Subject: CounterPunch: First the Butchery, Then the Flowers

CounterPunch, Vol. 9, No. 10, May 16-31, 2002

“First the Butchery, Then the Flowers: Clinton and Holbrooke in East Timor”

By Joseph Nevins

East Timor became the world’s first new country of the millennium on May 20 and, appropriately, the Bush administration poured salt on East Timor’s deep wounds. Bush’s salt took the form of Bill Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s last United Nations ambassador. Bush tapped the pair to head the U.S. delegation to East Timor’s recent independence celebration.

U.S backing for Jakarta’s 1975 invasion and occupation was a decisive factor in East Timor’s traumatic history, one in which Clinton and Holbrooke were key actors. Washington authorized the invasion and then proceeded to provide billions of dollars in military and economic support as well as significant diplomatic cover to Jakarta’s almost 24-year occupation. Over 200,000 East Timorese--about one-third of the pre-invasion population--lost their lives as a result. The bulk of the killings in East Timor took place during the Carter “human rights” presidency. Holbrooke served as the administration’s asst. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and as a principal architect of its policy toward East Timor.

U.N. Security Council resolutions condemned Jakarta’s invasion and occupation but the Carter-Holbrooke team provided Jakarta with advanced counter-insurgency aircraft, which the Indonesian military employed to bomb and napalm the East Timorese. An Australian parliamentary report later described the period as one of “indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history.” Holbrooke had the sublime effrontery to claim in 1979 that “[t]he welfare of the Timorese people is the major objective of our policy toward East Timor.”

The blank-check-approach toward Jakarta continued in the Reagan and Bush (Sr.) administrations. Then Bill Clinton’s election in late 1992 served to bolster hpes. In their campaign book, Putting People First: How We Can All Change America, Clinton and Gore pledged that their administration would “never forge strategic relationships with dangerous, despotic regimes. It will understand that our foreign policy must promote democracy as well as stability.” In a 1992 press conference, Clinton went so far as to state that he was “very concerned about the situation in East Timor. We have ignored it so far in ways that are unconscionable.”

Upon assuming office in 1993, Clinton responded somewhat to growing grassroots and congressional pressure to limit Washington’s complicity with Jakarta’s crimes. Over the next few years, his administration halted the sale of small and light arms, riot-control equipment, helicopter-mounted weaponry, and armored personnel carriers to Indonesia. But it also provided over $500 million in economic assistance over its two terms in office and sold and licensed the sales of hundreds of millions of dollars in weaponry to Jakarta.

The Clinton administration even side-stepped a ban on the provision of International Military Education and Training--one imposed by Congress in October 1992--by allowing Indonesia to buy the service instead of getting it gratis. The administration further circumvented Congress’ intent and secretly provided lethal training to Indonesia’s military (TNI). At least 28 training exercises in sniper tactics, urban warfare, explosives, psychological operations, and other techniques took place between 1993 and 1998 in Indonesia through the Pentagon’s Joint Combined Exchange Training. The primary beneficiary was the Kopassus, Indonesian units responsible for many of the worst atrocities in East Timor.

At the recent May 20 ceremony in Dili, East Timor’s capital, Clinton helped to cut the ribbon on the new U.S. embassy. He was there, he proclaimed, “to make a clear and unambiguous statement that America stands behind the people of East Timor in the cause of freedom in the Pacific,” something that “is in our nation’s best interest and consistent with our deepest values.” After the brief statement, the journalist Allan Nairn shouted out a question regarding Clinton’s support for Indonesia’s crimes in East Timor.

“I don’t believe America and any of the other countries were sufficiently sensitive in the beginning . . . and for a long time before 1999, going way back to the ‘70s, to the suffering of the people of East Timor,” Clinton responded.

“[W]hen it became obvious to me what was really going on and that we couldn’t justify not standing up for what the East Timorese wanted and for the decent treatment for them . . . I tried to make sure we had the right policy,” he continued. “I can’t say that everything that we did before 1999 was right. I’m not here to defend everything we did. We never tried to sanction or support the oppression of the East Timorese.”

Of course, Clinton and the Washington political establishment had long been cognizant of “what was really going on” in the horror that was occupied East Timor. And in 1999, the year he suggests that U.S. policy got on the “right” track, his administration continued to sell weapons and provide various forms of military and economic support to Jakarta.

The administration officially supported the U.N.-run referendum on the territory’s political status on August 30, 1999. Yet, it did nothing meaningful in response to atrocities by the TNI and its “militia” proxies preceding the ballot and to calls by the East Timorese and various international organizations for stepped-up security measures. The resulting security breach facilitated a systematic TNI-militia campaign of revenge once the pro-independence outcome of the ballot was known. In approximately three weeks, they destroyed 70 percent of the territory’s buildings and infrastructure, forcibly deported about 250,000 people to Indonesian West Timor, killed at least 2,000, and raped large numbers of women.

By early 1999 the Australian government had gathered intelligence proving that the TNI--including the senior command structure--was responsible for organizing, arming, and directing the militia that terrorized the East Timorese in the run-up to the vote. Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) had intercepted electronic communications showing that TNI had the intention of launching a widespread campaign of terror and destruction around the time of the vote.

