|Subject: Time for a U.S. Truth Commission
on East Timor
Published on Friday, May 17, 2002 by CommonDreams.org
Time for a U.S. Truth Commission on East Timor by Joseph Nevins
East Timor today stands on the brink of independence, less than three
years after it seemed to be on the edge of annihilation. But while the
United Nation's formal transfer of power to an independent East Timorese
government on May 20 is certainly cause for celebration, it should also be
an occasion for reflection on the reasons for East Timor's recent horrors.
Well over 200,000 East Timorese--about one-third of the pre-invasion
population--lost their lives as a result of Indonesia's Dec. 7, 1975
invasion and subsequent occupation. Indonesia's military could not have
carried out its crimes without the assistance of numerous countries--most
significantly that of the United States. Such complicity, along with
Washington's debt to the people of East Timor and its obligations to the
American public, highlights the need for Congress to establish an
independent commission to fully investigate and publicize the U.S. role.
President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger met
with Indonesia's dictator, Suharto, on Dec. 6, 1975. Suharto was eager to
gain American authorization for the planned annexation of East Timor given
his country's heavy dependence on U.S. weaponry, which was limited by
treaty to defensive use. According to formerly classified meeting
transcripts, Ford and Kissinger gave the green light for the invasion. In
doing so, they aided and abetted an international crime against peace and
violated U.S. law.
In early 1976, an unnamed State Department official explained why
Washington condoned Jakarta's actions: "We regard Indonesia as a
friendly, non-aligned nation--a nation we do a lot of business with."
Similar logic governed the thinking of all subsequent administrations.
Washington thus provided billions of dollars in weaponry, military
training, and economic assistance--as well as diplomatic cover--to Jakarta
during its almost 24-year occupation.
As a final act of state terrorism, the Indonesian military (TNI) and
its "militia" proxies launched a systematic campaign of revenge
in Sept. 1999 following an overwhelming pro-independence vote in a United
Nations-run referendum. In approximately three weeks, they destroyed 70
percent of the territory's buildings and infrastructure, forcibly deported
about 250,000 people to Indonesia, and raped untold numbers of women--in
addition to massacring at least 2,000.
It was not until Sept. 11, 1999--one week into the final rampage--that
President Bill Clinton ended all U.S. support for the TNI. Washington's
ambassador to Jakarta at the time, Stapleton Roy, explained why a
president who had once called U.S. policy toward East Timor
"unconscionable" was so resistant to ending American support for
resource-rich Indonesia. "The dilemma is that Indonesia matters and
East Timor doesn't," he stated.
It was such thinking that allowed the slaughter in East Timor to go
largely unreported in the United States through the early 1990s. But even
as coverage picked up in the mid- and late 1990s, press reports and
editorials almost never discussed U.S. complicity in the invasion and
occupation. The same is true today.
The failure to compel Washington to account for its own misdeeds is one
reason why it often disregards international norms and mechanisms, and
justifies such behavior in a self-righteous manner. Washington's ongoing
refusal to provide Haiti unhindered access to files confiscated by the
U.S. military during the 1994 invasion, its use of intimidating tactics to
ensure the victory of its favored candidate during the November elections
in Nicaragua, and its undermining of the International Criminal Court are
just a few of the recent examples.
"If done well a truth commission can change how a country
understands and accepts its past, and through that, if it is lucky, helps
to fundamentally shape its future," asserts Priscilla Hayner, author
of Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity.
Truth-telling processes can lead to a more informed, vigilant, and active
citizenry--an indispensable component of any democracy worthy of its name.
In November 1999, Richard Holbrooke, at the time the Clinton
administration's U.N. ambassador, traveled to Jakarta. "You cannot
deal with the future unless you also come to terms with the past," he
told Indonesian leaders in reference to the TNI's scorched-earth
withdrawal from East Timor. "Accountability is one of the two or
three keys to democracy."
East Timor's independence marks an auspicious time to begin putting
these lofty words into practice here at home. For reasons of the health of
American democracy, the universality of international law, and the
inherent worth of all human lives, East Timor--and the U.S. Role in the
country's plight--must matter. Congress should ensure that Washington
allows full disclosure of, and atones for its role in East Timor's
suffering. Only in this manner can the United States begin redeeming
itself for its complicity in one of recent history's most horrific
Joseph Nevins is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of
California, Berkeley. He is the author of Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise
of the "Illegal Alien" and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico
Boundary. He is currently working on a book about East Timor's
"ground zero" in 1999.
Order Books by
Joe Nevins (writing under Matthew Jardine) on East Timor
East Timor: Genocide in Paradise
By Matthew Jardine. Basics that Americans should know. 95 pp.
Odonian/Common Courage Press, U.S., 1999. (New Edition) $8
East Timor's Unfinished Struggle: Inside the
By Constancio Pinto and Matthew Jardine.
Preface by Jose Ramos Horta. Foreword by Allan
Nairn, A riveting
first-hand account of the East Timorese struggle.
292 pp. South End Press, US, 1996. $16
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