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ETAN at 20

Loren Ryter, USA  

A view of ETAN and the tiny island of Timor from tiny Rhode Island

ETAN surely stands among a very few political organizations which managed to achieve their primary goal within a few short years of their establishment. ETAN’s success is all the more remarkable because of how hopeless its goal of winning self-determination for occupied East Timor seemed at the time it was founded, in the aftermath of the Santa Cruz massacre in Dili. In 1991, very few people outside the Southeast Asian region and the Lusophone countries had ever heard of the place, which, thanks to the writings of Noam Chomsky, we understood to be largely the consequence of a concerted campaign to silence media coverage of the Indonesian occupation in America and most of Western Europe. That campaign in turn derived from America’s policy stance towards Indonesia since 1965, when General Suharto took power, presided over a purge against hundreds of thousands of suspected communists, and returned Indonesia to the political and economic orbit of the United States. When Indonesia decided to annex Portuguese Timor in 1975, it did so with the blessings of President Ford.

But when the Indonesian military gunned down hundreds of East Timorese pro-independence demonstrators in 1991, conditions were already in place for the status quo to begin falling apart. With the Berlin Wall, justifications for ongoing carte blanche support of anti-communist dictators also crumbled. Suharto himself had already begun to overstay his welcome; corruption had become so endemic that western investors were increasingly dissatisfied with the uncertainty and the costs of graft. The Clinton administration’s rhetoric of human rights and democratization opened the door wide to charges of hypocrisy when it came to Indonesia policy. Portugal, which had mostly shrugged off its obligations as a lost cause, renewed its diplomatic efforts after media coverage of the Santa Cruz massacre went global. Unlike most other national independence movements, East Timor had always had the advantage of having international law on its side. The UN had never recognized the Indonesian occupation, and the official status of East Timor remained a “non-self governing territory under the administration of Portugal.” Therefore Portugal’s renewed efforts also breathed new life into the work of long-time East Timorese diplomat-in-exile Jose Ramos-Horta, who would share the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with Bishop Belo of Dili for their tireless advocacy. A new generation of East Timorese activists were also now emboldened, as the focus of the resistance shifted from doomed guerilla struggle to civilian protests led by Timorese youth.

  Compelled to do something, I wrote a piece for the Brown Daily Herald titled “News from Nowhere,” which shamelessly reiterated Noam Chomsky’s thesis on western media bias to explain how a massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians could generate little more than a blip in international news. The story gained more attention on campus than I could have imagined. By the following spring, after we packed over a thousand students into an event hall for a panel on U.S. policy towards East Timor, self-determination for East Timor became the leading issue on campus.

Meanwhile the writing was already on the wall for the Suharto regime by 1996. A rump political party was beginning to show its teeth and some Indonesian activists, for the first time since the invasion, grew bold enough to organize and demonstrate in support of the East Timorese. The Suharto regime crumbled in 1998, largely due to the dissatisfaction of Indonesia’s own elite over the extent of the avarice of Suharto and his closest cronies, but with still scant concern about, or even consciousness of, the gravity of the violence in remote “Timtim.” By contrast, on the international stage, East Timor, what Indonesia’s foreign minister once called the “pebble in Indonesia’s shoe,” had become a boulder. So much so that by 1999, Suharto’s hand-picked successor had little choice but to accede to a United Nations sponsored referendum on self-determination for East Timor. That vote overwhelmingly rejected Indonesia’s occupation and led to full national independence for Timor Leste just a couple of years after that. Mission accomplished!

In one sense, with conditions so ripe in the world system and with American policy intransigence one of the last remaining obstacles of significance, ETAN had little to do but nudge. And yet it certainly did not feel that way in 1991. Those of us who had been following East Timor, for a variety of reasons, felt an uncanny, intensely personal sense of responsibility, due to how alone we felt in our knowledge of what was happening there. What could we do to get some justice for these people who had suffered so much violence for two decades without, it seemed, anyone noticing? Worse, what chance could we possibly have in the face of what felt like a massive cover-up?