Given the intense levels of intelligence cooperation between the two countries--in addition to Washington’s own highly advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities--the Clinton White House undoubtedly had access to such information. Indeed, a U.S. National Security Agency liaison officer is always in the DSD headquarters in Canberra. Nevertheless, the administration failed to threaten a cut off of economic and military aid as a preventative measure. It even refused to issue a presidential statement warning Jakarta of the dangers of not complying with its obligations to ensure security for the U.N. ballot.

Instead, Clinton and company made meaningless statements calling upon the TNI to rein in the militia and to establish control over supposed “rogue elements.” As late as Sept. 8, 1999, by which time much of East Timor had been burnt to the ground and large numbers slaughtered, senior administration officials were still calling upon Gen. Wiranto, the TNI head, to replace “bad” troops with ones loyal to Jakarta’s political leadership.

Rapidly rising grassroot and congressional pressures soon made such posturing untenable. In addition, according to Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta, the Portuguese government had threatened to pull its troops out of Kosovo and to withdraw from NATO unless Washington supported international intervention in East Timor. To show its seriousness, Lisbon denied permission for 16 U.S. military flights over the Azores.

Finally, on Sept. 11--one week into the TNI’s final rampage--Clinton ended all support for Indonesia’s military. Washington’s ambassador to Jakarta, Stapleton Roy, had explained a few days earlier why Clinton was so resistant to stopping support for Indonesia. “The dilemma is that Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn’t,” he said.

Almost none of this history of U.S. complicity made into the corporate press coverage related to East Timor’s independence. With the exception of an excellent op-ed in The Baltimore Sun and an outstanding article in the International Herald Tribune, no major U.S. newspaper provided anything approaching a full picture of the U.S. role in Indonesia’s crimes in East Timor. While The New York Times carried an editorial that mentioned Ford and Kissinger’s explicit authorization for the invasion, it said nothing of the next 23+ years of American complicity. The Boston Globe did the same, while also criticizing Clinton for “failing to prevent or stop in time the vengeful campaign of murder, rape, and destruction that Indonesian military officers loosed upon the East Timorese,” but not for helping to sustain that same military.

A few other major papers did mention the U.S. role, but typically grossly misrepresented it. Thus, a Los Angeles Times op-ed (May 19) spoke of “few objections” from Washington in the face of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion. And along with The Washington Post, the Times reported the next day on Clinton’s comment about the U.S. not having been as “sensitive” as it should have been, but said nothing more. A Chicago Tribune editorial also alluded to Clinton’s pathetic statement, which it favorably characterized as having “added some closure” to East Timor’s bloody past. As for the rest of the major newspapers, they were silent about such matters. And all (with the exception of The Baltimore Sun op-ed) were mute about the need to ensure accountability by Jakarta and Washington for East Timor’s suffering.

East Timor’s political leadership was also silent. But this is understandable. As a U.N. Development Program report recently documented, East Timor is one of the world’s 20 poorest countries. It also has as a neighbor an Indonesia still dominated by a hostile military, one that, despite its myriad crimes against humanity in East Timor, will most likely not be held accountable in any sort of judicial process. The “international community”--shorthand for the handful of powerful countries (especially the United States) that shape international relations--has made it clear that it will not support the establishment of any sort of international tribunal for East Timor.

Although former resistance leaders like Xanana Gusmão (now the country’s president) and José Ramos-Horta (now the foreign minister) have forcefully spoken in the past about the need for far-reaching accountability for their country’s plight, they almost never mention it now, instead stressing the need for “reconciliation” and to concentrate on the future.

Some leaders within East Timor are trying to ensure that “reconciliation” does not become a substitute for justice. Yayasan HAK, East Timor’s premier human rights organization, issued a statement on independence day, for example, that characterized “[t]he resistance of the international community of nations and the United Nations to an international tribunal” as “symptomatic of the problems facing East Timor today. Some of our own leaders, in seeing this resistance, have dropped the demand for an international tribunal for fear of angering donor governments,” it continued. “Even our own leaders feed us nonsense about ‘forgetting the past and looking to the future.’”

In his final words in response to Nairn’s question, Clinton stated that “I think the right thing to do is to do what the leaders of East Timor said. They want to look forward, you want to look backward. I’m going to stick with the leaders. You want to look backward. Have at it, but you’ll have to have help from someone else.”

For the sake of East Timor’s people, for others throughout the world who face the direct or indirect violence of Washington, and for our own sake, we here in the United States will have to be a significant part of that “someone else.”

Joseph Nevins, working at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary.

Order Books by Joe Nevins (writing under Matthew Jardine) on East Timor

East Timor: Genocide in Paradise
By Matthew Jardine. Basics that Americans should know. 95 pp. Odonian/Common Courage Press, U.S., 1999. (New Edition) $8 

East Timor's Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance
By Constancio Pinto and Matthew Jardine. Preface by Jose Ramos Horta. Foreword by Allan Nairn, A riveting first-hand account of the East Timorese struggle. 292 pp. South End Press, US, 1996. $16 

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