Planet Waves | Why Americans should care about East Timor | Noam Chomsky


Why Americans should care about East Timor

How the United States helped create and sustain the
humanitarian disaster in East Timor and could readily end it.

By Noam Chomsky | Reprinted from Mother Jones

There are three good reasons why Americans should care about East Timor.
First, since the Indonesian invasion of December 1975, East Timor has been
the site of some of the worst atrocities of the modern era -- atrocities
which are mounting again right now. Second, the US government has played a
decisive role in escalating these atrocities and can easily act to mitigate
or terminate them. It is not necessary to bomb Jakarta or impose economic
sanctions. Throughout, it would have sufficed for Washington to withdraw
support and to inform its Indonesian client that the game was over. That
remains true as the situation reaches a crucial turning point -- the third

President Clinton needs no instructions on how to proceed. In May 1998,
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called upon Indonesian President
Suharto to resign and provide for "a democratic transition." A few hours
later, Suharto transferred authority to his handpicked vice president.
Though not simple cause and effect, the events illustrate the relations
that prevail. Ending the torture in East Timor would have been no more
difficult than dismissing Indonesia's dictator in May 1998.

Not long before, the Clinton administration welcomed Suharto as "our kind
of guy," following the precedent established in 1965 when the general took
power, presiding over army-led massacres that wiped out the country's only
mass-based political party (the PKI, a popularly supported communist party)
and devastated its popular base in "one of the worst mass murders of the
20th century." According to a CIA report, these massacres were comparable
to those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao; hundreds of thousands were killed,
most of them landless peasants. The achievement was greeted with
unrestrained euphoria in the West. The "staggering mass slaughter" was "a
gleam of light in Asia," according to two commentaries in The New York
Times, both typical of the general western media reaction. Corporations
flocked to what many called Suharto's "paradise for investors," impeded
only by the rapacity of the ruling family. For more than 20 years, Suharto
was hailed in the media as a "moderate" who is "at heart benign," even as
he compiled a record of murder, terror, and corruption that has few
counterparts in postwar history.

Suharto remained a darling of the West until he committed his first errors:
losing control and hesitating to implement harsh International Monetary
Fund (IMF) prescriptions. Then came the call from Washington for "a
democratic transition" -- but not for allowing the people of East Timor to
enjoy the right of self-determination that has been validated by the UN
Security Council and the World Court.

In 1975, Suharto invaded East Timor, then being taken over by its own
population after the collapse of the Portuguese empire. The United States
and Australia knew the invasion was coming and effectively authorized it.
Australian Ambassador Richard Woolcott, in memos later leaked to the press,
recommended the "pragmatic" course of "Kissingerian realism," because it
might be possible to make a better deal on Timor's oil reserves with
Indonesia than with an independent East Timor. At the time, the Indonesian
army relied on the United States for 90 percent of its arms, which were
restricted by the terms of the agreement for use only in "self-defense."
Pursuing the same doctrine of "Kissingerian realism," Washington
simultaneously stepped up the flow of arms while declaring an arms
suspension, and the public was kept in the dark.

The UN Security Council ordered Indonesia to withdraw, but to no avail. Its
failure was explained by then-UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In his
memoirs, he took pride in having rendered the UN "utterly ineffective in
whatever measures it undertook" because "[t]he United States wished things
to turn out as they did" and "worked to bring this about." As for how
"things turned out," Moynihan comments that, within a few months, 60,000
Timorese had been killed, "almost the proportion of casualties experienced
by the Soviet Union during the Second World War."

The massacre continued, peaking in 1978 with the help of new arms provided
by the Carter administration. The toll to date is estimated at about
200,000, the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust. By
1978, the United States was joined by Britain, France, and others eager to
gain what they could from the slaughter. Protest in the West was minuscule.
Little was even reported. US press coverage, which had been high in the
context of concerns over the fall of the Portuguese empire, declined to
practically nothing in 1978.

In 1989, Australia signed a treaty with Indonesia to exploit the oil of
"the Indonesian Province of East Timor" -- a region sober realists tell us
is not economically viable, and therefore cannot be granted the right of
self-determination. The Timor Gap treaty was put into effect immediately
after the army murdered several hundred more Timorese at a graveyard
commemoration of a recent army assassination. Western oil companies joined
in the robbery, eliciting no comment.

