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Indonesia steps up U.S. Outreach Campaign

by Charles Scheiner, May 25, 1994

For several years, U.S. public awareness has been growing about East Timor and human rights and environmental abuses in Indonesia. Indonesian military and economic interests, and their supporters here, feel beleaguered by public and governmental pressure.

Unsatisfied with the results of professional public relations by Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller, Indonesia’s American corporate supporters are beginning a new approach. They are enlisting leading American politicians, businesspeople, journalists and academics in the quest for greater commerce between the United States and Indonesia.

The kickoff of the campaign was a conference entitled “Indonesia, the United States and the World Today” held at the Asia Society in New York City on April 13-15, 1994. This was preceded by a private conference in Washington, and followed by public events in Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle. Other cities are scheduled for this fall.

The events were organized by Asia Society, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies(Jakarta), the United States-Indonesia Society and the American-Indonesian Chamber of Commerce. Corporate underwriters included Bell Atlantic International, Freeport-McMoRan, Mobil Oil, TEXACO, American Express Bank, J.P. Morgan, and Union Texas Petroleum Holdings.

More than two dozen high-level Indonesians were brought over for the events, which included the U.S. ambassador to Jakarta and Jakarta’s ambassadors to the U.S. and U.N. Foreign Minister Ali Alatas keynoted the New York conference, and ETAN/US picketed outside as he spoke.

In New York and Seattle, ETAN activists attended the meetings, asking questions at appropriate times. But even without us, Indonesia’s supporters are very aware of the East Timorese blot on the relationship. Many speakers talked about East Timor, the IMET cut, the blockage of the F-5 resale, and the threatened revocation of trade preferences. They repeatedly bemoaned the lack of American public and Congressional awareness of Indonesia -- one panelist claimed that everything Congress knows about Indonesia they hear from Fretilin.

Others referred to the 1940’s as a model to be repeated. At that time, Indonesian nationalists worked Congress and Church groups to build American support for independence. This effort paid off, as the U.S. encouraged the Netherlands to get out of Indonesia -- in sharp contrast with our policy toward the French in Indochina. One audience member asked if there might be a difference in American attitudes toward a struggling independence movement and a 29-year-old entrenched military regime controlling 200 million people, but the Indonesian experts thought not.

Alatas states his mind

“Jim-Bob” Moffett, president and CEO of Freeport-McMoRan (an American mining company heavily involved in Indonesia and West Papua) introduced his golfing buddy and business partner, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. Alatas spoke of the role Indonesia has played for regional peace, but his main focus was on economic development “to deny subversion the troughs of poverty and social inequities that are its fertile spawning grounds.” U.S.-Indonesia trade is close to $8.5 billion annually, and hopes for the future are lucrative.

Alatas did mention East Timor: “The persistently slanted news items that you may have occasionally read about East Timor cannot begin to give you an idea of the tremendous range of issues and activities of common interest [in U.S.-Indonesia relations]. ...The reality of Indonesia is more substantial, more complex and deserving of a more comprehensive appreciation than the often distorted and blinkered view of it as has been projected by some of the local and international media.”

While expressing support for universal human rights concepts, Alatas rejected “imposing human rights implementation as a political condition to economic and development cooperation” as “wholly counterproductive” to both human rights and development.” He pointed out that “We Indonesians have adopted a political and economic system that is rooted in our culture, traditions and values ... that stress harmony and consensus and the obligations of the individual to the nation and state which in turn are duty-bound to protect and promote the rights and welfare of its individual citizens.”

I asked the first question: whether the desire for Indonesia to pursue its own values and customs is “inconsistent with the national identity of East Timor, which has never been allowed to determine its own way of doing things.” His answer: “It’s not so inconsistent as you have put it because, for your information, the East Timorese people, the overwhelming majority of them, have decided what they wanted. And it is only a very small, but vocal minority, living abroad, you can count them on the fingers of both hands, politically agitating for their minority view.” He blamed Portugal for creating the problem, and claimed that “What our political opponents and our detractors like to describe as Indonesia invading, annexing, and occupying another country is in reality ... assisting as restrainedly as possible in a decolonization process that unfortunately went tragically wrong.”

