|Subject: StarTrib: East Timor: an inconsistent case
of U.S. policy
Date: Sat, 12 Jun 1999 10:36:12 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <email@example.com>
Published Sunday, June 6, 1999
Minneapolis Star Tribune
East Timor: an inconsistent case of U.S. policy Eric Black / Star Tribune
The post-mortems on the Balkans war will require a new look at old dogmas about such
questions as the limits of air power, the proper role of NATO, the wieldiness or
unwieldiness of the big alliance and many other issues. One question that will persist is
why the United States chose this war.
Clinton administration officials have said the decision to bomb was motivated by
outrage over the slaughter and "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. But skeptics have
questioned how that policy squares with decisions not to intervene in Rwanda, Turkish
Kurdistan or other cases where the savagery, racism, desire for independence or violations
of international law were as big or bigger.
One of the toughest nuts for those trying to crack the mystery of U.S. consistency is
the case of the tiny Pacific island of East Timor, the mass slaughter committed there by
Indonesia and the United States' role in that slaughter.
Indonesia invaded and annexed East Timor in 1975, causing about 200,000 deaths out of
East Timor's pre-invasion population of about 650,000.
The invasion occurred with advance U.S. knowledge. The slaughter was carried out with
U.S.-supplied weapons. The United States provided cover for Indonesia at the United
Nations and blocked action to reverse the occupation. Indonesia was a U.S. ally before,
during and after the incident.
If you've never heard the story of East Timor, or it rings the vaguest of bells, that's
another mystery. The short explanation is that the mainstream media have never given it
the mega-story treatment. Charles Scheiner of the East Timor Action Network said that from
the day after the 1975 invasion until 1991, none of the network news shows did a single
East Timor story.
Timor is an island at the southern edge of the Indonesian archipelago, about 400 miles
north of Australia. During colonial times, the western part was Dutch-controlled; the
eastern part was a Portuguese colony for four centuries. When Indonesia gained its
independence in 1949, West Timor became part of the new nation, but Portugal hung onto
In 1974, Portugal withdrew. Indonesia offered to annex East Timor, but was rebuffed.
The most popular party on the island, the socialist Fretilin Party, declared an
independent Democratic Republic of East Timor. Nine days later, on Dec. 7, 1975,
Indonesian paratroops landed.
On the day of the invasion, Australian journalists picked up this radio broadcast from
East Timor: "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 . . . "
Thousands of East Timorese were killed immediately while resisting the invasion.
Thousands more were hunted down and killed. Thousands more died of starvation or diseases
in camps where the Indonesians had incarcerated them so the population could be controlled
while the military tried to eliminate the remaining resistance.
Indonesia has occupied East Timor ever since, despite 10 U.N. resolutions demanding its
withdrawal. When guerrillas or civilians found ways to demonstrate that the majority in
East Timor still wanted independence, Indonesia reacted with crackdowns and sometimes
Indonesian President Suharto, who launched the invasion and opposed any change in East
Timor's status, resigned in 1998. His hand-picked successor, B.J. Habibie has offered a
new deal that would end the military occupation and grant a degree of self-government but
maintain East Timor as a province of Indonesia. East Timor is scheduled to vote Aug. 9,
1999, on the autonomy proposal.
In January, Habibie announced that if the East Timorese reject autonomy, they should
move to independence. "We don't want to be bothered by East Timor's problems
anymore," Habibie said.
One indication that the majority in East Timor want independence is that those who
favor integration within Indonesia do not want the vote taken at all and have formed
militias that have been attacking and killing pro-independence leaders.
In a speech to his supporters, militia leader Eurico Gutteres said that "I command
all pro-integration militia to conduct a cleansing of all those who have betrayed
integration. Capture and kill them, if you need."
The attacks have occurred with weapons supplied to the militias by the Indonesian
military, which still has about 20,000 troops in East Timor and controls everyday life.
Sometimes, the killings occur with soldiers present and with them encouraging the
The referendum on autonomy and the militia violence have put East Timor in the news.
During 1999, the New York Times has published 50 items that mention East Timor, from
one-paragraph briefs to full-fledged updates. The longer articles often have a paragraph
or two on the background of the problem, mentioning the 1975 Indonesian invasion and the
200,000 casualties. They do not once mention the United States' role in those events.
But human-rights advocates and pro-Timor activists have collected declassified
documents that put the U.S. government deeply into the story. The main points of that case
could be summarized as follows:
The invasion occurred with advance U.S. knowledge. Shortly before the invasion, the CIA
reported that Indonesia had sent agents into East Timor to provoke violent incidents so it
could claim -- as Indonesia soon did claim -- that it was intervening to quell a civil
President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Indonesia in
December 1975. A briefing paper prepared for Kissinger indicated that the invasion might
be imminent but "no dramatic step-up in Indonesian intervention will take place at
least until President Ford has departed Indonesia." The invasion occurred the day
after Ford and Kissinger left Jakarta.
Ford and Kissinger were told of the Indonesian plan by Suharto and -- at best --
offered no objection. Briefing papers prepared for the visit suggested that Ford try to
remain noncommittal if Suharto brought up Timor.
