East Timor: Read at Your Own Risk

In some parts of the world, reading or distributing this article is punishable by torture, interrogation and a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Not that what follows could reasonably deserve such retribution. It's just that for some governments, the truth hurts. A lot, apparently.East Timor is a place few Americans have heard of and far fewer know anything about. It's a country the size of Massachusetts located a few hundred miles north of Australia. In 1975, East Timor declared its independence from Portugal, which had been its colonial ruler since the early 18th century. Yet, after hundreds of years living under Portuguese rule, East Timor's chance at autonomy lasted less than a fortnight.Within days of East Timor's declaration of independence, Indonesia invaded. To this day Indonesia remains the unofficial occupying force in the country. The U.N. has never recognized Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, but it has never done much to remove Indonesia from the country either.And while Portuguese rule was no paradise for the East Timorese, the Indonesians have proven to be one of the most brutal regimes of torture, oppression and genocide of the latter half of the 20th century. Since 1975, Indonesia has run a police state in East Timor so restrictive that it is illegal to read, hear or watch any news about anything relating to the Indonesian occupation. It's even forbidden to talk about it -- and soldiers and informants regularly police villages to enforce the ban on all political speech. Since 1975, the Indonesian military has killed 250,000 East Timorese -- a third of the entire population. And since 1975, they've done it almost exclusively with American armaments and hundreds of millions of dollars in American military aid.Indonesian dictator Suharto denies that any of has taken place, of course. When two East Timorese activists -- Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and JosŽ Antonio Ramos Horta -- won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, the official response was one of denial. According to Indonesian officials, "The Indonesian Government ƒ has been astounded and surprised at the reason given for the award to Bishop Belo and to Ramos Horta. It has been announced that the award was for their 'sacrifices for the oppressed people of East Timor.' This is not true for in no way are the people of East Timor being oppressed. The Indonesian Government has always given the highest priority to the social and economic welfare of the people of East Timor."As East Timorese activist Constancio Pinto points out in his recent book East Timor's Unfinished Struggle (co-authored with journalist Matthew Jardine), Australia undoubtedly would disagree with such claims. As far back as 1978, Australian government reports described the atrocities in East Timor as "indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history." And what has been Washington's response? "He's our kind of guy," one Clinton administration official said of Suharto when Clinton was trying to sell the dictator more F-16 fighter jets in 1995. Constancio Pinto now lives in Rhode Island and is leading a movement to increase awareness about the atrocities in East Timor and to cut off American support of the Suharto regime."There has been some changes because of grassroots pressure," Pinto said. But the incentives to continue supporting Suharto's bloody reign are formidable. "The U.S. has strong economic interests in Indonesia, and the reason the U.S. does not want to deal with the East Timor case is it wants to maintain good relations with the fourth largest country in the world [Indonesia], who supply a great deal of cheap labor and provide a vast consumer base," Pinto said. Pinto's pleas have found a few sympathetic ears on Capitol Hill, though. U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) met with Bishop Belo at the end of last year and, according to his press spokesman, has "vowed to step up his efforts in Congress to aid the repressed citizens of the former Portuguese colony.""The Nobel Peace Prize was not only a credit to Bishop Belo and his work, but it is a symbol of hope for the people of East Timor that the world's attention will now be focused on the human rights atrocities," said the 28-year-old congressman upon returning from his December visit to East Timor.On June 10 the House of Representatives unanimously approved Kennedy's condemnation of the "human rights abuses committed against the people of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor by the Indonesian government." But the measure takes no specific actions and does nothing to prevent the continued flow of military aid and arms sales to Indonesia.That issue comes up in Kennedy's Indonesia Military Assistance Accountability Act (HR 1132), which calls for abolishing American military assistance and training to Indonesia until the country "ceases its human rights violations." It is now estimated that Indonesia receives $26 million in military aid from Washington, and the country purchases billions more from American arms manufacturers. Said Congressman Kennedy's press officer Larry Berman, "Why are we helping their military, only to have them turn around and beat up, kill and torture the East Timorese?""Helping" is a tame word to describe American culpability in Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. As Jardine outlines in East Timor's Unfinished Struggle, then-General Suharto was installed as president in a bloody coup d'Žtat in 1965 with the help of American weaponry and intelligence. (The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta provided Suharto's troops with