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Background on East Timor and U.S. Policy
October 1998

Indonesian Invasion
Santa Cruz Massacre
Military Training
Arms Sales
United Nations
Self-determination for East Timor
The Clinton Administration
Other developments
Indonesia’s Crisis
The current situation

Background Section Menu

Indonesian Invasion
The Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor is one of the worst atrocities of this century. The occupation has claimed the lives of over 200,000 Timorese people,* one-third of the original population. It continues in defiance of the UN Security Council — which has twice called on Jakarta to withdraw "without delay" — as well as eight General Assembly Resolutions. It has been maintained with help from the United States.

In 1975, Indonesia launched its invasion hours after President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Indonesian dictator Suharto in Jakarta. The U.S. then doubled military aid to Indonesia, blocked the UN from taking effective enforcement action, and continued to sell new weapons, particularly helicopters for the next two decades. Since 1975, the United States has sold more than $1.1 billion worth of weaponry to Indonesia.

In May, Suharto was forced from office by student-led demonstrations, and his protégé B.J. Habibie replaced him as president. The fall of Suharto provides a great opportunity for positive change in East Timor. The East Timorese have taken advantage by increasing their organizing within East Timor and Indonesia. Habibie has distinguished himself from his predecessor by releasing some political prisoners and by offering the East Timorese a greater degree of control over their local affairs. He refuses, however, to consider their fundamental demand for an internationally-supervised referendum on self-determination. After a period of improvement, the human rights situation is worsening, as Indonesia is escalating its troop presence in East Timor.

The 1997 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices confirms that Indonesia’s armed forces reported torture, extra-judicial executions and other severe human rights violations, including the detention and imprisonment of East Timorese for the expression of their political views. Although the rate of overt repression has lessened in Dili, East Timor’s capital, since Suharto’s resignation, arrests and killings persist, many East Timorese political prisoners remain in jail, and human rights conditions have hardly changed in rural East Timor.

Santa Cruz Massacre
On November 12, 1991 in Dili, at the Santa Cruz Cemetery, Indonesian troops armed with American-made M-16 rifles gunned down more than 270 Timorese civilians. Since then, a bipartisan effort in Congress and an increasing grassroots movement have set out to reverse our government’s mistaken course. After the massacre, 52 Senators wrote to President Bush, calling for active U.S. support for the implementation of the UN resolutions on East Timor "with an eye toward a political solution that might end the needless suffering in East Timor and bring about true self-determination for the territory." It was the first of many bipartisan House and Senate letters affirming support for East Timor’s self-determination.

Since then, Congress has repeatedly acted on several fronts to encourage resolution of East Timor’s political status and to protect the human rights of people living there. These actions have had some effect in East Timor and Indonesia, but the fundamental denial of human and political rights persists.


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Military Training
In October 1992, after several statements by Indonesian officials indicating that the massacre was an act of policy,** Congress cut off Indonesia’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) aid. The cut-off was opposed by the Bush Administration’s State Department, the Pentagon, lobbyists for the Indonesian military and some U.S. corporations, but was signed into law as part of the FY1993 (fiscal year 1993) Foreign Operations Appropriations Act.

This legislation was re-enacted for FY1994 and FY1995. In the FY1995 bill, the House of Representatives renewed the ban on IMET and tried to close a loophole under which Indonesia had been allowed to purchase some of the same training. The committee report accompanying the bill expressed "outrage" that the administration "despite its vocal embrace of human rights" allowed the purchase of training.

In 1995, Congress continued to ban IMET (for FY1996) on military subjects and made it clear that it does not accept the human rights conduct of Indonesia’s military. Some IMET — the "expanded" version (E-IMET) which purports to focus on human rights and civilian control of the military — was allowed. In March 1997, the House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee received administration testimony that the Pentagon sold Indonesia military training without congressional notification or consent throughout 1996.

In June 1997, Suharto wrote to President Clinton rejecting E-IMET and a proposed weapons sale. Suharto stated that he would not accept restrictions on military transfers based on human rights. Nevertheless, Congress has limited appropriations to E-IMET for FY1997 through FY1999.

In March 1998, Rep. Lane Evans (D-IL) and ETAN released Pentagon documents showing that U.S. Army and Marine personnel have conducted training sessions in Indonesia under the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program every few months since 1992. In violation of the spirit of the IMET training ban, Green Berets and other U.S. soldiers have continued to train Indonesian Kopassus (Special Forces) and other forces in sniper tactics, urban warfare, demolitions, psychological operations, and other techniques for repressing the Indonesian and East Timorese populations. Kopassus troops have been implicated in some of the worst atrocities in East Timor, as well as the early 1998 "disappearances" of Indonesian pro-democracy activists.

