Subject: Winters: US Media Servile to the Last in Reporting Timor Struggle

US Media Servile to the Last in Reporting Timor Struggle

By Jeffrey A. Winters (Chicago, May 21, 2002)

The birth of East Timor as a new nation was described in glowing, even triumphant, tones in the US print media. Timor offers the sort of classic uplift story Americans love to consume -- of fighting against the odds, of epic human struggles. President Clinton referred almost Biblically to "blood and sacrifice" in the pursuit of freedom.

Indonesia's military, the TNI, was an easy target for the role of "bad guy." The 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation was described across the US media as "brutal."

But the American reading public would have to search wide and dig deep to find much accurate reporting of the appalling U.S. government's role in either the long suffering or the eventual triumph of the Timorese.

Every article contained the obligatory one-paragraph history of the Indonesian invasion. But not one bothered to mention how thoroughly complicit the U.S. was in allowing the tragic events to occur in the first place.

A May 20 editorial in the New York Times gave the impression that the U.S. was a distant observer of the events of 1975, merely making the "mistake" of approving of the invasion. The uncomfortable fact is that President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger met with President Suharto in Jakarta hours before the attack and made it clear the U.S. was supportive of the plan to invade. Suharto had held his generals back until he could get this crucial U.S. assurance from the very top.

The fuller piece of the same day in the Times by Jane Perlez does not even bother to mention the destructive U.S. role. If anything, the U.S. appears valiant and noble for sending an international peace-keeping force to Timor after the Indonesian military oversaw the destruction of everything in sight.

The disquieting fact is that Bill Clinton, President Bush's delegate to the independence ceremony, hesitated until the last possible moment to safeguard Timor's referendum -- sending U.S. troops only for noncombat missions the Australians led the call to stop the carnage at the hands of the Indonesians and their proxy militia.

It was obvious on the eve of the referendum that leaving security in the hands of the Indonesian armed forces, whose proven track record of brutality in Timor was not in dispute, was a formula for disaster. Western intelligence agencies knew the Indonesians were training militia for intimidation before the vote and for destruction afterward if it went against the Indonesians.

And still the Clinton administration refused to play hardball with the generals in Jakarta by insisting that a U.N. force handle security. Nearly three thousand innocent Timorese perished in 1999 as a result of this cowardice, adding to the "blood and sacrifice" Clinton referred to as the price the Timorese paid for their freedom.

Buried in the final paragraph of a May 20th piece in the Washington Post by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a quote by Clinton at the ceremony opening the new U.S. embassy in the Timorese capital of Dili. "I am very honored to be here because we were so involved in the struggle of the people of East Timor and so supportive of this day," Clinton remarked.

This is a distortion of shocking proportions even for Bill Clinton. The U.S. was certainly involved in the struggle, but on the side of the occupying Indonesians for nearly the whole 24 years from the invasion until the violent withdrawal of TNI forces.

Had the U.S. been "supportive" of self-determination when the Timorese really needed it -- before not after the rampages of 1999 -- East Timor would not be in the unenviable position of trying to rebuild their country from the Afghanistan-like rubble left behind by the departing Indonesians.

Clinton's statement was apparently too much even for the sevile western media. In response to a question, he allowed that U.S. support for the TNI "made us not as sensitive to the suffering of the people of East Timor as we should have been. I don't think we can defend everything we did."

At a time when Americans are deeply confused about why many people around the world laugh outloud when U.S. officials claim America stands for justice, it would have been useful to have such admissions toward the front of the article rather than buried in the last paragraph on the inside page.

The U.S. rhetoric of supportiveness rings even more hollow when one considers that the Bush administration and the U.N are applying no serious pressure on Jakarta to bring the TNI top brass responsible for the mayhem in Timor to justice for crimes against humanity.

Mind you, we're only talking about putting on trial those who killed that last 3,000 Timorese in 1999, not those responsible for the deaths of the 200,000 from 1975 forward. No one even mentions the architects of the murderous invasion -- names like General Benny Murdani or President Suharto, much less key enablers like Henry Kissinger or President Ford.

Ad hoc tribunals underway in Jakarta are poised to deliver weak sentences, if not outright acquittals, to lower ranking soldiers and officers for the atrocities of 1999 in Timor. And when they do, the U.N. will not follow through on empty threats of international tribunals to go after and hold accountable the perpetrators.

On the contrary, hawks in the Bush administration like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz are already touting the kangaroo trials in Jakarta as solid evidence of TNI reforms. What the administration wants to do is pour lots of weapons and training into the laps of Jakarta's generals to entice them to help "fight terrorism."