Allan Nairn asked the third and last question, pointing out that Indonesia had killed 200,000 in East Timor, and describing the Dili massacre. Alatas responded condescendingly: “I know that unfortunately you had a very unfortunate experience in East Timor.... And therefore I can understand that you have a certain rancor, perhaps, against Indonesia.... And that therefore, perhaps, your views cannot but be slanted. But I’m very sorry to see that a man of your intelligence, a man of your background, continues to pursue something against all reasonability and rationality of even the smallest balance or logic. Because you continue to rattle off at every meeting, wherever you can be, these statistics, like 200,000 killed. So many killed. Indonesia invading.”

Alatas called the 200,000 figure “a myth”, an “unsavory numbers game” number that was concocted from the beginning, and through mutual citation played up and up until now every single newspaper, everyone who talks about East Timor glibly continues to cite 200,000, 200,000. There is not a single shred of evidence going into that direction.” When he claimed that there had been a referendum in East Timor, Nairn responded:

Nairn: “There never was a referendum.”

Alatas: “There was.”

Nairn: “What referendum was there? There was never a referendum. You know that.”

Alatas: “No, No, No Mr. Nairn. Mr. Nairn. Of course there was not a referendum as a Western referendum. But it was a kind of referendum which the Portuguese themselves were going to do...”

Nairn: “I interviewed some of the people who participated in the meeting to which you refer. And they refer to being brought in by the Indonesian military and told that they were to vote for integration.”

Alatas: “Who are they? Who are they? Who are they? Bring them to us and let them face those who speak differently about it. Then it’s a fair investigation. But ” (interrupted)

Nairn: “Well one of them has already been brought to you. He’s now been jailed by your military.”

Alatas: “You know, you tell us things that cannot be given evidence, you cannot prove. You just say some people say this, some people say that. It’s a very easy and very cheap way to accuse someone, Mr. Nairn. Very easy.”

State Department avoids responsibility

The next speaker was Thomas C. Hubbard, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Hubbard spoke warmly of Indonesia, with passing mentions of East Timor, democracy, human rights, and labor rights. “However, I would like to emphasize today ­ and we think Indonesians understand this ­ that when we raise these issues, we do so as a friend, and we endeavor to work constructively with those both in and outside the Government, to encourage improvements.” His main concern was Indonesia as a “Big Emerging Market.”

Former Ambassador James Holdridge of International Harvester objected to the IMET and F-5 cuts, and urged closer ties with the Indonesian military: “It might be worthwhile to reward a country which has done so well in many other aspects of the relationships, in maintaining regional security, and peacekeeping and so on, rather than continuing to press down.”

Hubbard, speaking for the administration, agreed. “Let me point out that it was not the administration, was not the Bush administration, has not been the Clinton administration that has blocked the extension of International Military Education and Training or IMET to Indonesia ­ it was Congress. ... We share their concern about the incident in East Timor, we agree that the behaviour of some of the military there was deplorable and that the tragic event has not yet been satisfactorily dealt with or explained, but we nonetheless feel that our interests in Indonesia lie in having close relations with the military, and in trying through IMET and our other contacts to help the Indonesian military develop into a highly professional organization that respects democratic and human rights.” Hubbard also agreed “that we should not be blocking sale of modern military equipment to Indonesia” but that the Administration does “think there should be some constraints ... on the kinds of weapons that can be used for crowd control, riot control, and the like in situations like East Timor, but by and large we agree that Indonesia should have a modern, professional armed forces and that we should be prepared to sell the kind of equipment that they need to do that.”

Holdridge rejoined that “the problem is that the administration has simply not fought hard enough with the Congress” and Hubbard and most of the audience agreed.

The Asia Society Conference is the start of a multi-million campaign to improve Indonesia’s public image in the United States, initiated and organized by corporations with billions of dollars at stake. Supporters of East Timor have our work cut out for us, trying to keep the truth visible behind the barrage of disinformation and propaganda. It should not be too difficult -- the moral, historical, legal and political facts of East Timor -- but we need to make the effort. ETAN will try to let you know about events in your area, and please keep us posted about things you discover, and actions you take. Only a few people can be very effective in reminding Indonesia and its profiteers that there is a cost to be paid for invasion, genocide and continuing occupation.