Although the JCET training is technically legal, many in Congress are angry that the Defense Department has again evaded the clear intention of the IMET prohibition and confused the message that Congress wanted to send to the Indonesian military. Rep. Chris Smith’s (R-NJ) and Lane Evans’ (D-IL) International Military Training Transparency and Accountability Act (H.R.4874), introduced in October 1998, expands upon Nita Lowey’s (D-NY) earlier International Military Training Accountability bill (H.R.3802). H.R.4874 would close loopholes by barring all military defense services and training to countries that have been barred from receiving IMET training or other military assistance. Countries would only be allowed to receive other defense services and training that do not contradict congressional intent.

In the FY1999 Defense Appropriations Act, Congress withheld funding from U.S. military training programs for units of any foreign country if the units are guilty of human rights violations. The FY1999 Omnibus Appropriations Act, passed on the final day of the congressional session, mandates a detailed report to Congress of all overseas military training of foreign militaries conducted or planned by the Pentagon in 1998 and 1999. These provisions resulted from the controversy surrounding the ongoing training of Indonesian troops

Arms Sales
In July 1993, under congressional pressure, the State Department blocked a transfer of U.S. F-5 fighter planes from the Jordan to Indonesia, citing human rights as one of the reasons. The Jakarta Post editorialized that the cancellation of the deal "resounded like [a] sonic boom" in Indonesia.

In September 1993, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously adopted an amendment by Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) to condition major arms sales to Indonesia on human rights improvements in East Timor. The amendment was a compromise worked out after extensive negotiation with the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. The Feingold amendment sent political shock waves through Jakarta, though the authorization bill to which it was attached never reached the Senate floor.

Early in 1994, in the wake of the Feingold amendment, the State Department imposed a ban on the sale of small and light arms and riot control equipment to Indonesia. The ban is the first time an across-the-board prohibition had been imposed on any type of weapons sale to Indonesia. The small arms ban set an important precedent of tacit acceptance on the part of the State Department of the principle that withholding weapons sales can advance human rights.

Since the 1991 massacre, the State Department has licensed more than 300 military sales to Indonesia. The items sold have ranged from machine guns and M-16s to electronic components, from communications gear to spare parts for attack planes. Every shipment has sent the political message that the Indonesian armed forces still enjoy active U.S. government support in their illegal occupation of East Timor.

In July 1994, the Senate passed a prohibition on the sale of small arms. The proposed provision in effect restated the U.S.- Indonesia treaty signed in 1958 which restricts the use of U.S.-supplied weapons to "legitimate self-defense" and strictly forbids their use for "an act of aggression." The appropriations bill, as signed into law, continued the IMET ban and prohibited small arms sales to Indonesia.

The FY1996 State Department reorganization bill as passed by Congress would have expanded the small arms ban to include helicopter-mounted equipment. Although the overall bill was vetoed for unrelated reasons, the State Department agreed to expand the ban. In July 1996, State expanded the ban further to include armored personnel carriers. Although this move was taken to avert stronger legislation, Assistant Secretary Barbara Larkin wrote that "we all agree [that these arms] should not be sold or transferred to Indonesia until there is significant improvement in the human rights situation there." At his confirmation hearing in October 1997, Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth confirmed that the ban, including helicopter-mounted weaponry and armored vehicles, will remain in effect.

In November 1996, International Relations Committee Chair Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) wrote the Washington Post opposing the administration’s proposal to sell nine F-16 fighter planes to Indonesia. The sale was repeatedly postponed due to congressional and grassroots pressure until, in June 1997, Suharto wrote Clinton rejecting the F-16s and all remaining IMET and E-IMET training.

The House version of the FY 1998 State Department Authorization bill included three provisions on East Timor, including a restriction on U.S. government weapons sales and military assistance to Indonesia pending substantial improvements in human rights. The bill failed in conference committee.

In November 1997, Congress passed and the President signed the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act for FY1998. The law requires the U.S. government to state in military contracts to Indonesia that the U.S. "expects" that any lethal weapons or helicopters will not be used in East Timor. It was a milestone, reaffirming international law that East Timor is distinct from Indonesia, in contrast with Indonesia’s claims. This law also renewed the ban on IMET training, called for an envoy in East Timor, and encouraged the administration to support international efforts to find a just solution. Both the IMET ban and the restriction on weapons sales were renewed in 1998 in the Omnibus Appropriations Act.

United Nations
(see UN pages for relevant documents)
At the beginning of 1997, Kofi Annan became Secretary General of the UN. He created the position of Special UN Envoy to East Timor and appointed Pakistani diplomat Jamsheed Marker, who then visited East Timor. In April 1997, the UN Human Rights Commission passed a strong resolution on East Timor, which was co-sponsored by the U.S.

In April 1998, the U.S. co-sponsored a similar resolution, but it was replaced by a Chairman’s statement that Indonesia negotiated with the European Community. Indonesia agreed to allow the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit East Timor, and to allow access to the disputed territory by Jakarta-based UN personnel. In the past, Indonesia has failed to follow through on similar commitments.

