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see also Background on East Timor and U.S. Policy (May 2000)

U.S. Policy toward East Timor 

The Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor is one of the worst atrocities of this century. It has been made possible with military and diplomatic assistance of the United States. 

In 1975, Indonesia launched its invasion hours after President Ford and Henry Kissinger left from an official meeting with Suharto, the Indonesian dictator, in Jakarta. The US then doubled Indonesia's military aid, blocked the United Nations from taking effective enforcement action, and continues, to this day, to transfer new weapons, particularly helicopters. 

During the height of the genocide in the late 1970s, when war and famine killed over 200,000 East Timorese, the U.S. obligingly provided equipment like OV-10 Bronco counter-insurgency aircraft. 

Today, human rights situation remains serious in East Timor as well as in Indonesia itself. The 1996 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices confirms that Indonesia's armed forces continue to carry out 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. Yet until recent years, the State and Defense Departments continued to keep arms and military assistance flowing to the Indonesian military even while documenting these kind of results. 

After 1991, a grassroots movement has motored a bipartisan effort in Congress to reverse our government's cynical course. 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, Congress has begun to shift the direction of US policy. After the massacre, 52 Senators wrote to President Bush, calling for active US 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 a series of bipartisan House and Senate letters affirming support for East Timor's self-determination. 

In October 1992, after a series of statements by Indonesian officials indicating that the massacre was an act of policy, Congress voted to cut off Indonesia's IMET military training aid. The cutoff amendment was initiated by Reps. Tony Hall (D-OH) and Ronald Machtley (R-RI), and had crucial backing in committee from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. David Obey (D-WI). The cutoff was opposed by the Bush Administration's State Department, the Pentagon, lobbyists for the Indonesian military and prominent US corporations. 

In March 1993, under pressure from Congress, the State Department reversed its pro-Jakarta stance and co-sponsored a successful resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission criticizing Indonesian abuses in East Timor. In July 1993, again under Congressional pressure, the State Department blocked a transfer of US F-5 fighter planes from the government of Jordan to Indonesia, citing human rights as one of the reasons. 

The Jakarta Post editorialized that the blockage of the F-5 deal "resounded like [a] sonic boom" in Indonesia, showing just how secure Jakarta elites had viewed the supply of US armaments up until that point. That same month, President Clinton, in response to a letter from 43 Senators, raised the Timor issue in a meeting in Japan with Suharto. 

During his first presidential campaign candidate Bill Clinton said that the US approach to East Timor has 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. He said, "The United States does have a very strong position on human rights, and I think we should... (b)ut that has not undermined our... commercial relationships... with countries that we think are making an honest effort to shoot straight with us and to work with us... We have questions about the issue of East Timor... but we have had good contact with Indonesia." 

Though US weapons manufacturers might see reduced profits because of a ban or cutback on weapons sales, such would not affect US corporations in Indonesia, engaged in other lines of business. Their relationship with Jakarta is one of mutual profit, a basic fact unaffected by Timor policy. 

In September 1993, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously adopted an amendment by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) to condition major arms sales to Indonesia on human rights improvements in East Timor. The amendment was a compromise version worked out after extensive negotiation with the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Senator Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) said that the amendment will "get strong support from the entire United States Senate [and] send a very important message to Indonesia about our concerns regarding human rights." 

The Feingold amendment sent political shock waves through Jakarta, though the authorization bill to which it was attached never reached the Senate floor. Although the administration had signed off on the compromise amendment, some individual officials mounted a campaign to keep the Feingold amendment from being attached to another legislative vehicle. 


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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 presented the first occasion in which 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. Now the issue becomes: what kind of sales should be withheld? 

East Timor book Since the 1991 massacre, the State Department has licensed more than 250 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 sends the political message that the Indonesian armed forces in their illegal occupation of East Timor still enjoy active US government support. 

The US should end those sales completely, and inform the UN Secretary General that it is now willing to support enforcement of the Security Council resolutions which call on Indonesia to withdraw from East Timor "without delay". This would mean supporting the call of Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, for a UN-supervised referendum in which the Timorese would freely choose their own political status. 

In its version of the Foreign Aid Appropriations for FY 1995, the House of Representatives sought to renew the ban on IMET and close a loophole under which Indonesia continued 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 July, the Senate put into law the prohibition on the sale of small arms. 

A few weeks before, the Senate had voted down an effort to ban the use of US-supplied lethal arms in East Timor. The appropriations bill, as agreed to in committee of both houses of Congress, only continued the IMET ban and prohibited small arms sales to Indonesia. 

The proposed provision in effect restated the US- Indonesia treaty signed in 1958 which restricts the use of US-supplied weapons to "legitimate self-defense" and strictly forbids their use for "an act of aggression." Soon after the invasion in 1975, Henry Kissinger had chastised one of his functionaries for pointing out that the invasion blatantly violated this treaty. Though the treaty still stands, it continues to be ignored, necessitating that the battle over arms sales and transfers be fought piecemeal. 