In late 1991, I was a senior at Brown University majoring in development studies and East Asian studies. That term, I had been working on a seminar paper about the extent of the famine in East Timor that the Indonesian army deliberately instigated after its invasion, when it destroyed crops in a bid to cut off support for the resistance. I had been following the news and was aware that a long-brokered Portuguese observation mission to East Timor had been cancelled by Indonesia at the last minute due to irreconcilable details. I heard immediately what happened at the Santa Cruz cemetery on November 12. Compelled to do something, I wrote a piece for the Brown Daily Herald titled “News from Nowhere,” which shamelessly reiterated Noam Chomsky’s thesis on western media bias to explain how a massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians could generate little more than a blip in international news. The story gained more attention on campus than I could have imagined. By the following spring, after we packed over a thousand students into an event hall for a panel on U.S. policy towards East Timor, self-determination for East Timor became the leading issue on campus.

It seemed that Brown students, renowned for their activism, had been yearning for an international cause. Half a decade had passed since the goals of the South Africa divestment movement, which had galvanized the Brown campus along with many other campuses in the states, had been achieved. During the time I was at Brown, campus activism had been focused on issues such as campus sexual assault, student and faculty diversity, and need-blind admissions. These were all important causes with broader implications, and yet they felt limited in scope. Indeed, as what became ETAN’s visibility grew over the next months, we faced criticism from leading student activists on the grounds that we were culpable of letting some obscure cause, with no relation to Brown students’ lives, divert attention from these immediate concerns of great consequence. We were accused of being privileged elitists with the luxury to carry the banner of some tiny, far away population, or worse, of taking up the White Man’s Burden. We were cautious not to publicly make an issue of the fact that most of the students leading campaigns for diversity and need-blind admissions also came from relatively privileged backgrounds; we were all Brown students after all. Instead, we did our best to explain why, as Americans, we shared a responsibility for the violence in East Timor: our country’s long-standing pro-Indonesia policy, which included the provision of military aid and sales of advanced military equipment, was a large part of what facilitated the ongoing occupation.

I didn’t graduate the next spring as my involvement in founding ETAN became all-consuming for most of the next year. Benign neglect of my studies turned out to not be a problem, as I was fortunate to gain a friend and co-conspirator in the university administration, a dean of the college who was a childhood friend of Alan Nairn, one of the journalists who was injured in Dili during the Santa Cruz massacre. He contacted me after my story was published, and together we planned what to do, including recruiting students to contact their representatives. That dean would eventually be inducted into the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator by Portugal for his efforts in support of East Timor. With his support, I was able to work it such that I could graduate by the following December.

Privilege, as is usually the case, turned out to be asset, not just for me personally in order to graduate just behind schedule, but for the effectiveness of what became ETAN. I would highlight two facets of this privilege that became key components in ETAN’s success. The first, trite as it may now sound, is technological. Long before anyone could wax hyperbolically about twitter revolutions, we were able to deploy an emerging technology in support of a cause: the now pervasive technology of email. It’s rather hard to imagine now, but in 1991 email was in use by very few. The dominant domains were all .mil, .gov, .org, and .edu, not .com. When I started at Brown in 1988, we were using the UNIX-based PINE, and by no means were the majority of students even using that. Employed as a campus computer consultant, I used PINE daily and was also part of the beta group for the first desktop-based email client, Eudora, which was developed at Brown. By 1991, students were commonly using Eurdora in their dorm rooms. I was avidly reading news about Indonesia and East Timor via email distribution lists.

Outside of the universities and government, the potential of email for organizing had been recognized by a growing number of seasoned activists, among them Charlie Scheiner, who then campaigned to ban nuclear weapons in the Pacific, and John Miller of the Foreign Bases Project, a watchdog group concerned with abuses related to American military instillations overseas. When we at Brown heard that these two had organized a picket at the Indonesian mission in New York in response to the Santa Cruz massacre, we immediately contacted them by email. Over the next weeks, a flurry of email exchanges led to the establishment of ETAN/U.S., with ETAN/NY and ETAN/RI as the first chapters. From then on email brought together seasoned activists and college students across the country. We literally formed a network, one whose speed of communication was ahead of its time.

Politicians have since developed immunity toward public pressure coming from blogs or tweets, which anyone can now publish. But in the early 1990s, we must have caught them off-guard. Through this national email network, we were able to quickly mobilize call-in campaigns across the country, to such an extent that we succeeded, within a year or two, in swinging many members of congress to our side, and consequently winning bans on U.S. military aid and equipment sales to Indonesia.

