|Subject: Gerald Ford and Jose Ramos Horta
The Big Question with Eric Black
Gerald Ford and Jose Ramos Horta and me
Belated condolences to the family and friends of Gerald Ford on their loss.
Like many Americans, I mostly remember President Ford as a moderate, likeable, accidental president who provided a much-needed moment of sanity and calm after the craziness and chaos of Watergate.
But another Ford moment, an inglorious one, spoils my recollection of him. I’ve held back writing about it until a decent interval after his death (and for fear of adding to my legend as a blame-America-firster). But those excuses have expired, so here goes:
In December 1975, Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Jakarta, Indonesia to reassure military dictator Suharto of their friendship and that the United States would not abandon its allies in the region in the aftermath of the Vietnam disaster.
The day after Ford departed, Suharto unleashed his U.S.-armed military on the tiny half-island nation of East Timor, snuffing out the whiff of independence that East Timor briefly enjoyed after its Portugese colonial rulers departed.
Indonesia quickly occupied and swallowed East Timor, causing about 200,000 deaths out of East Timor’s pre-invasion population of about 650,000.
Ford, Kissinger and America were deeply implicated in the mass slaughter, the disregard of U.N. resolutions and human rights that occurred. I’ve written about this sad tale for the Star Tribune several times. If you have the patience and the heart for some of the details, <http://www.startribune.com/blogs/bigquestion/?page_id=434>I’ve posted a 1991 piece that has a more complete version of the story on an attached page. Here’s a taste of what’s in there:
“Ford later confirmed that Suharto had discussed East Timor, but Ford denied that he knew of the invasion plan. The CIA knew. The National Intelligence Daily, a classified CIA-published newsletter, discussed Suharto’s plan months before the invasion. On Dec. 1, 1975, the newsletter said: ‘According to a reliable source, Indonesia will not initiate large-scale military actions against (East) Timor until after President Ford completes his visit.’
At the end of the 1977 hearing, Fraser concluded that Ford and Kissinger ‘were apprised of the intention of the Indonesian government but . . . made no serious objection to what they proposed to do.’”
The reference to Fraser is Don Fraser, the former Mpls. mayor who, as a young congressman, had chaired a hearing about what happened in Timor.
The invasion was carried out with U.S.-supplied weapons, despite a congressional enactment prohibiting the use of those weapons for anything but self-defense.
“A U.S. congresswoman visiting East Timor in 1977 asked the Indonesian commander if he had used U.S.-supplied weapons during the invasion and occupation. The commander replied: ‘Of course. These are the only weapons we have.’”
There actually was a U.S. law requiring that arms shipments be cut off to any nation that used U.S. weapons for an act of aggression, but Kissinger assured his subordinates that there were ways around it and expressed outrage that anyone in State was considering recommending a cutoff of arms to Indonesia. The cutoff never did occur.
When I wrote this story in 1991, it was partly to make a point similar to the one about Turkmenistan a couple of days back. In 1991, after the rescue of Kuwait from Saddam, the first President Bush declared:
“America stands where it always has against aggression, against those who would use force to replace the rule of law.”
Perhaps a certain amount of hype and hooey is necessary to make the world go round, but there’s nothing wrong with occasionally pointing out contradictions between the hooey/hype and the historical record.
East Timor now
In case you lost track of the obscure tale of tiny East Timor, 24 years after the invasion and after countless U.N. resolutions demanding that Indonesia withdraw its troops (most of which were opposed by the U.S.), the U.N. organized a 1999 referendum on the question of independence from Indonesia, which passed by an overwhelming majority.
Bands of anti-independence Timorese militias organized and supported by the Indonesian military responded with a new wave killing. An Australian-led U.N. force landed and brought peace. In 2002, East Timor became the 191st member state of the United Nations.
The current prime minister, Jose Ramos Horta, a Nobel Peace laureate for his decades-long campaign as an exile for East Timorese independence, was in Minneapolis in 2001, as East Timor made its final push for international recognition of its independence. I interviewed the small, soft-spoken statesman.
He credited the Clinton administration for pressing Indonesia in 1999 to permit the independence referendum. When asked whether he considered Ford and Kissinger complicit in the 1975 invasion, he replied:
“The complicity was total…”The Indonesians could not possibly have carried out and sustained the invasion and the occupation, in the face of our people’s heroic resistance without an escalation of U.S. support,” “
Ramos Horta evinced no bitterness and even expressed a balanced understanding of what motivated Ford and Kissinger. Here’s an excerpt from my 2001 interview with Ramos-Horta:
“Ramos-Horta said he believed that the United States followed the policy it did because it saw the world through a Cold War prism: South Vietnam had just fallen. Suharto claimed that the East Timorese independence movement was led by Communists. Ford and Kissinger wanted to reassure their Southeast Asian allies - above all Indonesia, the biggest nation in the region - that they were on their side. The policy of supporting Suharto while ignoring his human rights record was followed by the Ford, Carter, Reagan and first Bush administrations, Ramos-Horta said.”
