The East Timorese of Western Sahara
was an extraordinary year for revolutionary upheavals in the Third World. The
Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April just two weeks before the US puppet
regime in Saigon collapsed. The Pathet Lao took control of Laos the following
month and later in the year Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tome and Angola
achieved their independence from Portugal. In November, after weeks of covert
subversion, Indonesia formerly invaded and occupied another Portuguese colony,
the very moment that Indonesian forces began to parachute into Dili, the
dilution of colonial power in Africa triggered an event of striking historical
similarity in the deserts of the Western Sahara.
years earlier the Frente Polisario (Fretilin) had been formed by the indigenous
people of the Western Sahara (East Timor) to campaign for Spain's (Portugal)
withdrawal from its colonial outpost. But before a UN-sponsored act of
self-determination could be held, neighbouring Morocco (Indonesia) invaded in
November 1975 and occupied the northern phosphate-rich sector of the country.
Later in the month the departing colonial power, Spain, agreed to a partition of
the territory between Morocco and Mauritania, which had also staked a claim.
Faced with fierce guerrilla resistance from Polisario, Mauritania withdrew its
claim on the territory in 1979, allowing Morocco to occupy the southern part of
the region as well, where it remains today.
its violation of international law, protests from the UN, and a reluctance to
participate in an internationally-supervised referendum on self-determination
planned for 1992 - which it knows it would lose - Morocco's ongoing occupation
prevents Africa's last colony from achieving its independence.
crimes committed against the Saharawis are all too familiar to the people of
East Timor. Morocco has breeched a UN negotiated ceasefire, transmigrated people
in order to stack any forthcoming independence ballot in its favour, and
imprisoned hundreds of Saharawis in appalling conditions in Moroccan jails on
suspicion of supporting Polisario. Human rights abuses, including terrifying
attacks on Saharawi civilians, have been commonplace over the last 25 years.
Many people have fled to safety in Algeria, with over 180,000 in refugee camps.
And just as Indonesia maintained its occupation of East Timor with the help of
US and UK supplied high tech weaponry, so too does Morocco maintain its
"defensive wall of sand" against Polisario guerrillas with the support
of US-supplied detection technology.
Indonesia' occupation of East Timor, no country recognises Morocco's illegal
occupation of Western Sahara. Though the Saharawi republic is acknowledged by
more than seventy countries and is a member of the Organisation of African
Unity, it remains technically a non-self governing territory of the United
Nations. Like its fellow former Iberian colony, its chance for independence was
thwarted by an aggressive and avaricious neighbour.
played an honourable role in contributing a signals contingent to a peacekeeping
mission in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) from 1991 until 1994, but has since lost
interest in the operation. To the great powers allegedly concerned by ethnic
cleansing in the Balkans, the humanitarian crisis in the Sahara barely flickers
on their radar screens. The UN, tired of Morocco's prevarication on the
registration of voters, seems too exhausted to bring the ballot on with the same
dedication it demonstrated elsewhere in 1999. And yet the need is equally
Like the East Timorese before them, the people who live on the north-west coast of Africa contend with an even more powerful force than neighbourhood terrorism. They confront what a South American victim of torture described as the "blind indifference of a merciless, unfeeling world."
Scott Burchill Lecturer in International Relations School of Australian & International Studies Deakin University 221 Burwood Highway Burwood Victoria 3125 Australia