usually very successful.

Despite the enormous military might of the Indonesians, the guerrillas can 
"melt back into the mountains and escape Indonesian attacks".

Bill explained that because of Australia's role since the invasion, most 
East Timorese have mixed feelings about Australia.

Australia has a large exile population, most of whom fled in fear for their 
lives. They still exist in a precarious, legal, limbo-land, denied usual 
refugee status.

Many of these people endured Portugese colonialism and Indonesian military 
occupation and fear deportation back to East Timor. The threat of mass 
deportations from Australia remains a very real fear for many families.

The legacy of centuries of colonialism upon East Timor has seriously 
hindered its development. The Portugese did little to assist development. 
Colonial policies were only concerned with exploitation and control.

In education, for example, the existing system is largely restricted to 
primary levels only. Increasingly, however, some East Timorese do progress 
into secondary and tertiary education.

Bill spoke highly of the social awareness of the people. While racism 
against the Chinese and other peoples has been a common feature of the 
recent uprisings in Indonesia, this has not occurred in East Timor. "They 
know who the real oppressors are", said Bill.

The vast majority of Chinese and Javanese traders in East Timor live 
without fear of intimidation from local people. "There has, however, been 
some resentment towards trans-migrants imposed upon the country by the 
Indonesian Government", said Bill. "They are allocated the best land. East 
Timor is not a safe place for them and many eventually return to their 
place of origin."

The legacy of 23 years of Indonesian military occupation upon East Timor is 
easily observable. The dominant power has attempted to impose the 
Indonesian language and other aspects of a foreign culture, not 
historically known in East Timor.

Bill found no serious problems in moving around the country.

"People were very forthcoming", he said, "they were keen to talk. They were 
quick to tell you everything. Suharto was gone. Habibie was newly in power 
and attempting to persuade the East Timorese everything was OK. The 
atmosphere was quite relaxed."

While acknowledging that it was not a safe region of the world, Bill said 
he felt safe throughout his visit and travels within the country. "I was 
only stopped twice by the Police", he said, "and then only for routine 

In conclusion, Bill stated, "the situation looks promising at the moment. A 
settlement is now likely and an agreement can be reached."

On his future plans and activities for CIET Bill stated, "I'm now learning 
the language, Tetum, in preparation for my next visit."

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