spacer US, Indonesia & East Timor
by Carmen Trotta
The Catholic Worker (October-November, 1998)

November 12 marks the seventh anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre perpetrated by the Indonesian military as part and parcel of .its twenty4wo year, illegal occupation of East Timor. Like so many others, the bloody event and its 270 corpses might have been erased from history by the propaganda of principalities and powers. Fortunately, a few foreign journalists managed !to breach the wall of Indonesian security. They filmed and reported the massacre to the world. Critically, two of these were American. Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio and Allan Nairn of The Nation magazine have, for the past seven years, unmasked and contested our government's crucial support for Indonesia's continual mauling of East Timor.

Given the fall of the Suharto regime and ongoing turmoil in Indonesia, along with a US Congress badgered by a tiny group of activists (the East Timor Action Network-ETAN), the people of East Timor are closer to independence than ever.

For four hundred years before the Indonesian occupation, -the tiny half-island of East Timor suffered a cruel Portuguese colonization. The rest of the Indonesian archipelago was colonized by the Dutch.

The Indonesians ousted the Dutch in 1947, and one Indonesian general, Sukarno, consolidated power by the early 1-950s. A leader of the non-aligned movement, he became a target of the CIA In 1958, the CIA orchestrated a large-scale, military insurgency operation in Indonesia, which failed. This was followed by a coup in 1965, which led to the rise of General Suharto, wire was supported by the US. Provided by US intelligence with a hit list of over 5,000 names, Gen. Suharto  silenced all dissent with audacious violence, killing an estimated 500,000 to one million Indonesians.

Greed and Violence
Decolonization wasn't initiated in East Timor until 1974. Ethnically, religiously, linguistically and culturally distinct from Indonesia, East Timor seemed on the road to independence. Even a June, 1974 letter from the Indonesian foreign minister to Jose Ramos Horta (a leader of the largest Timorese political party, FRETELIN) affirmed independence as a "right...with no exception for the people of East Timor."

By the next year, however, Gen. Suharto began a series of incursions into East Timor Western states and the "free press" were not interested in the turmoil of what was regarded as a tiny, exotic backwater. They were extremely disinterested in offending Gen. Suharto, who had created a feeding frenzy of corporate investment in resource-rich Indonesia, then the fifth most populous nation. As Noam Chomsky details in The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: "By 1973, foreign interests controlled 59% of capital invested in forestry, 96% in mining, 35% in industry, 47% in hotels and tourism and 33% in agriculture and fisheries." Between 1965 and 1975, the US helped Indonesia become the third largest borrower at the World Bank, while providing about 90% of its arms.

So, a vast majority of the press accepted Indonesia's encroachment uncritically, while FRETILIN's repeated appeals to foreign governments to send observers were refused on the grounds that Portugal retained sovereignty. International acquiescence was finalized by the US. On December 6, 1975, Gen. Suharto met with President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who apparently gave the green light for a full-scale invasion. It commenced the very next day. Although it was immediately condemned by the UN, the US undermined any further measures. In his memoir, A Dangerous Place, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then US Ambassador to the UN, actually boasted that "The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

Within months, the State Department and the American media took the position that East Timor was effectively part of Indonesia. As tens of thousands continued to perish throughout 1977, coverage of the carnage nearly vanished. The New York Times gave no coverage to East Timor that entire year.

However, in 1978, the Carter administration doubled military supplies to Indonesia, including attack aircraft, which, along with napalm, would dislodge the Timorese from their mountain communities and slowly dampen the resistance. By the mid-1980s, about half of the Timorese population were being held in Indonesian "relocation camps," wracked by starvation and disease. By the late 1980s, 200,000 East Timorese, about one-third of the population, had perished. More, a transmigration policy was enforced, granting land holdings in East Timor to an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Indonesians.

According to Miranda Sissons of the East Timor Human Rights Center, many Timorese women allege that they were surreptitiously sterilized in hospitals administered by Indonesia. Consequently, the fear of using these hospitals has given East Timor the highest infant mortality rate in the world.

The Church Responds
All the while, human rights groups were forbidden to enter East Timor. Indeed, every organization and institution in East Timor was crushed, save one: the Catholic Church. At the time of the invasion, less than a third of the Timorese were practicing Catholics, despite four hundred years of the Church's colonial presence. Notably, however, more than half of the Timorese clergy were native born.

After the invasion, the Timorese flocked to the only space where they had a modicum of freedom, and the Church began to respond to needs of the people. Bishop Martinho Da Costa Lopes, of Dili  (capital of East Timor), became an insistent opponent of Gen. Suharto's repression. In 1983, he was removed and replaced with a native Timorese who was expected to be more compliant. However, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo would become even more outspoken. Indeed, in 1989, he secreted a letter to the UN declaring, "We are dying as a nation and a people," and calling for a UN-sponsored referendum on self-determination.

