getting off the plane was like walking into a sauna - my glasses fogged up - warm rain pounding on the tarmac, palm trees thrashing madly in the darkness.
6th floor - holiday inn darwin. i had to jimmy the sliding glass door to the balcony - guests aren't supposed to open them during the rainy season - apparently everything gets moldy, "even the cat." fuck that - i hate air conditioning. silent flashes of fork lightning illuminate black ranks of thunderclouds marching westward across the timor sea, to the north.
darwin is not a big town, maybe 70 or 80 thousand - but it's the biggest population center for 2500 miles - about equidistant from Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, and Jakarta, which is in fact the nearest of these. A first world city projected onto a third-world backdrop.
I'm here because it's the staging area for the UN transitional administration in east timor - I'm meeting with an international group involved in "capacity-building," helping to bring the timorese up to speed in the theory and practice of democratic elections, something they haven't had any experience with.
After 400 years of portugese rule, they were granted independance in 1975, only to be immediately invaded by the Indonesian Army, with attendant pillage and massacre - an event noted by Noam Chomsky and hardly anyone else since then. The legacy of the portugese is their religion: the east timorese are catholics, which distinguish them from the muslims of west timor, and the rest of indonesia.
In 1999 the UN finally succeeded in establishing the illegality of the indonesian occupation, and ran a referendum to let the east timorese decide whether to become a province of indonesia, or an independant state. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, truckloads of indonesian soldiers drove around waving machine guns and warning the locals that if they voted to secede, there would be another massacre. The population turned out in droves anyway, and voted overwhelmingly in favor of independance.
The reprisals were not long in coming. The indonesians burned every hospital, every school, every power plant, police station, and government office in the country. And unknown numbers of people were killed. The UN compound was surrounded by razor wire, then ordered to evacuate when it became clear that there was unsufficient force to protect them. Some of them refused to leave, reasoning that if they did the thousand or so refugees inside the compound would be slaughtered. I stayed up late one night drinking mini-bar whiskey with a couple of these people, who were never really sure that they wouldn't all be slaughtered anyway, they just couldn't bring themselves to leave, while mothers were passing their babies through the razor wire to try to save their lives.
It's an epic story, that i'm not qualified to relate - somebody sure as hell should. And it's far from over - there's an election this summer to elect a consituent assembly which will be charged with drafting a constitution - they don't even have a constitution yet!
as far as elections go, it seems rather futile, given the rough treatment democracy is receiving in the good old US of A - and satellites - lately. There's a conference in Quebec City in a few weeks that may determine the effective sovereignty of Canada, Mexico, South and Central America - and we aren't even allowed to know what's on the agenda! I have to keep telling myself that it's better than nothing, every little bit helps, etc. But if democracy isn't about what you do, how you participate as a citizen, on all the days you don't vote - then it doesn't really mean anything.