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This backgrounder, focused on Congressional action to support East Timor is an evolving document. This is the most recent version.

Background on East Timor and U.S. Policy
East Timor Action Network, May 2000

1999 proved to be the most traumatic for East Timor since Indonesia's invasion and occupation in 1975, but it ended on a promising note. In January 1999, Indonesia's President B.J. Habibie announced that the East Timorese people would be able to choose between becoming an "autonomous" part of Indonesia or being let go. On May 5, as Indonesia-backed paramilitaries terrorized thousands of East Timorese people, the UN, Indonesia and Portugal (the former colonial power) agreed to conduct a "popular consultation." At the end of August, the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, and the Indonesian military and its militia began to systematically displace the population and destroy the infrastructure. After 10 days, under intense Congressional, grassroots and international pressure, President Clinton suspended U.S.–Indonesian military ties. The Indonesian troops withdrew from East Timor, and a UN-backed force took control. East Timor is now under UN administration. As the East Timorese recover from 24 years of occupation, some 100,000 East Timorese remain trapped in Indonesia. Attempts to prosecute those responsible for the massive destruction have been halting and the reconstruction of East Timor has barely begun.

THE INDONESIAN INVASION AND OCCUPATION OF EAST TIMOR is one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. The occupation killed over 200,000 Timorese people, one-third of the original population. Indonesian rule over East Timor continued in defiance of the United Nations Security Council — which called on Jakarta to withdraw "without delay" in 1975 and 1976 — as well as eight General Assembly Resolutions. It was maintained with the help of the United States.

Indonesia launched its December 7, 1975, invasion hours after President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Indonesian dictator Suharto in Jakarta. After the invasion, the U.S. doubled military aid to Indonesia and blocked the UN from taking effective enforcement action. The United States has transferred more than $1.1 billion worth of weaponry to Indonesia since 1975.

Finally, East Timor Votes
In May 1998, Suharto was forced from office by the Asian economic crisis and student-led demonstrations, replaced as President by his protégé B.J. Habibie. Suharto's ouster enabled positive change in East Timor. In January 1999, Indonesia agreed to allow the East Timorese to decide whether they wanted to be an autonomous province within Indonesia or to become independent. On May 5, Indonesia and Portugal signed a UN-brokered agreement, establishing the process for an August vote in East Timor, and a UN team went to the territory to conduct the plebiscite.

Even prior to the agreement, elements of the Indonesian government tried to sabotage that process, at great cost in human suffering. The Indonesian police, placed in charge of security by the UN agreement, worked with the military to execute a campaign of terror. Indonesia supported and funded its paramilitary militia and other pro-Indonesia campaign activities in violation of the UN accord. The militia and military repeatedly threatened the East Timorese people that if they voted for independence, they would face death and destruction comparable to the period when Indonesia invaded in 1975, perhaps the only promise that the Indonesia military kept during the consultation. The UN repeatedly called on the Indonesian government to stop the paramilitary mayhem, but despite pledges to do so, the violence continued.

In this intense climate of fear 98.6% of those registered went to polls on August 30. During the five days of the UN took to count the ballots, Indonesian-backed violence escalated and thousands of civilians fled to the hills and mountains. (see Autumn 1999 Estafeta)

On September 4, 1999, the UN announced that 78.5% had voted for independence. The Indonesian military and its militia escalated their campaign to systematically destroy buildings; threaten foreign observers, UN personnel and journalists; forcibly relocated people to West Timor and other parts of Indonesia; and kill East Timorese church workers, political leaders and others.

On September 9, President Clinton suspended all its military transfers and training and annnounced the coordinated suspension of pending World Bank and IMF funds to Indonesia. On September 15, after obtaining Indonesian government agreement, the UN Security Council endorsed the deployment of an Australian-led peacekeeping force (InterFET), and the Indonesian military began to withdraw. Australian troops began arriving on September 20.

On October 20, Indonesia's national assembly ratified the August 30 vote in East Timor, renouncing any claim to the territory, and the UN formally took over its administration.

Subsequent investigations found that 60 to 80 percent of East Timor's property destroyed or damaged and that up to three-quarters of the population were displaced following the vote. The UN recently estimated that at least 1500 people were killed, although the exact number may never be known. UN and Indonesian human rights investigations have pointed to clear Indonesian military complicity in the violence surrounding the ballot process.

Congress Acts After 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre
On November 12, 1991, Indonesian troops armed with American-made M-16 rifles gunned down more than 270 Timorese civilians in Dili. Since then, a bipartisan effort in Congress and an expanding grassroots movement 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 and political rights of its people.

Military Training
In October 1992, after 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 also 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 sale of F-16 jet fighters.  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 FY2000.

In March 1998, Rep. Lane Evans (D-IL) and ETAN released Pentagon documents showing that U.S. Army and Marine personnel had trained Indonesian solidiers 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 had continued to train Indonesian Kopassus (Special Forces) and other forces in sniper tactics, urban warfare, psychological operations, and other techniques of repression. Kopassus troops have been implicated in some of the worst atrocities in East Timor and Indonesia. Although the JCET training was technically legal, many in Congress were angry that the Pentagon had evaded the clear intention of the IMET prohibition. Responding to congressional and grassroots pressure, the Pentagon suspended the JCET program for Indonesia in May 1998.

