Festival of Books Preview: Geoffrey Robinson on East Timor
On Saturday, April 24, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on campus, UCLA Professor Geoffrey Robinson will participate in a discussion of "History: Rising Above Oppression." Robinson is the author of "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor" (Princeton University Press, 2010). The discussion will take place at 11 a.m. in Haines 39.
Published: Tuesday, April 13, 2010
By Wendy Soderburg for UCLA Today
DESPITE ITS GRAVE title, Geoffrey Robinson’s book tells the rare and inspiring story of a tiny half-island’s triumph over the massive forces that threatened to destroy its hopes for independence. “If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die: How Genocide was Stopped in East Timor” (Princeton University Press, 2010) is Robinson’s firsthand account of the bloody violence and civil rights atrocities he witnessed while serving as a United Nations political affairs officer in Dili, East Timor.
For six months in 1999, Robinson — a UCLA history professor — lived and worked in Dili to help carry out a referendum on East Timor’s political future. The remote Southeast Asian island had a tragic history that included an invasion by Indonesia and a widespread genocide of its people in 1975, in which one-third of the island’s population — nearly 200,000 people — had died or been killed. Indonesia continued to occupy East Timor for the next 24 years.
“Quite a lot of people said, ‘Forget it, it’s over, it’s just the way it’s going to be,’ ” Robinson said. “But the East Timorese did not give up, and a lot of other people didn’t give up, either. Human rights organizations, NGOs, church groups and others kept on pushing the issue so that finally, in 1999, this very unusual confluence of events gave rise to an agreement that there would be a vote on East Timor’s future.”
As a political affairs officer, Robinson’s job was to assess whether or not conditions were right for a free and fair ballot in East Timor. It didn’t seem at all likely, given the heavy presence of Indonesian armed forces who did not want to give up control of the island. Sure enough, a tremendous amount of intimidation and killing occurred as the Indonesian army tried to scare away people from voting for independence.
“The East Timorese were insistent that they wanted to go ahead with it, and they voted anyway,” Robinson marveled. “Voter turnout was 98.6 percent. People had to walk for miles to get there, with paramilitary groups promising to kill them if they voted. And yet they did it anyway.”
Eighty percent of the registered voters chose independence, which triggered a campaign of violence by the Indonesian army and its local militia proxies. Within two weeks, 1,500 people were killed and 400,000 forcibly displaced. It didn’t take long for people to realize that a second genocide was on the way.
It was in that context, Robinson said, that some very interesting and remarkable things occurred — for the first time anyone could remember, the U.N. Security Council unanimously agreed that the U.N. needed to intervene to stop the killing. A multinational force landed in East Timor and, within a few weeks, the violence was over.
“The most important message is this: that no matter how inevitable or unstoppable genocide or mass killing may appear to be, under the right circumstances, acts of conscience and courage by ordinary people can make a difference,” Robinson said. “They can change the course of history.”