Indonesia that gained independence in 1950 was an artificial state, cobbled together from an assortment of sultanates and princely kingdoms by her Dutch colonial masters. The Dutch and the succeeding elite has concentrated power and privilege in the island of Java, where half of the nation’s population resides.
Over the next five decades, secessionist movements were brutally suppressed, be they Christian Ambonese in the South Moluccas or fundamentalist Muslims in Aceh. A centralizing ‘Indonesian identity’ was forged as the country replaced the Portuguese and the Dutch as the imperial power in East Timor and Irian Jaya respectively.
In the late 1990s, this Indonesia — built on political paternalism and economic prosperity — tottered as Asian Financial Crisis hit kleptocrats and crony capitalists hard. The country’s dictator, General Soeharto, stepped down and the secessionist movements gathered momentum once more. In 1999, East Timor was allowed to vote on a referendum for independence — a feat unthinkable under Soeharto, not least because the strongman’s family owned 40% of East Timor.
On August 26, four days before East Timor was to vote for independence, violence erupted between pro-independence supporters and the Aitarak, a much-feared, black-clothed militia sponsored by the Indonesian government to disrupt the vote. In East Timorese capital Dili, the Aitarak attacked independence supporters with M16 rifles, homemade grenades, and pistols. Indonesian police waited hours before responding, even though their headquarters were nearby.
Time magazine’s photographer John Stanmeyer remembers the day:
Just then Joaquim Bernardino Guterres entered my life. He was barefoot and armed with two rocks to protect himself from the militia. He ran up to a group of nearby policemen and begged them to intervene. They ignored him. He asked more passionately, and the police began to punch and kick him. Guterres broke away and ran toward me. Just as he passed, the police shot him dead — for asking them to stop the killing. The police hadn’t noticed me, but after the images appeared in Time and on CNN, I had to leave East Timor because of potential threats. I think about Guterres nearly every day. I want to make sure that no one forgets his senseless death. He is no different from the rest of us. One day we, too, might need to fight for our basic human rights. We can only hope that we aren’t killed by the ones who are supposed to protect us.
Stanmeyer won third place in the spot news stories category of the World Press Photo Contest for this photo-essay. For the East Timorese, harsher days were ahead. After the vote, where 78.5% chose independence, Indonesian army sent in militias to destroy the province’s public and residential buildings and torch its factories and plantation. About 70% of its economic infrastructure was destroyed.
(I have been backpacking in South East Asia for last few months. The region’s violent recent history is not well-covered or well-remembered. For an excellent source on Indonesia, see also The Act of Killing. Review.)