I asked Ramos-Horta if any U.S. officials had ever expressed any regret or apology for the actions of 1975. His reply, which I found moving:
“It would be welcome to hear some regrets expressed about past events, but he has his own sins to worry about, he said. He believes that an apology ‘mostly elevates the one who makes it, but such apologies require wisdom and humility that one finds only in great men and women. For us, now, the greatest consolation is that we are free.’”
Before publishing that story, I did seek comment from Kissinger and Ford. Kissinger was not available for comment. Ford’s office asked me for my question in writing and then told me I would receive my reply also in writing. The reply, from an assistant, said that the former president had decided “to let the record speak for itself.”
The Big Question with Eric Black
Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger and the troubling tale of East Timor, 1975
Original headline: East Timor’s plight was like Kuwait’s, but U.S. reaction was far different
Original publication date: 03/17/91
By Eric Black Staff Writer
In September 1990, as U.S. troops rushed to Saudi Arabia to fight for self-determination in Kuwait, the U.N. General Assembly, with U.S. agreement, deferred until next year a resolution calling for self-determination in East Timor.
Like Kuwait, East Timor was invaded, brutalized and annexed by its much larger neighbor. In East Timor’s case, the neighbor was Indonesia and the invasion occurred in 1975. Other similarities and differences exist between the two invasions. For example, Kuwait had passed from British protectorate to independent nation in 1961, while East Timor escaped from colonial control by Portugal only months before it was invaded.
One of the biggest differences, however, was the U.S. reaction.
“This is not about oil. It is about principle,” President Bush said of Operation Desert Shield on Oct. 16. Principles Bush has mentioned include opposition to aggression, support for the weak against the strong, the rule of international law and enforcement of U.N. resolutions.
U.N. Security Council resolutions in 1975 and 1976 ordered Indonesia to withdraw from East Timor. The United States voted for the first and abstained on the second. Eight General Assembly resolutions between 1975 and 1982 supported self-determination for East Timor. The United States voted against seven.
In his March 6 speech to Congress, Bush said: “We went halfway around the world to do what is moral and just and right. . . . We lifted the yoke of tyranny from a small country that many Americans had never even heard of.”
The yoke of tyranny still strangles East Timor, a tiny nation halfway around the world that most Americans have never heard of. The former Catholic bishop of East Timor estimated that 200,000 of East Timor’s population of 700,000 were killed by Indonesian troops or died from famine and disease caused by Indonesian occupation policies.
A State Department official said comparisons between U.S. policy on Kuwait and East Timor are “not useful.”
But Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, who was chairman of hearings on East Timor back in his congressional days, disagrees. “I think the comparison is thoroughly appropriate,” he said. “It underscores the failure of the U.S. to abide by international law when it doesn’t feel like it. . . . The truth is, we don’t really give a damn about international law unless it suits our purposes.”
The Bush administration cannot be held accountable for Ford administration policy on East Timor. But the tragedy of East Timor undermines Bush’s statement of Aug. 20 that “America stands where it always has - against aggression, against those who would use force to replace the rule of law.”
East Timor is not the only nation that remains occupied in violation of international law. But the United States did more than tolerate the invasion of East Timor. Fraser said at the 1977 congressional hearing that the record showed “a degree of complicity by the United States that I really find to be quite disturbing.”
What the president knew
The Dec. 7, 1975, invasion of East Timor occurred one day after President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger concluded a visit to Indonesia to firm up the U.S. friendship with President Suharto. Ford later confirmed that Suharto had discussed East Timor, but Ford denied that he knew of the invasion plan.
The CIA knew. The National Intelligence Daily, a classified CIA-published newsletter, discussed Suharto’s plan months before the invasion. On Dec. 1, 1975, the newsletter said: “According to a reliable source, Indonesia will not initiate large-scale military actions against (East) Timor until after President Ford completes his visit.”
At the end of the 1977 hearing, Fraser concluded that Ford and Kissinger “were apprised of the intention of the Indonesian government but . . . made no serious objection to what they proposed to do.”
In the invasion, Indonesia used U.S.-supplied weapons. But Washington didn’t blockade Indonesia as it did Iraq. Instead, Washington kept shipping weapons to Indonesia.
