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Timorous Invasion

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
July/August 2010
Washington Monthly


When I arrived in Dili, capital of the new nation of Timor Leste (East Timor), in early 2006, much of the town still looked like a war had just ended. Shells of burned-out buildings lined the roads, some still pocked with bullet holes. In the hills outside the capital, where groups of displaced people lived in shacks, young children begged for food whenever my friend and I stopped our 4x4. At night, Dili turned into a menacing ghost town, its empty streets patrolled by young men armed with knives and makeshift guns.

That Timor had not yet recovered was hardly surprising. Seven years earlier, in 1999, after the former Portuguese colony occupied by Indonesia since 1975 had voted in a referendum for its independence, pro-Indonesia militias razed the tiny half island. The campaign of slaughter would not have been out of place in the Rwandan genocide or the brutal West African wars: gangs of militiamen wielding machetes and automatic weapons hacked, disemboweled, and beheaded known independence supporters, aid workers, journalists, and anyone who happened to be in their way at the wrong time. Thousands died, 70 percent of Timor's infrastructure was destroyed, and nearly half the population of East Timor fled their homes and wound up as refugees.

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