But this network was not only technologically based. The second key component of privilege was student demographics at Brown and other campuses that later became involved in ETAN. Students, especially those at private liberal arts colleges, come from all across the country, and their parents tend to be well spoken if not also well placed. We were able to quickly identify friends, who came from states whose congressional delegation needed some “encouragement,” who in turn were able to convince their parents to make calls and write letters. We must admit that this cause provoked little if any disagreement with our parents, even for those of us with conservative parents, unlike, say, the civil rights movement, whose white student activists had to first overcome the entrenchment of their elders. While we did generate thousands of letters and also emails (to those cutting-edge representatives whose staffers used it in those days), the calls to congressional staffers from articulate constituents made a huge difference. They tended to be shocked that anyone knew about this issue, let alone cared enough to threaten throwing them out of office if they failed to vote to cut off aid to Indonesia (or to sustain the cut offs we won).

Beyond that, many congresspeople turned out to be easily embarrassed to be outed standing on the wrong side of the issue. After I started graduate school at the University of Washington in 1993, I helped to organize ETAN/Seattle. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) had just begun her first term. As a consequence of her advocacy of Seattle and Washington State’s Pacific Rim policy, she opposed limiting any form of support to Indonesia, including military assistance. When our members initially contacted her office we got the cold shoulder. But when we confronted her publicly during the Q&A of an event she organized related to the Pacific Rim economy, over why she preferred to coddle Indonesia as a trade partner while ignoring its human rights violations in East Timor, she quickly changed her tune. Her staff told us she didn’t want to be seen as unconcerned with human rights, and would reconsider her policy, which she did. She thereafter turned out to be a reliable ally.


Outside of the universities and government, the potential of email for organizing had been recognized by a growing number of seasoned activists... Over the next weeks, a flurry of email exchanges led to the establishment of ETAN/U.S., with ETAN/NY and ETAN/RI as the first chapters. From then on email brought together seasoned activists and college students across the country. We literally formed a network, one whose speed of communication was ahead of its time.

ETAN activists publicly confronted politicians whenever possible, but at one point we also even managed to embarrass a State Department bureaucrat, then Indonesia Desk Officer Larry Dinger, who has since served as U.S. Ambassador to several Pacific nations and is now the chief of the U.S. mission in Burma. In early 1992, ETAN had worked with the Harvard Kennedy School to organize a major policy panel on East Timor. (Incidentally, that event was very nearly squashed due to the vociferous opposition of another Harvard unit, the Harvard Institute for International Development [HIID], which feared a public tarring of Indonesia would endanger their high-level partnership.) Among the panelists at the event, held over those objections, were Larry Dinger and Noam Chomsky. The latter was no doubt largely responsible for packing the hall to the gills. Mr. Dinger presented a curiously monotonous justification for Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, explaining how Indonesia had raised living standards there and had built roads, hospitals, and schools. Apparently unbeknownst to him, Indonesian consulate officials had been distributing to the audience copies of exactly the same statement printed under the Indonesian State seal. In Q&A, I was personally delighted (though somewhat nervous) to ask him how it came to pass that a United States State Department official could read the prepared statement of a foreign government, verbatim and without attribution? He was struck completely dumb. (To give Dinger some credit, I did feel it likely that he was duty-bound to mouth the statement, and probably fully knew what a load it was.)

It is worth mentioning in the context of this reminiscence that ETAN’s confrontational stance unnerved not only officials and congressmen but also at least one long-time advocate for East Timor. In the long years between the 1975 Indonesian invasion and the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, at most a handful of Americans could be thanked for carrying the torch for East Timor in terms of trying to influence U.S. policy. Though I never learned the extent of initial American public protests against the 1975 invasion, I imagine that in the wake of Vietnam fatigue, they amounted to barely a peep. Certainly within a couple of years it was forgotten by but a few. Arnold Kohen, who was a radio journalist at the time of the invasion, might well have been the last man standing by the early 1990s. He was in close contact with Bishop Carlos X. Belo, who was greatly admired and respected on ground in East Timor. (Kohen published Belo’s biography in 1999.) For that reason, his views carried considerable weight. It was as if he were the spokesman for the Dalai Lama. For many years, Kohen had worked to cultivate amicable relations with members of congress and with state department officials. He no doubt rightly felt, given conditions before Santa Cruz, that encouraging his political contacts to do the right thing, to gently pressure Indonesia to improve conditions in East Timor and reduce abuses, was the best anyone could hope for. So when ETAN burst onto the scene in early 1992, Kohen feared our confrontational approach would backfire, cutting off the channels of communication he had so carefully built. As a result, I recall several long, impassioned telephone conference calls with Kohen and Scheiner and others over tactics. If ETAN had been less successful than it was, he may well have been right. But that was the risk we took. Ultimately there was little choice but to agree we’d each pursue our separate approaches.