Two bills (H.R.3802 and H.R.4874) were introduced during the 105th Congress to ban all military defense services and training to countries that have been barred from receiving IMET training or other military assistance. Although neither bill passed, Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Lane Evans (D-IL), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and others introduced the similar International Military Training Transparency and Accountability Act (H.R.1063) in the 106th Congress. The bill’s sponsors wrote their colleagues "The executive branch must understand that when Congress says to halt military assistance to murderers, torturers, and thugs, we mean what we say."

In the FY1999 Defense Appropriations Act, Congress withheld funding from U.S. military training programs for units of any foreign country's units are guilty of human rights violations. The FY1999 Omnibus Appropriations Act, that 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.

Weapons Transfers
Since the 1991 massacre, the State Department has licensed hundreds of 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 sent the political message that the Indonesian armed forces had U.S. support for their illegal occupation of East Timor.

In July 1993, after years of unrestricted weapons transfers to Indonesia, the State Department, under congressional pressure, 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 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, the State Department banned the sale of small and light arms and riot control equipment to Indonesia. The ban was the first across-the-board prohibition on any type of weapons sale to Indonesia. The small arms ban set an important precedent of tacit State Department acceptance that withholding weapons sales can advance human rights.

In July 1994, the Senate restated the 1958 U.S.- Indonesia treaty restricting the use of U.S.-supplied weapons to "legitimate self-defense" and strictly forbidding their use for "an act of aggression." The appropriations bill, as passed, continued the IMET ban and prohibited small arms sales to Indonesia.

In 1995 and 1996, the State Department expanded the ban to include helicopter-mounted equipment and then armored personnel carriers. Although these moves were 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."

In November 1996, House 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 full 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 restriction on weapons sales and the IMET ban were renewed in 1998 in the FY1999 Omnibus Appropriations Act.

Self-determination for East Timor
From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, 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 had taken place. This was increasingly challenged by members of Congress over the last five years.

Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) visited East Timor in 1996, and reported : "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 (D-WI), wrote 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."

On July 10 1998, the Senate unanimously adopted S.Res.237, introduced by Feingold and Jack Reed (D-RI). This resolution called on President Clinton to encourage the new leadership in Indonesia to institute genuine democratic reforms. The resolution also urged the President to work actively to carry out the UN resolutions on East Timor and to support an internationally-supervised referendum on self-determination.

In 1998, Reps. Lowey, John Porter (R-IL), Tom Lantos (D-CA), and Chris Smith introduced H.Con.Res.258, which also supported a referendum and called for direct Timorese participation in UN negotiations; it gathered more than 80 co-sponsors. In October 1998, Congress adopted the Foreign Operations Manager’s Statement accompanying the FY1999 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which incorporated language from this resolution supporting a "referendum to determine a comprehensive settlement of the political status of East Timor."

President Habibie's advisers cited these congressional actions as influencing his decision to allow the UN vote. In response to the many congressional calls to respect East Timorese rights, the Administration also shifted its policy toward support for self-determination, strongly supporting the UN process and allocating $10 million dollars toward the August vote.

The Clinton Administration
During his first presidential campaign candidate Bill Clinton said that the U.S. approach to East Timor had been "unconscionable." In a 1993 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. Five months later, Clinton met with Suharto at the APEC summit. As he had 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.

President Clinton suspended U.S. military ties with Indonesia on September 9, 1999. Administration officials have reiterated that resolving the refugee crisis and substantial military reform are prerequisites to resuming military ties. The U.S. provided logistical support for InterFET.

The U.S. will contribute $25 million in economic support funds (not including emergency humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping funds) for East Timor in FY 2000. This money will go to support development, East Timorese NGOs, security, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), and a  World Bank trust fund. Despite East Timor's great needs for development, reconstruction, institution-building, and indigenous NGO support, the Administration has requested only $10 million requested for FY2001.

Congressional Action Pre-and Post-Ballot
Throughout 1999, numerous members of Congress publicly and privately expressed concern about the Indonesian activity surrounding the UN consultation. An August 6 letter, signed by 100 members of the House of Representatives was typical. It expressed grave concern over developments in East Timor and called on "the United States and its allies [to] use all the influence we can possibly bring to bear on Jakarta to help ensure a democratic process in East Timor."

On July 21, the House unanimously amended the  State Department Authorization bill (HR 2415) to call on the Clinton administration to "immediately intensify efforts to prevail upon the Indonesian Government and military" to take steps to end anti-independence violence.

In late August, just prior to the vote, Senators Reed (D-RI) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) went to East Timor. After visiting a church in Suai full of frightened refugees they called for immediate deployment of a UN peacekeeping force. Two weeks later, the same church became the site of one of the bloodiest massacres in East Timorese history.

