Subject: Ford's forgotten legacy in East Timor

The Salt Lake Tribune (Utah) January 6, 2007


Ford's forgotten legacy in East Timor

By Patrick Thronson

Americans lose part of the past in an obvious sense when a former president dies: A living link to our history is extinguished. We also lose part of the past, however, in the blissful forgetfulness that ensues with respect to darker aspects of a president's legacy.

The recent avalanche of glowing punditry about President Gerald Ford contained hardly any mention of his central role in supporting the Indonesian government's brutal campaign against the people of East Timor during the 1970s.

Speaking ill of the dead, of course, is generally considered to be in poor taste, since the dead aren't around to defend themselves. This taboo loses its force, however, in cases where the historical record leaves so little to be defended.

Imagine President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meeting with Sudanese President Ahmad al-Bashir, assuring him the U.S. understands his policy in Darfur, and providing arms for the Janjaweed militias to use against the Darfurian population, and you will have a rough idea of what President Ford and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did in Indonesia in 1975.

East Timor is a country in Southeast Asia that borders Indonesia and lies about 400 miles north of Australia. Colonized by Portugal in the 16th century, East Timor declared its independence from that country in late November of 1975.

Indonesia invaded East Timor nine days later in an entirely unprovoked act of territorial expansion. At least 60,000 Timorese were killed during the first year of the conflict. From 1975 through 1999, approximately 200,000 Timorese (the country has a present-day population of less than 1 million) died through military action, starvation and disease.

Tens of thousands of women were subjected to rape, sexual slavery, forced abortions and involuntary sterilization.

One day before the invasion commenced, Ford and Kissinger met with Indonesian President Suharto in Jakarta. The National Security Council had informed both Ford and Kissinger five months previously that Indonesia was planning an invasion of East Timor.

According to transcripts available online at the National Security Archive, Suharto broached the subject of East Timor, saying, "We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action" against the country. Ford replied, "We will understand and will not press you on this issue. We understand the problem you have and the intentions you have."

Kissinger assured Suharto that "Whatever you do, however, we will try to handle it in the best way possible." (Kissinger has repeatedly denied having any substantive discussions with Suharto about East Timor.)

The Ford administration immediately announced a doubling of military aid to Indonesia. (In fact, American military aid to the Suharto regime only ceased after Indonesian forces massacred nearly 200 civilians in a Catholic church on the island in 1999.)

The Ford administration directed Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then ambassador to the United Nations, to stymie the agency's efforts to halt the slaughter and coordinate humanitarian relief. Rather than protest against Indonesian aggression, Ford sent Suharto a package of golf balls in appreciation for his hospitality during Ford's visit.

In short, Kissinger and Ford supported and helped enable the Indonesian government's brutal oppression of the East Timorese. Thanks to the Indonesian occupation, East Timor suffers from crushing poverty, having the lowest per capita gross domestic product of any country in the world.

It is only beginning to be able to address the period's tragic legacy of mass death and exploitation.

Of course, it is entirely appropriate for Americans to commemorate President Ford's service to our nation.

But this commemoration should be mature, based upon a sober assessment of Ford's achievements and failings, and should not promote a comforting mythology that falsifies our history.

* PATRICK THRONSON is communication director in the office of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. The views expressed here are his alone.

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

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