etmnlong.gif (2291 bytes) spacer Ask Kissinger About East Timor

Confronting Henry Kissinger, August 1995

Dr. Henry Kissinger, who was U.S. Secretary of State when he visited Indonesia the day before the invasion of East Timor twenty years ago, spoke at the Park Central Hotel in New York City on July 11, 1995, in an event sponsored by the Learning Annex. The subject of his speech was his new book, "Diplomacy." The East Timor Action Network demonstrated outside the hotel and leafleted passers-by explaining Henry Kissinger's role during the invasion and subsequent mass slaughter. ETAN also purchased several tickets so key people could attend the event.

After the talk, Kissinger took questions. The following is a transcript of the parts of the question period relating to East Timor, which was the first subject raised. Kissinger did not mention East Timor during his prepared talk.

Constancio Pinto (former head of the underground in East Timor, arrested and tortured in captivity, now a student in the United States): I am Timorese. My name is Constancio Pinto. And I followed your speech today and it's really interesting. One thing that I know you didn't mention is this place invaded by Indonesia in 1975. It is in Southeast Asia. As a result of the invasion 200,000 people of the Timorese were killed. As far as I know Dr. Kissinger was in Indonesia the day before the invasion of East Timor. The United States actually supported Indonesia in East Timor. So I would like to know what you were doing at that time?

Kissinger: What I was doing at that time? The whole time or just about Timor? First of all, I want to thank the gentleman for asking the question in a very polite way. The last time somebody from Timor came after me was at the Oxford Union and they practically tore the place apart before they asked the question.

What most people who deal with government don't understand is that one of the most overwhelming experiences of being in high office. That there are always more problems than you can possibly address at any one period. And when you're in global policy and you're a global power, there are so many issues.

Now the Timor issue ... First of all you have to understand what Timor, what Timor, what the issue of Timor is. Every island that was occupied by the Dutch in the colonial period was constituted as the Republic of Indonesia. In the middle of their archipelago was an island called Timor. Or is an island called Timor. Half of it was Indonesian and the other half of it was Portuguese. This was the situation.

Now I don't want to offend the gentleman who asked the question. We had so many problems to deal with. We had at that time, there was a war going on in Angola. We had just been driven out of Vietnam. We were conducting negotiations in the Middle East and Lebanon had blown up. We were on a trip to China. Maybe regrettably we weren't ever thinking about Timor. I'm telling you what the truth of the matter is. The reason we were in Indonesia was actually accidental. We had originally intended to go to China, we meaning President Ford and myself and some others. We had originally intended to go to China for five days. This was the period when Mao was very sick and there had been an upheaval in China. The so-called Gang of Four was becoming dominant and we had a terrible time agreeing with the Chinese, where to go, what to say. So we cut our trip to China short. We went for two days to China and then we went for a day and a half to the Philippines and a day and a half to Indonesia. That's how we got to Indonesia in the first place. So this was really at that time to tell the Chinese we were not dependent on them. So that's how we got to Indonesia.

Timor was never discussed with us when we were in Indonesia. At the airport as we were leaving, the Indonesians told us that they were going to occupy the Portuguese colony of Timor. To us that did not seem like a very significant event because the Indians had occupied the Portuguese colony of Goa ten years earlier and to us it looked like another process of decolonization. Nobody had the foggiest idea of what would happen afterwards, and nobody asked our opinion, and I don't know what we could have said if someone had asked our opinion. It was literally told to us as we were leaving.

Now there's been a terrible human tragedy in Timor afterwards. Population of East Timor has resisted and I don't know whether the casualty figures are correct, I just don't know, but they're certainly significant and there's no question that it's a huge tragedy. All I'm telling you is what we knew in 1975. This was not a big thing on our radar screen. Nobody has ever heard again of Goa after the Indians occupied it, other than that it is now an Indian city. And to us, Timor, look at a map, it's a little speck of an island in a huge archipelago, half of which was Portuguese. We had no reason to say the Portuguese should stay there. And so when the Indonesians informed us, we neither said yes or no. We were literally at the airport. So that was our connection with it, but I grant the questioner the fact that it's been a great tragedy.

Allan Nairn, free lance journalist: Mr. Kissinger, my name is Allan Nairn. I'm a journalist in the United States. I'm one of the Americans who survived the massacre in East Timor on November 12,1991, a massacre during which Indonesian troops armed with American M-16's, gunned down at least 271 Timorese civilians in front of the Santa Cruz Catholic cemetery as they were gathered in the act of peaceful mourning and protest. Now you just said that in your meeting with Suharto on the afternoon of December 6,1975, you did not discuss Timor, you did not discuss it until you came to the airport. Well, I have here the official State Department transcript of your and President Ford's conversation with General Suharto, the dictator of Indonesia. It was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It has been edited under the Freedom of Information Act so the whole text isn't there. It's clear from the portion of the text that is here, that in fact you did discuss the impending invasion of Timor with Suharto, a fact which was confirmed to me by President Ford himself in an interview I had with him. President Ford told me that in fact you discussed the impending invasion of Timor with Suharto and that you gave the US

Kissinger: Who? I or he?