On September 27, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed S. 1568. Introduced by Senator Feingold and others it imposed "an immediate suspension of assistance to the Government of Indonesia until the results of the August 30, 1999 vote" were implemented. Similar legislation (HR 2895) was introduced in the House, by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and others. On September 28, the House of Representatives passed H. Res 292, support the peacekeeping mission and human rights in East Timor.

On September 30, the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, chaired by Rep. Chris Smith, held a hearing on East Timor. The witness list featured just freed East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmão, as well as Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta and journalist Allan Nairn, one of the last foreigners to remain in Dili, during the militia escalation. He was detained by the Indonesian military for 10 days in September.

In November 1999, as part of the FY2000 Foreign Operations appropriations, Congress put President Clinton's ban on military training and weapons transfers into law. It listed conditions before training can resume. These "Leahy conditions," stipulate that the Indonesian government and military must allow "displaced persons and refugees to return home to East Timor" and bring to justice military and militia members responsible for human rights atrocities. They also require Indonesia to actively prevent militia incursions into East Timor, work with UNTAET, and demonstrate accountability through cooperation with investigations and prosecutions of Indonesian military and militias responsible for human rights violations.

The ‘‘East Timor Repatriation and Security Act of 2000" (H.R. 4357), introduced in the House in May 2000 by Rep. Jim McGovern and others, would maintain the current prohibition of U.S. military relations with the Indonesian armed forces unless the President certifies that Indonesia has met certain conditions, including respecting the territorial integrity of East Timor, the security and safe return of refugees, and bringing to justice those individuals responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor and elsewhere.

The Current Situation
East Timor is now ruled by a UN transitional administration (UNTAET) with independence is expected within two to three years. Unemployment remains extremely high in East Timor leading to some social unrest.

The situation of over 100,000 refugees in West Timor and other parts of Indonesia remains dire. East Timorese in camps face ongoing threats and intimidation by military-supported militia. UNICEF has recently reported that one in four children under the age of five suffers from acute malnutrition. Earlier this year the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) reported that over 700 people, mostly children, have died from various illnesses since last September due to inadequate sanitation and medical care for the refugees. Access to many of the camps by humanitarian organizations remains limited, and aid workers have been threatened. The Indonesian military and its militia allies spread disinformation to discourage East Timorese from returning home. UNHCR recently reported that repatriation has come to a standstill.

East Timor is not yet fully secured against militia and Indonesian military (TNI) threats. The UN reported 16 militia incidents between Feb. 21 and March 7, 2000, alone. East Timor's enclave of Oecussi has also come under regular militia attack, with the support of TNI. Several thousand militia members are still active along the West Timor border, where the TNI continues to conduct exercises. TNI and militias often prevent East Timorese from spontaneously returning and harass aid workers trying to enter and leave West Timor.

At the end of January, Both the Indonesian National Commission of Inquiry and the UN's International Commission of Inquiry released reports revealing high-level military collaboration in the atrocities committed against the people of East Timor last year. UNTAET is holding a number of militia suspects pending the establishment of a court system in the territory. One Indonesian General, Johny Lumintang former deputy commander of the Army, is being sued in U.S. court by East Timorese victims of post-ballot violence. The UN panel recommended that establishing an international tribunal with substantial Indonesian and East Timorese presence. Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman is moving forward with indictments within the next few months. However, Indonesia's parliament has yet to pass the laws governing these prosecutions. Preparations for an international tribunal would guarantee justice for East Timor should Indonesia's efforts at prosecution falter or fail to meet international standards. None of these efforts are looking back beyond January 1999. Genuine justice for East Timor will only come when there is a full accounting for human rights abuses from 1975 on.

President Abdurrahman Wahid has significantly reduced the power of the Indonesian military, as he continues to assert democratic government. But the powerful military and intelligence bureaucracies will not easily surrender the power and corruption they have become accustomed to. Most of the military leaders responsible for violence in East Timor last year have been promoted, while military-backed human rights abuses have escalated in some areas of Indonesia, including Ambon, Aceh and West Papua. 

Genuine democratic reform in Indonesia would mean an end to "dual function" of the military. This would include the removal of military officers from civil service, as well as from un-elected parliamentary seats. It would include the dissolution of the "territorial command structure" of the military at every tier of society, from non-commissioned officers in most villages to several or more battalions stationed in every province. These powers are not codified in Indonesia's constitution nor in its laws.

A halt to military and military-sponsored militia violence against the peoples of Indonesia should include a permanent end to special military operational areas in West Papua and Aceh; an end to "sweepings" (where people even remotely associated with a movement deemed threatening by the Indonesian military are arrested and detained); and the withdrawal of Indonesian troops from West Papua, Aceh, and other areas, including West Timor.

The best way for the United States to support Indonesia's civilian government is to unambiguously tell the Indonesian military that their former Washington patron no longer supports illegal or violent attempts to maintain power or subvert Indonesia's emerging democracy. Any restoration of U.S. support for Indonesia's military undercuts that message, jeopardizing both Indonesian democracy and East Timor's long-term security.


* 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."


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

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