How U.S. Averted Gaze When Indonesia Took E. Timor
International Herald Tribune May 20, 2002
How U.S. Averted Gaze When Indonesia Took East Timor
East Timorese leaders say that they are grateful to have the backing of the world's most powerful nation. But they are also painfully aware how lack of U.S. support in 1975 helped to encourage the Indonesian takeover.
By Michael Richardson, International Herald Tribune
DILI, East Timor When East Timor celebrates its first day of independence Monday after more than 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years of Indonesian occupation, a group of envoys from the United States led by former President Bill Clinton and including several serving and retired senior U.S. officials will be prominent among dozens of foreign delegations offering support to the new government.
East Timorese leaders say that they are grateful to have the backing of the world's most powerful nation as they struggle to build a viable economic future and as relations with their giant neighbor, Indonesia, remain uneasy.
But they are also painfully aware how lack of U.S. support in 1975 helped to encourage the Indonesian takeover. Indeed, some critics of American policy say that the United States has a moral debt to East Timor that will hard to repay.
John Miller, the media coordinator of the East Timor Action Network in New York, which was set up more than a decade ago to publicize East Timor's independence struggle in the United States, said that when Clinton congratulates the East Timorese on their hard-won victory, "we must remember that as the most important supporter of Indonesia's illegal occupation, the United States owes the new country an enormous moral debt."
If President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had not given their approval for Indonesia to invade East Timor in 1975, Miller said, tremendous suffering could have been avoided.
Although Kissinger long denied it, declassified U.S. documents released in December prove that he and Ford, during a visit to Jakarta on Dec. 6, 1975, gave President Suharto of Indonesia a green light to send his military into East Timor. Suharto did so the next day, after the U.S. president and his secretary of state had left Indonesia.
Moreover, many of the weapons used in the invasion were supplied by the United States, contravening a congressional ban on Indonesia's use of American military equipment for anything but defensive operations.
According to the U.S. State Department record of the Dec. 6 meeting, Suharto assured Ford and Kissinger that Indonesia had extensive support in East Timor and that there would probably be only "a small guerrilla war" following the intervention.
"We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action," Suharto reportedly said.
"We will understand and will not press you on the issue," Ford replied.
Kissinger said that while Indonesia should appreciate that the use of U.S.-made arms could create problems, "it depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation."
He added: "It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly. We would be able to influence the reaction in America if whatever happens happens after we return."
An estimated 20,000 Indonesian troops were deployed in East Timor by the end of December in an operation marked by frequent bungling and brutality. In 1979, three years after Jakarta formally annexed East Timor as an Indonesian province, the U.S. Agency for International Development estimated that 300,000 East Timorese - nearly half the population - had been uprooted and moved into camps controlled by the Indonesian armed forces.
By 1980, the operation had left more than 100,000 dead from military action, starvation or disease, with some estimates running as high as 230,000.
Washington's initial response to the invasion of East Timor was to delay new arms sales to Indonesia pending an administrative review by the State Department, ostensibly to determine whether Jakarta had violated the bilateral agreement stipulating that U.S.-supplied arms could only be used for defensive purposes. But military equipment already in the pipeline continued to flow, and during the six-month review period, the United States made four new offers of military equipment sales to Indonesia. They included maintenance and spare parts for the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco aircraft, designed specifically for counterinsurgency operations and used by the Indonesian military in East Timor.
The administrative delay and the subsequent offers were the subject of a meeting on Dec. 18, 1975, between Kissinger and his advisers in which he chastised his staff for writing a memo recommending that arms sales to Indonesia be cut off because Jakarta had violated the end-use agreement.
Miller said that for the next 23 years, from Ford to Clinton, successive U.S. administrations consistently backed Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, providing Jakarta with diplomatic cover as well as billions of dollars in weapons, military training and economic assistance.
Only after the Indonesian military fired on a peaceful political protest in Dili in November 1991, killing and wounding dozens of East Timorese in an incident filmed and reported by foreign journalists, did the U.S. Congress block some weapons sales and military training for Indonesia.