Indonesian warship threatens the Lusitânia Expresso in the Timor Sea. Photo via Facebook  

Our confrontational approach wasn’t limited to lobbying. In March of 1992, some of us found ourselves involved in a rather dramatic direct action. We were invited by a group of Portuguese students to take part in an international action which involved students from more than 20 countries. We participated as Brown students, not as members of ETAN, though we were all active in ETAN/RI. (One student from Berkeley also joined us.) At Portuguese expense, we and the other students from around the world were flown first to Lisbon, then to Darwin, Australia. There we boarded a ferry sailing under a Portuguese flag, christened the Lusitânia Expresso. The plan was to sail to Dili, and challenge Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, given its standing international status. The days leading up to our departure, and especially the sea voyage itself, were times of such intensity that I can still feel the thick apprehension and sense of intrigue even two decades later. Were there Indonesian spies amongst us? What was the true agenda of the Portuguese retired general who was on board, and what was the agenda of the Portuguese student leaders? Were we pawns? Were we really ever in mortal danger? What would happen were we to be boarded by the Indonesian navy? Worse, what might happen to us if we were allowed to land, given the army’s proven lack of reluctance to use violence? What fate might befall those East Timorese in Dili we knew would risk their lives to welcome us? With East Timor in sight at dawn, several warships surrounded us. A helicopter circled above us, which we learned (or perhaps merely suspected) carried the notorious Indonesian Armed Forces commander, Benny Murdani. As it turned out, our captain quickly capitulated in the face of Indonesian navy threats to sink the vessel. Journalists on board also pressured the captain, under the pretext that they needed to get their video footage back to Australia, post haste. But I believed they were actually more concerned for their skins than for their footage. So the ship turned back to Darwin. Many of us students were disappointed, but we had made our point.

The action can also be credited with giving a decisive boost to our lobbying efforts back home. Above I mentioned the packed panel that ETAN held at Brown, which more than a thousand students and community members attended. As with the Cambridge event later, Noam Chomsky undoubtedly was a big draw. But perhaps even bigger was the very real possibility of danger which might befall a few of Brown’s own students. We had timed the event to coincide with the Lusitânia action, such that we’d call in, if possible, either from the ship, or from East Timor, or from Darwin. As it happened, we were back in Darwin when the event was underway, and I was able to relate the above events with great immediacy in my voice. Suddenly, what was going on half a world away felt intensely real to everyone in that hall, and after that East Timor became the issue on campus for much of the following year. And these students and their friends and relatives across the country made plenty of noise.

I remained highly active in ETAN for only a couple more years. Dedicated activists in Seattle continued the branch I helped organize after starting graduate school, and my studies of Indonesian political history (and the misnomer of “political science” generally) kept me tremendously busy. Nationally, ETAN had established a permanent office with a staff in D.C., and a visible web site. With fair justification I was concerned that a continued visible role in ETAN would jeopardize my chances of securing permission to do field research in Indonesia. Indeed, I worried that it might already be too late. Thankfully, I had been somewhat cautious to use a pseudonym when possible, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Indonesian bureaucracy was never coordinated enough to pose a real obstruction. I was able to conduct research in Indonesia in 1996 and 1998, make friends with Indonesian activists who shared a commitment to self-determination for East Timor, and watch and welcome the dying days of the murderous regime. But it was mostly from the comfort of home that I cheered at the results of the vote for self-determination, grew unsettled over the bloody immediate aftermath, and ultimately applauded full independence for Timor Leste.

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