In April 1997, the UN Human Rights Commission passed a strong resolution on East Timor which was co-sponsored by the U.S.

In April 1998, the U.S. cosponsored a similar resolution, but it was replaced by a Chairman’s statement which Indonesia negotiated with the European Community. Indonesia agreed to allow the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit East Timor, and to allow access to the disputed territory by Jakarta-based UN personnel. In the past, Indonesia has failed to follow through on similar commitments.

Self-determination for East Timor
For more than 15 years, official U.S. policy has been to recognize the de facto Indonesian annexation of East Timor while acknowledging that no valid process of self-determination has taken place. This is increasingly being called into question.

Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), on the final international trip of his distinguished Senate career, visited East Timor in May 1996. He reported to Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC): "When asked how a plebiscite on the issue of independence versus integration would turn out, I was told that over 90% of the people would choose independence and that number would include some who formerly supported integration."

Fifteen Senators, led by Russell Feingold, sent a letter to President Clinton in 1996:" We believe now is the time for the United States to take a leading role in advocating for the right of the East Timorese to choose their own government through a UN-sponsored referendum." Clinton replied: "I note with interest your support of a UN-sponsored self-determination referendum in East Timor. I will take your idea into consideration."

In March 1998, House International Relations Chair Gilman wrote Secretary of State Albright urging the U.S. government to clarify its position on East Timor’s political status. Gilman urged the Secretary to support the UN Secretary-General’s efforts to find a just and comprehensive solution to East Timor by adopting as policy that "the U.S. does not regard the incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia as irreversible."

On July 10, the Senate unanimously adopted S.Res.237, introduced by Feingold and Jack Reed (D-RI). This resolution, introduced the day after Suharto resigned, calls on President Clinton to encourage the new leadership in Indonesia to institute genuine democratic reforms, including an independent judiciary, civilian control of the military, the release of political prisoners, and protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Indonesia and East Timor. The resolution also urges the President to work actively, through the UN and with United States allies, to carry out the UN resolutions on East Timor and to support an internationally-supervised referendum on self-determination.

In April, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), together with John Porter (R-IL), Tom Lantos (D-CA), and Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced H.Con.Res.258, which supports a referendum and calls for direct Timorese participation in UN negotiations, and gathered more than 80 co-sponsors. In October, Congress adopted the Foreign Operations Manager’s Statement accompanying the FY1999 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which incorporated language from this resolution supporting "an internationally supported referendum to determine a comprehensive settlement of the political status of East Timor."

On November 12, 1998, ETAN delivered to Secretary Albright a letter signed by 63 NGO and church representatives, reinforcing their commitment to a referendum on self-determination in East Timor. It called on the U.S. administration to actively support the placement of international human rights and other monitors, the withdrawal of Indonesian troops, and the release of political prisoners, including East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmão, as necessary steps toward East Timor’s self-determination.

The Clinton Administration
During his first presidential campaign candidate Bill Clinton said that the U.S. approach to East Timor had been "unconscionable." In September 1993, at a press conference, President Clinton turned aside the argument that pressuring Indonesia on East Timor and human rights would have an adverse impact on business. The relationship of U.S. corporations in Indonesia engaged in many lines of business with Jakarta is one of mutual profit, a basic fact unaffected by Timor policy.

In June 1997, President Clinton dropped in on a Washington meeting between East Timorese Nobel Prize Laureate Bishop Carlos Belo and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger. In late November 1997, Clinton met with Suharto at the APEC summit in Vancouver. As he has in every bilateral meeting with Indonesia since taking office, President Clinton raised the issues of human rights and the treatment of people in East Timor.

Other developments
Since 1996, several U.S officials visited East Timor, including Congressmen Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), and Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck. Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) traveled to Jakarta in May 1998, the first U.S. official to meet with President Habibie. Smith also joined the ranks of other U.S. officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth, who have met with East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmão in his Indonesian prison.

Since the fall of Suharto, Timorese have become increasingly outspoken. After a flurry of mass demonstrations in late May and early June (at which Indonesian forces killed several people), the East Timorese held a number of public forums and meetings to discuss political options for the territory. Pro-independence and pro-referendum political parties and other groups have begun to reorganize and function more openly. While these activities have been left largely unmolested, reports of human rights violations continue. The governor of East Timor has threatened to fire civil servants and revoke scholarships for East Timorese students unless they support continued Indonesian rule. Large numbers of troops have been deployed to East Timor in recent months, despite a well-publicized withdrawal of a few hundred troops in August and an pledge to remove all ‘combat’ units. In late October, ETAN joined other international groups in releasing Indonesian military documents showing troop levels at more than 21,000, much higher than the Indonesian military has acknowledged. In mid-November, credible report of a massacre of East Timorese civilians by Indonesian troops in the village of Alas caused Portugal to walk out of negotiations with Indonesia, and underscored the need for an end to the military occupation.