That same year, Pope John Paul II visited Indonesia and East Timor. At the Mass in East Timor, the Pope maintained a resounding public silence on political matters. But, the strength and size of the Timorese Church was evidenced by the enormous turn out. East Timor had become 90% Catholic. At the end of the Mass, banners were dropped demanding an end to the occupation and a free East Timor. The Pope saw the military beating the protesters and dropped his head into his hands. Some of the protesters took refuge in Bishop Belo's residence. Forced to turn them in, the Bishop exacted a promise that they not be tortured. Though their lives were spared, this promise was not kept.

In 1991, a Portuguese parliamentary delegation was set to visit East Timor. The UN, never having accepted the legitimacy of the Indonesian occupation, still considered Portugal to be the administering agent of East Timor. Portugal maintained that a UN-supervised referendum on self-determination was the proper course to take.

In preparation for the visit, Indonesian security dug mass graves that they promised would be filled by those who took the opportunity to demonstrate. Nevertheless, the underground organized. Some took refuge and made plans in the Motael Church in Dili. A small group of foreign journalists also came to town, including Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn.

According to Allan Nairn, pressure from the United States and Australia led the Portuguese to suddenly call off their visit. The Indonesian military then moved to crush the underground. They raided the Motael Church, desecrated the church and tabernacle, and dragged out the activists, murdering one at point-blank range. The last sanctuary of the people, the Church, had finally been assaulted. Outraged, the people planned a mass demonstration to commemorate the murder -- a memorial Mass and procession from the church to the Santa Cruz Cemetery.

On November 12, 1991, a full-scale mobilization of the military did not deter over 1,000 Timorese from walking in the procession. At the cemetery, the air of defiance turned celebratory, but only momentarily. The military came marching up the procession route and, suddenly, the cemetery's high walls formed a cul-de-sac. Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn moved to the front to implore the soldiers not to fire, hoping that the presence of foreign journalism would deter them. But, the column  marched right by, and the American-supplied M-16s began firing.

Both journalists were assaulted, kicked and pummeled with rifle butts. Allan Nairn suffered a fractured skull and both would probably have been killed if Amy Goodman hadn't convinced the  soldiers that they were Americans. They were able to escape, but 270 others were murdered; some were pursued to their hospital beds and murdered there. (According to Bishop Belo, several hundred more were murdered in the succeeding weeks.) Fortunately, Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman reported the chilling truth and galvanized activists into ETAN, to inform and lobby Congress.

Congressional Action
Meanwhile, the Bush administration privately assured Gen. Suharto that "We do not believe that friends should abandon friends in times of adversity," and proposed to double Indonesia's military aid. Stunningly, in 1992, the activists won. Congress voted to cut off International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds to Indonesia. A corner had been turned and a small group in Congress took up the cause. Over the next few years, contrary to the wishes of the Bush and Clinton administrations, unstinting support for Indonesia was incrementally impeded. Most notably, in 1994, Congress passed the first-ever limitation on arms sales to Indonesia, banning the sale of small arms until significant progress was made in the area of human rights in East Timor and Indonesia.

In response to this activism on East Timor, according to Allan Nairn, "Suharto... and the big US firms... launched a lavishly funded political counter-attack... a Suharto-corporate-US Government front and lobbying group... with backing from... the Lippo Group, Chevron, Texaco, Freeport McMoran and a host of former State Department, Pentagon and CIA officials."

Then, in 1996, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos Horta (in exile since 1975), putting the issue on the world stage again. That same year, Congress banned the sale of armored vehicles to Indonesia.

In March of 1998, Allan Nairn launched a blockbuster that would breach the pages of The New York Times. Writing for The Nation, he revealed that, contrary to the stated intent of Congress, the Clinton administration had continued and greatly increased the training of Indonesian soldiers through forty-one Joint Combined Exchange Training exercises. Moreover, the US-trained troops were demonstrably the worst abusers of human rights in East Timor. Congresspersons active on East Timor were genuinely outraged.

Finally, the Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia. Massive economic hardship led to demonstrations against Gen. Suharto. Student protesters were threatened by the Minister of Defense, Wiranto, with "a Tiananmen," to no avail. Among the pro-democracy forces in Indonesia, the vast majority are in favor of self-determination for East Timor.

Since the fall of Gen. Suharto, President Habibie has spoken of some "autonomy" for East Timor, with no mention of a referendum on self-determination. Some Indonesian troops have been removed from East Timor, but these could be rapidly reintroduced. Undoubtedly, the US will continue its close ties with the Indonesian military and attempt to maintain another collaborationist regime for international capitalism.

East Timor, however, may suddenly slip the noose, and be allowed an honest referendum, as the "new" Indonesia needs to prove its reformist nature. International and grass-roots pressure will be critical. Finally, this summer, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for an internationally supervised referendum for East Timor. That very fickle institution needs to be held to account.

Secular Guides
One wishes the American Catholic community would show a little parochialism and get a little angry about abuses "against our own." Instead, we are left to marvel at the work of a few investigative journalists and a group of largely secular activists who fight the good fight, who persist against all odds, and, on precious rare occasion--prevail.


We wish to thank Allan Nairn for a taped interview that informed this piece, and to encourage our readers to support the East Timor Action Network and to read its newsletter, Estafeta. You can call or write: East Timor Action Network/US, PO Box 1182, White Plains, NY 10602, (914) 428-7299

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