In February 1995, a bi-partisan group of nine Senators urged President Clinton to support a resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission calling for steps to improve human rights in East Timor. It reads: "We believe that the US relationship with Indonesia should enable us to effectively press our concerns with the Jakarta government." Members of the House Human Rights Caucus sent a similar letter, expressing concern about "the lack of progress on human rights and the perpetual reports of torture and other serious abuses." 

In 1995, when Congress partially restored IMET, it continued to make clear that it does not accept the human rights conduct of Indonesia's military. The foreign aid appropriations limited IMET to the "expanded" version which purports to focus on human rights and civilian control of the military. In March 1997, the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee received Administration testimony that the US sold Indonesia military training without Congressional notification or consent throughout 1996, despite Congressional limits on assistance to non-military training in its 1996 authorization. 

The final version of the FY1996 State Department reorganization bill would have extended the small arms ban to include helicopter-mounted equipment. The ban would remain in effect until the Secretary of State certifies significant progress on human rights in East Timor and in Indonesia, including compliance with UN human rights recommendations, significant reductions in Indonesia's troop presence in East Timor, a degree of local political control for East Timorese, and Indonesian cooperation with the UN Secretary General. Although the overall bill was vetoed, the State Department has agreed to continue and expand the small arms ban. 

In October 1995, bi-partisan groups of legislators from both houses sent letters to President Clinton before he met with Suharto. The Senate letter stated, "Violence in the territory has been on the increase as well, especially since the APEC Summit in Jakarta last November... [D]uring the Summit protesters were detained and, by most accounts, tortured at the hands of Indonesian soldiers. Other reports of deaths of protesters at the hands of the Indonesian soldiers have continued all year." 

Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), on the final international trip of his distinguished Senate career, visited East Timor in May, 1996. In his report to Chairman Helms, he wrote: "...widespread reports of abuse continue, including arbitrary arrest, torture, disappearances and killings. I heard several credible reports of these types of abuses while I was there.... Simply put, the people of East Timor feel they are subjugated by a foreign army of occupation.... 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." Other U.S. officials who have visited East Timor include Congressmen Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), and Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck. 

Again in November 1996, 15 Senators, led by Russell Feingold (D-WI), sent a letter to President Clinton. The letter stated: "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." 

Also in November 1996, House International Relations Committee Chair Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), wrote the Washington Post pledging a resolution of disapproval if the administration went ahead with the sale of nine F-16 fighter planes for sale to Indonesia. The sale was repeatedly postponed due to Congressional and grassroots pressure until, in June 1997, Suharto wrote Clinton rejecting not only the F-16s, but Expanded IMET (E-IMET) as well. Suharto stated that he would not accept restrictions on military transfers linked to human rights improvements. 

However, despite the termination of IMET training, US Green Berets continue to train Indonesian Kopassus (Special Forces) and US Marines still train Indonesian Marines. Kopassus troops have been implicated in some of the worst atrocities in East Timor. 

The so-called Indogate campaign finance scandal (when the DNC accepted contributions linked to Indonesia's Lippo bank) increased President Clinton's sensitivity about East Timor. In its wake, Clinton has made some gestures toward supporting East Timor. In April, the UN Human Rights Commission passed a resolution on East Timor with US co-sponsorship. In June, during a meeting between Bishop Belo and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, President Clinton briefly stopped by. 

There are currently two bills pending containing important language on East Timor. The House version of the State Department Authorization bill includes three relevant provisions: the Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers, Tony Hall's (D-OH) amendment calling for a just solution in East Timor, and Patrick Kennedy's (D-RI) and Howard Berman's (D-CA) "Sense of Congress," which would restrict US government weapons sales and military assistance to Indonesia until substantial improvements in human rights are met. 

The Foreign Operations Appropriations now contains language which would ban IMET and condition weapons sales to Indonesia, call for envoys in East Timor, and encourage the administration to support international efforts to find a just solution in East Timor. These conditions will become law as long as the entire FY 1998 Appropriations Bill is passed by congress. 

In the years since the Santa Cruz massacre, grassroots pressure has produced real change in what presidential candidate Clinton had called the U.S.'s "unconscionable" policy. However, given that we have had to fight the administration, the state department, several influential Indonesia-friendly congressmen, and major corporations such as GE and AT&T uphill all the way, it cannot be said that U.S. policy is any more conscionable under President Clinton. 

To bring the U.S. to support genuine self-determination in East Timor will require sustained pressure on congress and the administration, and the support of people like you

(last updated 11/12/97) 

Statements by Indonesian officials:  Gen. Try Sutrisno, now Indonesia's Vice President, said: "Such people must be shot and we will shoot them." Gen. 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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