Many believe that the time for real change is now. The Habibie government needs international support to reconstruct the Indonesian economy and East Timor is still the principal obstruction in Indonesia’s relations with many countries. East Timor’s struggle has achieved prominence thanks to such recent events as the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Carlos Belo and diplomat José Ramos Horta, Suharto’s overthrow and the resulting political changes in Indonesia itself (where a number of prominent opposition leaders and activists have taken up East Timor’s cause), and intensified United Nations activity. In 1997 UN Special Representative to East Timor Jamsheed Marker was assisted by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, who met with Suharto, Xanana Gusmão, Ramos-Horta, Bishop Belo and Portuguese representatives.Although the Habibie government has said it will grant partial autonomy to East Timor, it continues to rule out a referendum on self-determination. At the UN, Indonesian and Portuguese diplomats are considering an autonomy proposal. The East Timorese have no direct role in the negotiations and reject any autonomy plan that does not lead to a referendum. The UN has said it will use the All-Inclusive Intra-East Timorese Dialogue (AIETD) to consult with the Timorese, but Indonesia still restricts both the participation and the scope of these non-political discussions. When the AIETD met at the end of October 1998, 23 of the East Timorese leaders present signed the "Krumbach Declaration," stating their commitment to self-determination, outlining concrete steps needed to rebuild their country and effectively exposing the need for direct East Timorese participation in the tripartite talks. In his message to the AIETD, Bishop Belo said "the people is always sovereign in its decisions and would thus have to determine what is best." He also wrote that "without the participation of … Xanana Gusmão, the question of East Timor will always remain a problem to be solved." The Indonesian government still refuses to release Gusmão. Although a few political prisoners have been released, over 300 East Timorese remain imprisoned for their political activities.

Indonesia’s Crisis
The Indonesian economic and political crisis in 1997-1998 has heightened international attention to that country. Many in Congress have expressed concern about unqualified U.S. economic support for the regime, and have urged that human and labor rights considerations, as well as economic ones, be attached to any IMF funding and other international aid. On April 2, 1998, 27 representatives from both parties wrote President Clinton expressing their "disappointment that American policy has been so tolerant of the pattern of blatant disregard for fundamental human rights that has marked the Suharto government in Indonesia." They strongly urged "an immediate re-evaluation of American policy toward Indonesia, and a clear statement that the United States will hold the Indonesian government to minimum standards of decent treatment of its own people and the people of East Timor before allowing it to become the beneficiary of billions of dollars in international assistance."

Since Suharto’s fall, numerous members of Congress have pressed the Habibie government, the State Department and President Clinton in meetings and letters to support self-determination, the release of all political prisoners and human rights and genuine democracy in Indonesia.

A renewal of violence in Jakarta in November, including brutal repression of protesters by Indonesian troops, has further obstructed Indonesia’s progress toward democracy.

The Current Situation

For the last year, Indonesia has undergone several wide-scale catastrophes—economic collapse, massive human-caused forest fires, and drought in East Timor, West Papua (Irian Jaya) and eastern Indonesia. These disasters have created a food crisis and threaten famine. As the poorest area under Indonesian control, East Timor has suffered severe hardships.

Numerous observers have noted that the ouster of Suharto has created the best opportunity for freedom for East Timor. He was the only remaining Indonesian official involved in the decision to invade East Timor, and President Habibie can make a break from the policy of occupation. When he met with Bishop Belo last summer, Habibie pledged some changes and troop withdrawals, and UN observers have noted a new attitude in negotiations.

However, the Indonesian military remains the major determinant of Indonesia’s East Timor (and other) policies and shows little willingness to change. International pressure — especially on the Indonesian military — from the U.S. public, Congress and the Clinton administration remain essential to achieve a just solution in East Timor.

The political issue in East Timor is a very basic one: the people simply want, and are legally, morally and politically entitled to, the right to vote in a UN-supervised referendum to choose their own political status. It is hard to imagine permanent qualitative improvement in human rights until that issue is solved.

East Timor Action Network/U.S.

See also:

For more complete information, several good books are available about East Timor through ETAN. Other resources include videos, audio tapes, newspapers, and magazines. Much else is already on-line. Or, find out more face-to-face by getting involved in a local ETAN chapter!

* The estimate of the death toll was first published by Amnesty International, then confirmed in 1990 by the Indonesian army intelligence chief for Timor, and in 1994 by the Indonesian-appointed governor.

** General Try Sutrisno, now Indonesia’s Vice President, said: "Such people must be shot and we will shoot them." General Herman Mantiri, the new regional commander for East Timor, said that the massacre was "quite proper" since "they were opposing us, demonstrating, even yelling things against the government."


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