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ETAN at 20






John M. Miller, ETAN National Coordinator  

Reflecting on ETAN at 20

On November 12, 1991, Indonesia troops carrying U.S. supplied weapons gunned down peaceful East Timorese demonstration at Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery. And I can still recall vividly the tremor in Amy Goodman's voice in her first reports to Pacifica's WBAI radio here in New York, where she was News Director. Those reports inspired several of us who knew each other from organizing campaigns to begin meeting in New York. Out of those meetings ETAN began.

One detail from those reports was especially striking. Amy and Allan Nairn (also from New York) attributed their survival to the fact that they had waved their U.S. passports at the troops that were assaulting them. The journalists were from the same country that the soldiers' weapons came from.

Amy and Allan were the two U.S. eyewitnesses to the massacre and shared their knowledge with our fledgling group. Our first demonstration was on Human Rights Day 1991 at the Indonesian Mission to the UN. Many more were to follow.

Reports of the massacre sparked organizing efforts in cities throughout the U.S. Soon enough, there was ETAN/Rhode Island and ETAN/Los Angeles, then Madison, DC, and San Francisco. Gradually, we found each other and consolidated into ETAN/U.S. (We borrowed our initials - with their blessing - from Canada's East Timor Alert Network.)

We seized the chance to speak out, something that East Timorese could only do at great risk. One early ETAN leaflet bluntly stated that East Timorese could be shot for attending a demonstration, but that we in the United States could at much less risk support them. A simple recitation of the facts was all that was needed to convince many that the U.S. bore substantial responsibility for a grave injustice and that we needed to take responsibility for changing our own country's policies.

ETAN's John M. Miller (with bullhorn) speaks at the Indonesian consulate in Manhattan, January 2000. Protests also took place that day in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and Washington, DC.  

We built on the efforts of others who had been working on the issues, some since 1975, many in church groups and Congress. But we brought our own energy and new ideas, at times a confrontational approach.

Early on, we determined to be non-partisan (working with people and politicians with a wide-range of views on other subjects). After all, U.S. presidents of both parties had supported Indonesia. We embraced a wide range of tactics from lobbying and letter-writing to supporting lawsuits against Indonesian generals. We spoke inside (and outside) the UN and organized countless demonstrations at Indonesia's diplomatic offices around the U.S. In New York, there were two and we probably have had an equal number of protests at the consulate and mission to the UN. Several hundred were arrested in civil disobedience sit-ins. We organized international election observers in 1999, 2001, and 2007. We successfully sued New York City to have the street in front of the Indonesian consulate temporarily renamed "East Timor Way" in 1999.

We always tried to be accurate; the situation was dire enough not to need exaggeration. This approach has helped us build credibility with the media, officials and others that carries through to today.

Our initial focus was on gaining self-determination for East Timor. Our political strategy was ambitious, but simple. We saw the Indonesian military as crucial to the occupation. The U.S. was the military's chief benefactor, and we set out to sever that relationship. Indonesia would value its ties to the U.S. more than its continued occupation of East Timor. Events would bear out this analysis - more quickly than many of us imagined in late 1991.

We won a quick victory when Congress barred Indonesia from IMET military training in May 1992, in response to our pressure. At the time, few other countries were barred from IMET. We learned that while East Timor wasn't on the radar of many, a few voices from a congressional district or state could sway many members of Congress. Some of them became staunch supporters of East Timorese rights.

In the end, there were very few floor votes directly on East Timor and we lost several of them. But each time East Timor was debated on the floor of congress or in committee, more were educated and more concessions were extracted. Bans on the transfer of categories of military weapons and police equipment were imposed throughout the 1990s, either by the administration (always under Congressional pressure) or Congress.  Indonesia's dictator Suharto twice refused training or weapons in a fit of pique over U.S. criticism of repression in East Timor. Finally in September 1999, responding to a global outcry at Indonesia's destruction after the East Timorese chose independence, President Clinton announced a full cut off of security assistance. The Indonesian military quickly agreed to honor the result of the August 30 UN-organized referendum and withdraw.

  We seized the chance to speak out, something that East Timorese could only do so at great risk. One early ETAN leaflet bluntly stated that East Timorese could be shot for attending a demonstration, but that we in the United States could at much less risk support them.