After 25 terrible years, steps are finally being taken that might bring the
horrors to an end. Indonesia agreed to permit a referendum in August 1999
in which the Timorese were to be permitted to choose "autonomy" within
Indonesia or independence from it. It is taken for granted that if the vote
is minimally free, pro-independence forces will win. The occupying
Indonesian army (TNI) moved at once to prevent this outcome. The method was
simple: Paramilitary forces were organized to terrorize the population
while TNI adopted a stance of "plausible deniability," which quickly
collapsed in the presence of foreign observers who could see firsthand that
TNI was arming and guiding the killers.

The militias are credibly reported to be under the direction of Kopassus,
the dreaded Indonesian special forces modeled on the US Green Berets and
"legendary for their cruelty," as the prominent Indonesia scholar Benedict
Anderson observes. He adds that in East Timor, "Kopassus became the pioneer
and exemplar for every kind of atrocity," including systematic rapes,
tortures, and executions, and organization of hooded gangsters. Concurring,
Australia's veteran Asia correspondent David Jenkins notes that this "crack
special forces unit [had] been training regularly with US and Australian
forces until their behavior became too much of an embarrassment for their
foreign friends." Congress did bar US training of the killers and torturers
under IMET, but the Clinton Administration found ways to evade the laws,
leading to much irritation in Congress but little broader notice. Now,
congressional constraints may be more effective, but without the kind of
inquiry that is rarely undertaken in the case of US-backed terror, one
cannot be confident.

Jenkins's conclusion that Kopassus remains "as active as ever in East
Timor" is verified by close observers. "Many of these army officers
attended courses in the United States under the now-suspended International
Military Education and Training (IMET) program," he writes. Their tactics
resemble the US Phoenix program in South Vietnam, which killed tens of
thousands of peasants and much of the indigenous South Vietnamese
leadership, as well as "the tactics employed by the Contras" in Nicaragua,
following lessons taught by their CIA mentors that it should be unnecessary
to review. The state terrorists "are not simply going after the most
radical pro-independence people but going after the moderates, the people
who have influence in their community."

'It's Phoenix' ... notes a well-placed source in Jakarta," Jenkins writes.
That source adds that the aim is "'to terrorize everyone' -- the NGOs, the
[Red Cross], the UN, the journalists."

The goal is being pursued with no little success. Since April, the
Indonesian-run militias have been conducting a wave of atrocities and
murder, killing hundreds of people -- many in churches to which they fled
for shelter -- burning down towns, driving tens of thousands into
concentration camps or the mountains, where, it is reported, thousands have
been virtually enslaved to harvest coffee crops. "They call them
'internally displaced persons,'" an Australian nun and aid worker said,
"but they are hostages to the militias. They have been told that if they
vote for independence, they will be killed." The number of the displaced is
estimated at 50,000 or more.

Health conditions are abysmal. One of the few doctors in the territory,
American volunteer Dan Murphy, reported that 50 to 100 Timorese are dying
daily from curable diseases while Indonesia "has a deliberate policy not to
allow medical supplies into East Timor." In the Australian media, he has
detailed atrocious crimes from his personal experience, and Australian
journalists and aid workers have compiled a shocking record.

The referendum has been delayed twice by the UN because of the terror,
which has even targeted UN offices and UN convoys carrying sick people for
treatment. Citing diplomatic, church, and militia sources, the Australian
press reports "that hundreds of modern assault rifles, grenades, and
mortars are being stockpiled, ready for use if the autonomy option is
rejected at the ballot box," and warns that the TNI-run militias may be
planning a violent takeover of much of the territory if, despite the
terror, the popular will is expressed.

Murphy and others report that TNI has been emboldened by the lack of
interest in the West. "A senior US diplomat summarized the issue neatly:
'East Timor is Australia's Haiti'" -- in other words, it's not a problem
for the United States, which helped create and sustain the humanitarian
disaster in East Timor and could readily end it. (Those who know the truth
about the United States in Haiti will fully appreciate the cynicism.)

Reporting on the terror from the scene, Nobel Laureate Bishop Carlos
Ximenes Belo called for "an international military force" to protect the
population from Indonesian terror and permit the referendum to proceed.
Nothing doing. The "international community" -- meaning Western powers --
prefers that the Indonesian army provide "security." A small number of
unarmed UN monitors have been authorized -- but subsequently delayed -- by
the Clinton administration.

The picture in the past few months is particularly ugly against the
background of the self-righteous posturing in the "enlightened states." But
it simply illustrates, once again, what should be obvious: Nothing
substantial has changed, either in the actions of the powerful or the
performance of their flatterers. The Timorese are "unworthy victims." No
power interest is served by attending to their suffering or taking even
simple steps to end it. Without a significant popular reaction, the
long-familiar story will continue, in East Timor and throughout the world.

East Timor Action Network (contacts, sample letters)

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