the names of thousands of potential Indonesian dissidents, most of whom the Indonesian military later killed.)In all, Suharto's pogrom -- from October 1965 to March 1966 -- is estimated by Amnesty International to have killed "many more than a million" Indonesians, and even the CIA called it "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century."Ten years later, when a newly independent East Timor was struggling to get off the ground, Suharto met with President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Within hours of their meeting, the Indonesian invasion was under way. Details of the meeting are still murky, but information now available leaves little room for doubt that Suharto sought and received American approval for the invasion. Jardine quotes a U.S. State Department official in 1976 who said, "In terms of the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East Timor. The United States wants to keep its relations with Indonesia close and friendly. We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation -- a nation we do a lot of business with."According to the State Department, at the time of the East Timor invasion, 90 percent of Indonesia's military hardware came from America. And since then, American support for Suharto has only increased. In fact, in 1977, when it appeared that Suharto was running low on armaments, President Jimmy Carter authorized more than $100 million in arms sales to Jakarta (up 2,000 percent from the previous year). "It's ironic that Jimmy Carter today is working for human rights, while when he was president he was the one president who increased sales to Indonesia more than any other administration before or since," Pinto said.But the blue ribbon for most sales goes to Carter's successor. During Ronald Reagan's watch, Indonesia saw its greatest military purchases from the United States -- exceeding $1 billion from 1982 through 1984. And then, in 1991, Suharto fumbled. Footage of a massacre that took place at the funeral of an East Timorese dissident slipped through the Indonesian censorship web and out into the public view. (The footage can now be seen in the documentary Cold Blood, available from the East Timor Action Network at the address listed below.)"The Santa Cruz massacre was the first time we were able to show the world the culmination of the whole atrocities that have taken place in East Timor for the past 20 years," Pinto said. As he wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year, "What made the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre unique was not that it occurred, but that Western journalists witnessed it. Reporters' accounts and video footage of Indonesia's brutality led us to hope that the countries that had long supported Indonesia's occupation, especially the United States, would stop sending military aid to the Suharto dictatorship." Pinto was not at the rally-turned-blood bath -- where at least 271 East Timorese were killed -- though he did help to organize it. (He was in hiding because he was wanted by the military at the time and would have at least been arrested and tortured if his whereabouts became known.) His wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time, did attend the rally. She was shot, but she lay under the dead bodies until the shooting ceased and then climbed over the cemetery walls to safety.Washington officially condemned the massacre. But Alan Nairn, an American journalist who witnessed the massacre and was brutally beaten by Indonesian troops, later discovered that not all of the government shared in the condemnation. One post-massacre State Department document he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed U.S. officials telling the Indonesian military that America "understand[s] Indonesia is under considerable pressure from the world at large [and] we do not believe that friends should abandon friends in times of adversity."As of 1997, the quarter-million mark in East Timorese dead and the undeniability of the Santa Cruz massacre has provided enough inertia to push even Washington to begin asking questions. The Clinton administration still regularly approves sales of military hardware to Indonesia. But Clinton is the first president since the invasion to express concern about the East Timor situation in discussions with Suharto. Unfortunately, expressions of concern are about as far as Washington has gone to date. Kennedy is hopeful that his Indonesia Military Assistance Accountability Act will make it into law. But he faces a considerable battle to get it through. When Kennedy first began advocating forreducing or eliminating American military aid to Indonesia, he saw the true motivating forces for American support of Suharto rise out of the mist. "U.S. companies are over there in full force," Berman noted. "Oil, communications and many other industries have a lot at stake in the Indonesian economy. But Patrick met with many of them and urged them to practice more corporate responsibility." Given the discovery of what is now estimated as the world's fifth largest reserve of oil in the waters between East Timor and Australia, the economic pressures to keep a corporate-friendly regime in power in Jakarta will not be lessening anytime soon either. The fight on the American front is only beginning for Pinto. With its seemingly unending flow of military aid and arms to Indonesia, America is perhaps the most important battleground -- outside of East Timor itself -- in the war for East Timorese political self- determination.For more information on East Timor, contact the East Timor Action Network at (914) 428-7299 or etan- us@igc.apc.org.


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