Nairn: That you and President Ford together gave us approval for the invasion of East Timor. There is another internal State Department memo which is printed in an extensive excerpt here in an article which I'll give to anyone in your audience that's interested. This is a memo of a December 18, 1975 meeting held at the State Department. This was held right after your return from that trip and you were berating your staff for having put on paper a finding by the State Department legal advisor, Mr. Li that the Indonesian invasion of East Timor was illegal, that it not only violated international law, it violated a treaty with the US because US weapons were used and it's clear from this transcript which I invite anyone in the audience to peruse that you were angry at them first because you feared this memo would leak, and second because you were supporting the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and you did not want it known that you were doing this contrary to the legal advice of your own people in the State Department. If one looks at the public actions, 16 hours after you left that meeting with Suharto the Indonesian troops began parachuting over Dili, the capitol of East Timor. They came ashore and began the massacres that culminated in a third of the Timorese population. You an- nounced an immediate doubling of US military aid to Indonesia at the time, and in the meantime at the United Nations, the instruction given to Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a he wrote in his memoirs, was to as he put it, see to it that the UN be highly ineffective in any actions it might undertake on East Timor... (shouts from audience)

Kissinger: Look, I think we all got the point now

Nairn: My question, Mr. Kissinger, my question Dr. Kissinger is two-fold: First will you give a waiver under the privacy act to support full declassification of this memo so we can see exactly what you and President Ford said to Suharto? Secondly, would you support the convening of an international war crimes tribunal under UN supervision on the subject of East Timor and would you agree to abide by its verdict in regard to your own conduct?

Kissinger: I mean, uh, really, this sort of comment is one of the reasons why the conduct of foreign policy is becoming nearly impossible under these conditions. Here is a fellow who's got one obsession, he's got one problem he collects a bunch of documents, you don't know what is in these documents

Nairn: I invite your audience to read them.

Kissinger: Well read them. Uh, the fact is essentially as I described them (thumping podium). Timor was not a significant American policy problem if Suharto raised it, if Ford said something that sounded encouraging it was not a significant American foreign policy problem. It seemed to us to be an anti-colonial problem in which the Indonesians were taking over Timor and we had absolutely no reason at that time to pay any huge attention to it.

Secondly, you have to understand these things in the context of the period. Vietnam had just collapsed. Nobody yet knew what effect the domino theory would have. Indonesia was ... is a country of a population of 160 million and the key, a key country in Southeast Asia. We were not looking for trouble with Indonesia and the reason I objected in the State Department to putting this thing on paper. It wasn't that it was put on paper. It was that it was circulated to embassies because it was guaranteed to leak out. It was guaranteed then to lead to some public confrontation and for better or worse our fundamental position on these human rights issues was always to try to see if we could discuss them first, quietly, before they turned into a public confrontation. This was our policy with respect to emigration from Russia, in which we turned out to be right and this was the policy which we tried to pursue with respect to Indonesia and anybody can go and find some document and take out one sentence and try to prove something fundamental, and now I think we've heard enough about Timor. Let's have some questions on some other subject. (applause)

Amy Goodman (News director, WBAI/Pacifica Radio who was in East Timor in 1990, 1991, and 1994): Dr. Kissinger, you said that the United States has won everything its wanted in the Cold War up to this point. I wanted to go back to the issue of Indonesia, and before there's a booing in the audience, just to say as you talk about China and India, Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world. And so I wanted to ask the question in a current way about East Timor. And that is, given what has happened in the 20 years, the 200,000 people who have been killed, according to Amnesty, according to Asia Watch, even according to the Indonesian military .... Do you see that as a success of the United States?

Kissinger: No but I don't think it's an American policy. We cannot be, we're not responsible for everything that happens in every place in the world. (clapping)

Goodman: Except that 90% of the weapons used during the invasion were from the US and it continues until this day. So in that way we are intimately connected to Indonesia, unfortunately. Given that I was wondering if you think it's a success and whether too, with you on the board of Freeport MacMoRan, which has the largest gold mining operation in the world in Indonesia, in Irian Jaya, are you putting pressure, since Freeport is such a major lobbyist in Congress on behalf of Indonesia, to change that policy and to support self-determination for the people of East Timor?

Kissinger: The, uh the United States as a general proposition cannot fix every problem on the use of American weapons in purely civil conflicts we should do our best to prevent this. As a private American corporation engaged in private business in an area far removed from Timor, but in Indonesia, I do not believe it is their job to get itself involved in that issue because if they do, then no American private enterprise will be welcome there anymore.

Goodman: But they do everyday and lobby Congress.

Later, in an answer to a question on Cyprus, Kissinger joked: "As you ladies and gentlemen can see I don't do so well on islands. I'm better off on the continent."

Tom Mahedy (UN Representative for Pax Christi international) asked a question about the numerous UN resolutions calling for Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor. "I want to know what your stance is on that."

Kissinger: On whatever UN resolution on Timor is being discussed right now? Look I have a lot of understanding for the suffering of the people of Timor that you described and I do not say it's justified. I have not read that resolution I have not read that much about it so I can't tell you what I think in detail, but I have great respect for the concern of those of you who are raising the issue of Timor. All I'm saying is you have to have some respect for those who have to put those into the perspective of an overall foreign policy.

Return to Kissinger menu