According to the CIA, Suharto was reluctant to invade for fear of losing U.S. military aid. He needn’t have worried. When Kissinger learned that some of his aides were recommending an arms cutoff, he blew his stack, according to a transcript published last year. “Am I wrong in assuming that the Indonesians will go up in smoke when they hear about this?” Kissinger demanded of his aides. When told that U.S. law required that shipments be stopped to any nation that used U.S. arms for an act of aggression, Kissinger said that was no problem. Administration officials would tell Congress they were cutting off shipments while they studied the legal question, then resume shipments the following month. In fact, Fraser’s subcommittee learned that even this bogus cutoff never occurred.
A U.S. congresswoman visiting East Timor in 1977 asked the Indonesian commander if he had used U.S.-supplied weapons during the invasion and occupation. The commander replied: “Of course. These are the only weapons we have.”
In July 1976, Indonesia announced that, in accordance with the wishes of the people, it was annexing East Timor as the permanent 27th province of Indonesia. The wishes of the people had been expressed, of course, through the provisional East Timorese government that the Indonesian army had installed.
As a result, the United Nations has never recognized the annexation. But the United States does.
Official U.S. policy on East Timor states: “We accept the incorporation of East Timor by Indonesia without maintaining that a valid act of self-determination has taken place.”
In 1977, State Department lawyer George Aldrich told Congress that the United States was not enthusiastic about the annexation of East Timor. “It was simply the judgment of those responsible for our policy in the area that the integration (of East Timor into Indonesia) was an accomplished fact, that the realities of the situation would not be changed by our opposition to what had occurred and that such a policy would not serve our best interests in light of the importance of our relations with Indonesia.”
Fraser replied: “To write off the rights of 600,000 people because we are friends with the country that forcibly annexed them does real violence to any profession of adherence to principle or to human rights.”
Since the military coup of 1965-66 that brought Suharto to power, Indonesia has been a police state. But the Suharto dictatorship - staunchly anti-Communist, open to Western investment and recognized as the 13th-leading oil producer - has been an important U.S. ally.
U.S.-Indonesian relations: Since the Vietnam War, the United States has viewed Indonesia as the cornerstone of its Southeast Asian security system. That’s why Ford and Kissinger visited Jakarta in 1975. That’s why Indonesia has been the second-leading recipient of U.S. aid in the Far East, after the Philippines.
Timor: During the colonial period, the island of Timor, just north of Australia, was divided between Dutch control of the west and Portuguese control of East Timor. Under Portuguese influence, most East Timorese became Catholics. Indonesia is 88 percent Muslim. The East Timorese speak a local dialect and most do not speak Indonesian. Portuguese control also prevented the culture of the Javanese, the dominant ethnic group of Indonesia, from influencing East Timor.
When Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1949, West Timor became part of the new nation, but Portugal hung onto East Timor.
During 1975, East Timor’s Fretilin Party advocated independence, democracy and land reform and it grew in popularity. In August of that year, a smaller party attempted a coup. During the fighting that followed, the Portuguese governor fled and Fretilin gained control. Indonesia offered to annex East Timor but was rebuffed.
In the fall of 1975, Indonesia threatened to intervene in East Timor if developments there threatened Indonesia’s security. This is hard to imagine, since Indonesia is an archipelago of 13,677 islands, with a population of more than 175 million, the fifth-largest in the world. In 1975, East Timor occupied half of one of those islands and had a population of about 700,000.
In November, Fretilin declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of East Timor and its intention to hold elections so the people of East Timor could decide their future. Nine days later, Indonesian paratroops landed.
At the time of the invasion, Indonesia claimed it had been invited in by the anti-Fretilin parties to restore order. On Aug. 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein also claimed he had been invited into Kuwait by a provisional government that had just overthrown the royal family.
On the day of the Indonesian invasion, Australian journalists heard the Fretilin radio station broadcast the following appeal from the East Timorese capital of Dili:
“The Indonesian forces are killing indiscriminately. Women and children are being shot in the streets. We are all going to be killed. . . . This is an appeal for international help. Please do something to stop this invasion.”
Because East Timor is mountainous, Indonesia has never completely defeated the underground independence movement. Most East Timor civilians live in “strategic villages” under Indonesian army control. But thousands still live in the mountains beyond the reach of the Indonesian troops.
Civil liberties do not exist. Listening to foreign radio broadcasts is illegal. Timorese can be arrested for having aerials. Peaceful political demonstrations are violently repressed. Torture, deaths and disappearances persist, documented by Amnesty International and recited in the annual State Department human rights report. The 1990 report indicated that at least 15 civilians had been killed without trial or charges. Political prisoners are held in secret jails from which the Red Cross is barred.
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