- "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor
The emergence of East Timor as an independent state on 30 August 1999 was the subject of immense international interest and engagement. It was a moment of striking—and, sadly, fleeting—global attention toward a country that had suffered almost universal neglect while as much as a third of its population perished under an Indonesian occupation. Geoffrey Robinson's work, "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor documents the process that delivered the Timorese people to independence. Robinson's account combines the scholarly and the personal, drawing on his own harrowing experience as part of the 1999 UN mission, one that bore witness to the systematic intimidation that preceded the vote for independence, and the campaign of violence that followed that ballot. Although this text devotes much to the pivotal months between January and October 1999, it pursues lines of explanation and analysis that are deeply historical, placing the electoral violence in its cultural, social, and institutional context. It is this serious historical component that sets it apart as a novel and provocative contribution to understanding the bloody course of August 1999.
The book's examination of the late 1990s is informed by extensive exploration of the two phases of colonialism—first under Portugal, and then under the Indonesian occupation. Robinson also takes care to situate Indonesian conduct in East Timor in relation to an institutional culture and practice that was apparent across the archipelago from the earliest moments of independence. The author emphasizes the long-lasting repercussions of the appalling mass killings of 1965-1966, which accompanied the birth of Suharto's New Order, and the subsequent elevation of the military as the pre-eminent force in Indonesian political life. Throughout these early chapters, and the book as a whole, Robinson draws on broader phenomena occurring within the greater Indonesian territory. An especially good example is the brief discussion of the notorious sham self-determination in Irian Jaya. The efficacy of fear in the 1969 "Act of Free Choice" served as a telling historical precedent, one that encouraged the leadership as to its prospects for successful manipulation of the vote in East Timor three decades later.1 Similarly, the relationship between East Timor and the other islands is not entirely unilateral—Robinson provides some insightful commentary on how the occupation in East Timor shaped domestic efforts at democratic reform in Jakarta.2
One of the central questions in understanding the resurgence of open political violence in 1999 is the relative culpability of Indonesian military commanders, [End Page 1049] and their role in the activity of the pro-integration militias. This work rejects the cultural determinist excuses advanced by members of the military, which attributed militia activity to long-established traditions of "running amok." Robinson comprehensively demolishes any plausible claim to the violence being of a primarily spontaneous nature. The temporal modulation in the violence, exemplified by a remarkably convenient pause on 11 September 1999, which coincided with the Security Council delegation's visit to Dili, is perhaps the best evidence of this.3 Equally, Robinson recognizes that indigenous patterns of violence, reshaped and amplified under both Portuguese and Indonesian rule, had a substantial role in shaping the quality and nature of the militia attacks. Unlike the superficial journalistic accounts of the period, Robinson shows how history had conditioned the repertoire of violence, and how that repertoire was manipulated and deployed to catastrophic effect by Indonesian military leaders. The provenance of the militias that emerged so dramatically in 1998 and 1999 is rendered with great skill and clarity; a portrait with immense explanatory power, showing why the bloodiest phases of 1999 ultimately took on the form they did, yet the book never lapses into the easy assertions of inevitability.
Those sections dealing with the referendum and its aftermath are the most personal—as well as the most powerful. Primarily written as...