The Congressional and public pressure that contributed to East Timor's independence came from years of organizing within U.S. and the tenacity of the East Timorese people in asserting their rights. ETAN initially built a base of support by borrowing lists from national groups, including the War Resisters League of which I and Charles Scheiner, another ETAN founder, are long time members. These groups allowed us to call their members just once (Brown University students did most of the calling). We also gathered initial support from sign up sheets at talks by Allan, Amy and others and by petitioning at showings of  the documentary "Manufacturing Consent," which features early ETAN supporter Noam Chomsky and includes a substantial section on East Timor.

In the early 1990s, the online organizing was coming into its own as an activist tool, both as a source of information and a way to spur action and activism. The internet enabled us to quickly link up with like-minded groups and individuals to compare information and share strategy. East Timorese leaders abroad were soon in touch and offered encouragement. We in turn supported their activities in the U.S. and at the UN as best we could.

subscribe today to the east-timor listservWe stayed current with events and activities through the reg.easttimor e-mail listserv, begun by Tapol in Britain the previous year. We soon became major contributors to the list and over time took over the major responsibility for the list, now officially the east-timor list. (People often confuse the list with ETAN the organization at times, to our frustration.). In 1999, when I first went to East Timor to observe the referendum, many Timorese knew my name because of my many posts to the listserv. With access to the internet limited, items from the list would be printed out and passed around. Occasionally, I had to explain that I hadn't written most of them, just forwarded the news, analysis and reports from activists and others. Even now, much of my morning is taken up with the list, which has more subscribers than ever (more than 2600 at last count).

Soon after the 1999 vote, ETAN met in Arizona to decide whether to continue and what we should work on, now that East Timor was soon to become independent. Whether to continue or not was only briefly debated. We decided to focus our work for justice for East Timor through an international tribunal and accountability for the U.S. role, return of refugees, and support for human rights and sustainable development. We committed to maintain the suspension of military ties with Indonesia, both to pressure Indonesia on East Timor and to support those still on the receiving end of Indonesian military brutality. We also helped launch the Indonesia Human Rights Network. When that network folded, ETAN changed our name in 2005 to acknowledge that we were actively working on a number of Indonesia specific issues. In recent years, that has meant highlighting ongoing human rights violations in West Papua and monitoring the impact of U.S. security assistance, which we believe serves to undermine the democratic transformation of Indonesia. We have opposed the lifting of restrictions on U.S. cooperation with Kopassus, Indonesia's special forces, as well as abusive police units

  Soon after the 1999 vote, ETAN met in Arizona to decide whether to continue and what we should work on, now that East Timor was soon to become independent. Whether to continue or not was only briefly debated.

Justice for past rights violations at times feels as distant now as self-determination for East Timor did in 1991. But justice and accountability is not just about the past, it is also about deterring future violations. On the 20th anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre, ETAN reaffirmed our commitment to pursue justice: "Ongoing impunity for decades of systematic Indonesian military and police atrocities keeps the Timorese and Indonesian people from consolidating their democracies and moving on with their lives. ETAN will not rest until justice is done." This past year, we have confronted a very visible Henry Kissinger multiple times about his role in giving a U.S. go ahead to Indonesia's invasion and occupation to highlight the need to hold U.S. leaders accountable.

In addition to campaigning for justice for the past, ETAN monitors human rights issues in the new country. Since East Timor became the independent nation of Timor-Leste, ETAN has supported the new country's efforts to gain control over petroleum resources that are rightfully theirs. Working with groups in Timor-Leste and elsewhere, ETAN has raised concerns about plans by the government to take out international loans.

As ETAN continues our work, we face a number of challenges. ETAN has never been very large or well-funded. We sometimes joked that our work was done with smoke and mirrors. While many in both East Timor and Indonesia continue to ask a lot from us, money and other resources have become harder to come by. Our staff has shrunk over the years and we had to close our Washington office. There are only a few active chapters. Many of those most active in the past have moved on to other issues and other priorities. We have more ideas and possible  projects than we can possibly implement. But a core of people remain committed to ETAN and our issues, even as we work to develop new supporters. And we try get the most out of the resources we have.

The U.S. activist Mother Jones is credited with the saying, "My business is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." For the past 20 years, ETAN has to work to afflict the powerful and pressure them to change their destructive policies. We will continue this work and by doing so we hope that we provide some comfort to the victims of those policies.

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