How did such a situation come about? For Kissinger and other senior U.S. officials in 1975, the fate of post-colonial East Timor paled in comparison to Washington's strategic interests in Indonesia, by far the largest nation in Southeast Asia and an anti-Communist bastion. Following the Communist victory in Vietnam in April 1975, fears were rife among non-Communist countries in Southeast Asia that they could be the next victims of armed insurgency.
In East Timor, Portugal had begun a decolonization process, and the leftist Fretilin party - Fretilin is the Portuguese acronym for the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor - had emerged victorious from a brief civil war with its pro-Indonesian opponents in the summer of 1975. The outbreak of civil war disrupted Portuguese plans for orderly decolonization, prompting its officials to retreat from Dili to the offshore island of Atauro. In effect, Portugal abandoned East Timor.
Hard-liners in the Indonesian military expressed fears that an independent East Timor could be used as a base for Communist subversion in Southeast Asia or to spur secessionist movements in Indonesia.
In the autumn of 1975, they intensified military and propaganda operations against East Timor, prompting Fretilin to make a unilateral declaration of independence on Nov. 28, apparently in the belief that a sovereign state would have greater success in appealing for help from the United Nations.
In a recent interview, East Timor's foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, who was Fretilin's foreign affairs spokesman at the time, said that the civil war and the independence declaration both played into the hands of those in Indonesia who wanted to invade.
"The unilateral declaration of independence was an act of desperation, essentially forced upon the leadership of Fretilin in the face of abandonment by everybody," he said.
Japan, the main aid donor and investor in Indonesia, sat on its hands. So did Australia.
"The major powers - the United States, the Soviet Union and China - either acquiesced in Indonesia's action or were not prepared to do anything to stop it," said Richard Woolcott, a former head of Australia's Foreign Ministry. "I think that the Suharto government assessed that very correctly." Woolcott, who was Australian ambassador to Jakarta at the time, said that none of the anti-Communist members of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, wanted to see a left-leaning independent ministate emerge in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago.
"They were worried they might have a Southeast Asian Cuba on their hands," he said. "ASEAN itself was just in its formative stages and was worried by the threat of Communism in Vietnam. It seems very fanciful now, but in 1975 it wasn't so fanciful." Still, critics say that Kissinger's liberty with the truth about his role in East Timor in 1975 has been breathtaking. For example, Kissinger said when asked at a public meeting in New York City in July 1995 about the talks he and Ford had with Suharto in Jakarta on the eve of the Indonesian invasion, that "Timor was never discussed with us when we were in Indonesia." Kissinger added that "at the airport as we were leaving, the Indonesians told us that they were going to occupy the Portuguese colony of Timor." "To us that did not seem like a very significant event because the Indians had occupied the Portuguese colony of Goa 10 years earlier and to us it looked like another process of decolonization," he said.
Christopher Hitchens, author of "The Trial of Henry Kissinger," a highly critical biography of the former secretary of state and Nobel peace laureate, said that Kissinger had much to answer for over East Timor.
"Ford may have been an abject moron, but Kissinger was a professional," Hitchens said. "He knew perfectly well that a colony of a NATO country could not be invaded and occupied except in flat defiance of every international covenant and principle. He also knew that U.S. law explicitly forbade the use of U.S. weapons for such a purpose."
The formerly secret State Department telegram on the Ford-Kissinger talks with Suharto on Dec. 6, 1975, and the other new material on the U.S. role in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor were published by the National Security Archive, an independent nongovernmental research institute and library at George Washington University in Washington. The archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act.
William Burr and Michael Evans, who compiled the documents and put them in context, noted that both Ford and Kissinger, in their respective memoirs, had brushed very lightly over East Timor. Kissinger's book "Years of Renewal," which spans the period 1974 to 1976, does not have a single reference to East Timor in more than 1,000 pages. Burr and Evans wrote that important as the U.S. bilateral relationship with Indonesia was, "Jakarta's brutal suppression of the independence movement in East Timor was a development that neither Ford nor Kissinger wanted people to remember about their time in power."
Ramos-Horta is more charitable. Both he and East Timor's new president, Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader imprisoned by Indonesia, have met with Kissinger several times in the last 18 months in the United States in their attempts to build American support for an independent East Timor.
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