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ETAN - and the peoples of East Timor and Indonesia - Will Miss Senator Feingold

by Diane Farsetta

When Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold lost his re-election bid Nov. 2, it didn’t only sadden U.S. progressives. The people of East Timor and Indonesia lost a strong ally in their struggle for democracy.

In late 1992, as Feingold was campaigning to join the U.S. Senate, East Timor suffered perhaps its most infamous massacre. The occupying Indonesian military fired on a peaceful pro-independence protest, killing more than 270 people. While the massacre received international attention -- thanks to the presence of Western journalists, including Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn -- East Timor remained an obscure issue in the United States.

But, half a world away, Feingold took notice.


Throughout his 18 years in office, Feingold remained a stalwart and effective advocate for a just U.S. foreign policy. He maintained restrictions on arms sales and military training for Indonesia.

In his first year in the Senate, Feingold, a Democrat, authored an amendment to place human rights conditions on arms sales to Indonesia. The amendment unanimously passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This shocked Indonesian officials, who had for decades been able to count on the U.S. government eagerly providing military equipment while turning a blind eye to its brutal use against Timorese and Indonesian civilians.

Throughout his 18 years in office, Feingold remained a stalwart and effective advocate for a just U.S. foreign policy. He maintained restrictions on arms sales and military training for Indonesia. After a broad-based pro-democracy movement ousted Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1998, Feingold pushed the Clinton administration and Congress to ensure that political prisoners were freed, the military was reformed and civic institutions were fostered. Feingold supported East Timor’s referendum for independence in 1999, and repeatedly called for the Indonesian government and military officials responsible for serious crimes there to be held responsible. He has also raised concerns about continuing military abuses in Papua, a region with an independence movement and a history similar to East Timor.

More recently, Feingold cautioned both the Bush and Obama administrations on their rush to engage Indonesia in the “war on terror.” As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, and one where moderate forms of Islam predominate, Indonesia took on new importance for the United States following the 9/11 attacks. The United States’ relationship with Indonesia must be “aimed at fighting terrorism while supporting that country’s recent democratization,” Feingold wrote after visiting Indonesia in 2006.

You might think that President Obama, who visited Indonesia the week after the U.S. midterm elections, would agree. After all, Obama spent part of his childhood there and lamented, in his memoir “The Audacity of Hope,” that the U.S. negatively affected Indonesia by encouraging “tyranny, corruption and environmental degradation when it served our interests.”

Sadly, the U.S. hasn’t followed Feingold’s advice. Last summer, the Obama administration announced that the United States would work with Kopassus, the Indonesian military’s notorious special forces. Kopassus troops routinely engaged in torture, rape and murder in East Timor, “disappeared” Indonesian student activists, and killed a prominent Papuan leader, among other atrocities. Providing U.S. training to Kopassus “would undermine the goal of creating a professional military … that upholds human rights norms,” warned Feingold when the Bush administration considered engaging Kopassus.

For all his leadership on Southeast Asia issues, Feingold didn’t become a media darling, fill his campaign coffers or otherwise win broad acclaim. He helped the people of East Timor and Indonesia simply because it was the right thing to do. That’s what makes him a remarkable public servant and a wonderful human being.

We in the U.S. -- and our sisters and brothers around the world -- will sorely miss him.

Diane Farsetta is the coordinator of the Madison chapter of the East Timor Action Network. She is a former Field Organizer for national ETAN. This was also published in Capitol Times (Madison).

November 10, 2010

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