Kissinger has since said that "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 . . . Nobody asked our opinion . . . so when the Indonesians informed us, we neither
said yes or no."
Former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, back when he was a congressman, chaired a 1977
hearing on East Timor. At the end of the 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 massacre was committed with U.S.-supplied weapons, in violation of U.S. laws
requiring that those weapons be used only for self-defense.
According to the CIA, Suharto was reluctant to invade for fear of losing U.S. military
aid. But when Kissinger learned that his aides were recommending an arms cutoff, he blew
his stack, according to a declassified transcript of the meeting. "Am I wrong in
assuming that the Indonesians will go up in smoke when they hear about this?"
Kissinger said. 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 the administration would tell
Congress it was cutting off shipments while it studied the legal question, then resume
shipments a month later.
In fact, Fraser's subcommittee learned that even that bogus cutoff never occurred. On
the contrary, U.S.-supplied weapons to Indonesia roughly doubled between 1975 and 1978,
the period when the killing in East Timor was at its peak. The increase occurred during
the Carter administration, which had made support for human rights one of the centerpieces
of its foreign policy.
In explaining Carter administration policy on East Timor in 1977 congressional
testimony, State Department attorney George Aldrich said that "our interests would
not be served by seeking to reopen the question of Indonesian annexation of East Timor.
Instead, we have directed our efforts to urging Indonesia to institute a humane
administration in East Timor . . . These measures represent the most effective way we can
promote the human rights of the inhabitants."
The United States did not use its influence to demand self-determination for East
Timor. On the contrary, Washington instructed U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan to
prevent the United Nations from taking effective action on behalf of East Timor, an
assignment he "carried out with no inconsiderable success," as Moynihan wrote in
a book about his years at the United Nations.
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.
"The United States wished things to turn out as they did [in Timor] and worked to
bring this about," Moynihan wrote.
Eight General Assembly resolutions between 1975 and 1982 supported self-determination
for East Timor. The United States voted against seven.
The Cold War
The United States presents itself as a leading advocate of human rights, the rule of
law and defense of the defenseless. How could it play the role it did in the case of East
Ford, Kissinger and Moynihan declined to comment for this story. Ford replied by letter
that "the record available speaks for itself." Kissinger, who just published a
1,100-page memoir covering his years in the Ford administration, didn't mention Timor.
In 1995, pro-Timor activists surprised Kissinger at a New York speech and questioned
him from the audience. In the course of several answers, Kissinger outlined his response
to the accusation that the United States had facilitated and condoned mass slaughter.
"You have to understand these things in the context of the period," Kissinger
said. "Vietnam had just collapsed. Nobody yet knew what effect the domino theory
would have. Indonesia was . . . a country of 160 million and . . . a key country in
Southeast Asia. We were not looking for trouble with Indonesia."
East Timor "was not a big thing on our radar screen," Kissinger told the
questioners. "Nobody had the foggiest idea of what would happen afterward . . . but I
grant the questioner the fact that it's been a great tragedy."
During this period, the United States remained friendly with, supplied arms and
diplomatic support to, and overlooked the undemocratic, even murderous behavior of
governments that were on our side in the Cold War. Suharto, a staunch anti-Communist who
had come to power with U.S. assistance, qualified. Indonesia was on our side.
The East Timorese independence leaders, on the other hand, were at least leftists,
possibly Marxists. One of the first countries to recognize the Democratic Republic of East
Timor was China, which also sponsored some of the early pro-Timor U.N. resolutions. At the
meeting where Kissinger's aides said Indonesia had violated its commitment to use
U.S.-supplied arms only in self-defense, Kissinger replied that "can't [we] construe
a Communist government in the middle of Indonesia as self-defense?"
In the especially nervous post-Vietnam period, in the especially relevant neighborhood
of Southeast Asia, when Ford and Kissinger were stopping in Indonesia expressly to firm up
the U.S. friendship with the biggest country in the region, the United States was not
"looking for trouble with Indonesia" over a half-island of leftists.
U.S. position now
The official State Department position since 1976, adopted by every administration, has
been that the United States "accepts Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor without
maintaining that a valid act of self-determination has taken place."
A State Department official, who spoke on condition that his name be withheld, said the
United States favors the plan for a U.N.-organized autonomy vote in August. Washington has
expressed concern about the recent violence and urged Indonesia to allow the people of
East Timor to decide their own future in an atmosphere free of violence or intimidation.
The Clinton administration has shown its concern for the ongoing problem in East Timor,
the spokesman said. Under President Clinton, the United States has, for the first time,
co-sponsored a U.N. resolution criticizing Indonesia over killings in East Timor.
When she was in Indonesia in March, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with
Xanana Gusmao, who led the resistance to Indonesia's occupation from the hills of East
Timor until his 1992 capture. Gusmao is serving a 20-year sentence for inciting rebellion.
The State Department official said comparisons between cases where the United States
intervenes, such as Kosovo, and cases where it did not, such as East Timor, are not
helpful. U.S. policy is inconsistent, he said, but that's because, as Albright is fond of
saying, the United States doesn't take a "cookie-cutter approach" to foreign
policy. Instead it treats each case individually, weighing myriad factors. No two cases,
and therefore no two policies, are identical.
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