The problem with this plan is that the lion's share of terror in Indonesia occurs at the hands of the military. As for fighting supposed Al Qaeda cells and violent religious extremists, sympathetic elements of the military, both active and retired (often a hairsplitting distinction in Indonesia), play cynically with these "terrorists" in the pursuit of various domestic political agendas.

While most U.S. papers glossed over U.S. complicity in the horrors of East Timor with soft-focus references to "tacit support" for the invasion and subsequent occupation (the Baltimore Sun even repeated the absurd justification from Suharto of a possible Communist threat from the tiny half-island), a few were more honest with the U.S. reading public.

A dispatch by the Associated Press from the festivities in Dili dared to name names, noting that the Indonesian invasion was carried out with the "support of then-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger -- who visited Jakarta on the eve of the attack. Successive U.S. administrations backed Indonesian dictator Suharto in his crackdown against the rebels."

The Boston Globe deserves credit for a level of completeness and accuracy that the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post failed miserably to provide.

The Globe's editorial coverage of the birth of East Timor pointed out that the U.S. owed a "particular moral debt" to the Timorese because the U.S. gave the green light to "a nightmare of brutality that killed off more than 200,000 East Timorese," a third of the population.

The good people of Boston could read on to discover that, "Clinton himself has a certain culpability for failing to prevent or stop in time the vengeful campaign of murder, rape, and destruction that Indonesian military officers loosed upon the East Timorese after the people voted overwhelmingly on Aug., 31, 1999, to be free of Indonesian rule."

The Globe describes the "sorry record of international indifference" to Timor that parallels how the world stood by as crimes against humanity unfolded in Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995. And it is not just the U.S. that bears responsibility in Timor: "UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has its own share of guilt for not heeding pleas for protection and warnings of bloodshed that were addressed to it before the 1999 Timorese vote for independence.'

By far the most truthful reporting was by Michael Richardson in the pages of the International Herald Tribune. Sadly for Americans, his piece was not picked up and run domestically by either the New York Times or the Washington Post, which share ownership of the IHT.

Richardson writes that Kissinger and Ford did not merely tacitly support Suharto's international thuggery, but actually "helped to encourage the Indonesian takeover."

He adds that "although Kissinger long denied it, declassified U.S. documents released in December prove that he and Ford, during a visit to Jakarta on Dec. 6, 1975, gave President Suharto of Indonesia a green light to send his military into East Timor."

Richardson points out that this U.S. executive approval, referred to in State Department circles as the "big wink," contravened a congressional ban on Indonesia's use of American military equipment for anything but defensive operations.

He then quotes from the historical record. According to the U.S. State Department transcript of the Dec. 6 Jakarta meeting, Suharto told Ford and Kissinger: "We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action [in Timor]."

"We will understand and will not press you on the issue," Ford replied. And with these words, the fate of hundreds of thousands was sealed.

Kissinger, ever the thinker, applied his considerable intellect to the messy details of how to paper this death deal over with political niceties. In the transcript he said that while Indonesia should appreciate that the use of U.S.-made arms could create problems, "it depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation."

The secretary of state added to Suharto: "It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly. We would be able to influence the reaction in America if whatever happens happens after we return."

Richardson reports that "Washington's initial response to the invasion of East Timor was to delay new arms sales to Indonesia pending an administrative review by the State Department, ostensibly to determine whether Jakarta had violated the bilateral agreement stipulating that U.S.-supplied arms could only be used for defensive purposes. But military equipment already in the pipeline continued to flow, and during the six-month review period, the United States made four new offers of military equipment sales to Indonesia. They included maintenance and spare parts for the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco aircraft, designed specifically for counterinsurgency operations and used by the Indonesian military in East Timor."

Kissinger, who in a more just world would be charged for crimes against humanity for his involvement in "international terrorism," was furious that staffers at State had documented his role in Timor.

Richardson writes, "the administrative delay and the subsequent offers were the subject of a meeting on Dec. 18, 1975, between Kissinger and his advisers in which he chastised his staff for writing a memo recommending that arms sales to Indonesia be cut off because Jakarta had violated the end-use agreement."

For the next 23 years, he writes, "from Ford to Clinton, successive U.S. administrations consistently backed Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, providing Jakarta with diplomatic cover as well as billions of dollars in weapons, military training and economic assistance."

None of this important historical perspective appeared in domestic U.S. press reports celebrating East Timor's long struggle against long odds -- a land of less than a million people fighting against the weight of more than half a billion in Indonesia, the United States, Britain, and Australia.

And the next time Americans naively ask why others around the globe rejoice in tragedies like 9-11, it is worth recalling the lessons of East Timor. It is not so much that "they" don't know and understand Americans, but that Americans have too often failed to hold a flat mirror to themselves.


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