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East Timor: Genocide in Paradise

News reports of the atrocities committed against the East Timorese people by the Indonesian government have been a sporadic feature of national news reports and human rights activism over the past year. Yet throughout the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in August of 1999 and the subsequent international intervention, the news coverage of East Timor's plight has delivered only an impoverished portrayal of this conflict divorced from its historical context. Matthew Jardine's concise account of the circumstances preceding the confrontation between Indonesia and East Timor aims to counter the inadequate media attention and dispenses with lengthy theoretical analysis in favor of a journalistic clarity fitting the urgency of the situation. An installment of The Real Story Series, a collection of works including and inspired by the de-mythologizing writings of Noam Chomsky, East Timor: Genocide in Paradise is produced for a particular historical moment and is intended to motivate immediate action among its readers. The text includes a section titled "What You Can Do" that lists the contact information for various East Timor support organizations as well as suggestions for more comprehensive reading. This pairing of compelling factual background with the understanding that knowledge of injustice demands a concrete response is perhaps the most successful facet of Jardine's book.

Jardine's pithy chapters explain the most pertinent factors that contributed to the escalation of violent reprisals against East Timor by the Indonesian government, from Indonesia's domination of East Timor after Portugal's decolonization of the territory in 1975 to the complicity of various countries possessing vast economic interests in Indonesia. Chomsky's introduction to the book traces what he characterizes as the Western nations' "eager participation in Indonesia's crimes" to their stake in the anti- Communist General Suharto and the concomitant access his regime provided to the immense mineral wealth and burgeoning market of Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation. Throughout the book Jardine rigorously deconstructs the haze of rhetoric justifying the weapons and military training provided to Indonesia by such nations as the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and Japan, revealing the corporate-sponsored basis of these nations' reluctance in criticizing Indonesia's human rights abuses in the oil-rich Timor Gap. Of particular acuteness is the parallel Jardine draws with the U.S. defense of the Gulf War as an ethically requisite stand for the self-determination of small nations, an argument that could have been applied with equal legitimacy to East Timor had it been economically profitable.

Jardine's analysis of the actions of the Indonesian government, while accurate in its attribution of culpability, suffers from lack of development. The sources and structures of power within Indonesia are never fully delineated beyond the highest ranks of the military, leaving readers to ponder the wider Indonesian population's position on East Timor. Entrenched in an assimilatory understanding of its nationhood, Indonesia's government has perpetrated numerous human rights abuses against its own population, in terms of its repression of political rights as well as its refusal to recognize the cultural differentiation and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples within its borders. By focusing exclusively on the East Timorese, Jardine diminishes the claims of non-national actors who are experiencing human rights violations.

In addition, Jardine's choice of title, which emphasizes the genocidal implications of the Indonesian government's murderous activities, is somewhat sensationalistic in relation to the actual content of the book. While the enforced sterilization of East Timorese women and mass population transfers are certainly manifestations of genocidal intentions, Jardine never explains his use of this highly incendiary term. If genocide is to assume a meaning beyond its function of rousing public controversy, the term must not be applied without some discussion of the means by which genocide serves as a tool of tyrannical regimes and the potential for averting such massive annihilation of human communities in the future.

The latest version of Jardine's book was published in October of 1999, and numerous transformations in the political landscape surrounding East Timor have occurred since that time. Jardine's book is not the most up-to-date source, nor does it fully account for the complexity of the international, governmental, and cultural relationships that have shaped the situation in East Timor. Nonetheless, as a work that proposes to offer a version of reality that supplements what is readily available through mainstream channels of information, East Timor: Genocide in Paradise serves its purpose.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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