Subject: Op-ed: U.S. Must Examine Its Role in New Nation's Bloody Past

U.S. Must Examine Its Role in New Nation's Bloody Past

By Ben Terrall, Pacific News Service, May 20, 2002

As the world's newest nation looks forward, the U.S. must look back at its complicity in East Timor's bloody past. Recently declassified documents reveal that the United States gave a "green light" to Indonesian dictator Suharto before his invasion of East Timor. It's no time, writes PNS contributor Ben Terrall, to renew military aid to Indonesia.

As it celebrates its hard-won independence, East Timor, the world's newest nation, fully deserves the congratulations it is receiving from the United States. But along with the praise should come an apology for Washington's support for the brutal, 24-year Indonesian military (TNI) occupation of East Timor, which killed 200,000 East Timorese.

East Timor's inspiring birth -- and the recent release of documents revealing U.S. approval Indonesia's 1975 military invasion -- should challenge the gathering Washington consensus to renew military aid to Indonesia, cut two years ago when the TNI laid waste to East Timor.

Portuguese colonialism in East Timor was drawing to a close in 1974. It became clear that the half-island nation (West Timor was already part of Indonesia) would opt for a government prioritizing literacy and health care for all. Jakarta feared such a development would inspire those yearning for self-determination in areas of Indonesia proper. Exploiting the language of the Cold War, Indonesian generals attacked East Timorese aspirations as a communist menace. Declassified documents recently released by the National Security Archive show that in a meeting in Jakarta on Dec. 6, 1975, then-U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger assured Indonesian dictator Suharto that America supported his plans to invade East Timor.

Kissinger told Suharto, "We understand your problem and the need to move quickly, but I am only saying that it would be better if it were done after we returned." Shortly after Kissinger and Ford left Indonesian airspace, the Suharto regime attacked East Timor's capital Dili with massive aerial bombing and ground troops. Ninety percent of the weapons used were from the United States.

A State Department official explained this support in early 1976, noting that "we regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation -- a nation we do a lot of business with." From Ford to Clinton, Washington consistently sided with Indonesia's rulers, providing key military, economic and diplomatic support.

Ford's representative to the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, admitted in his memoirs that he worked to block implementation of U.N. resolutions condemning the occupation, as "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it took (on East Timor)." U.S. officials discredited reports of horrific atrocities in the occupied territory, and mainstream U.S. media followed suit.

In the 1990s, U.S. activists sparked grassroots and congressional pressure against U.S. policy on Indonesia, and blocked some military training of the TNI and weapons transfers. International solidarity pressure also contributed to Suharto's successor B.J. Habibie allowing a U.N.-administered referendum to take place on East Timor's future.

The East Timorese resistance, mainly a non-violent clandestine front, ultimately triumphed over Indonesian military-backed violence and intimidation, as the population voted overwhelming for independence on August 30, 1999. The TNI and its militia proxies responded by killing at least 2,000 people, raping hundreds of women and girls, displacing three-quarters of the population, and destroying over 70 percent of the territory's infrastructure.

Through intelligence intercepts, the United States knew of plans for this scorched-earth campaign, but declined to discourage such mass violence by threatening a cut-off in military or economic aid. After a week of television images of the destruction, however, grassroots and congressional pressure forced Bill Clinton to cut military ties to Jakarta.

In January 2000, a U.N. commission recommended that the TNI be brought before an international human rights tribunal on East Timor. Such a court has not been formed, and apologists for Jakarta point to the Indonesian ad hoc Human Rights Court on East Timor as an adequate substitute. But that body's mandate is limited to examining atrocities in only three of East Timor's 13 districts, in just two months of 1999. Only a few mid-ranking officers will be tried, while the systematic planning and execution of 1999's devastation will remain unexamined and massacres committed over the previous 24 years will be ignored.

Sidney Jones, the Indonesia director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, reports that, "In the sloppiness of their work, the prosecutors have not only helped the defendants, they have trivialized the whole concept of crimes against humanity."

The Bush administration should not be allowed to follow through on current plans to restart aid to the TNI via $8 million for training a counter-terrorism unit and $8 million more for a domestic peacekeeping force. Congress must push the administration instead to support an international tribunal on East Timor, as called for by House Concurrent Resolution 60 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 9 (which have yet to be voted on). And members of Congress should also begin investigations of the U.S. role in East Timor's bloody past.

Terrall ( is coordinator of the San Francisco chapter of the East Timor Action Network. 

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