John M. Miller,
ETAN National Coordinator
Reflecting on ETAN at 20
On November 12, 1991, Indonesia troops carrying U.S. supplied
weapons gunned down peaceful East Timorese demonstration at Dili's
Santa Cruz cemetery. And I can still recall vividly the tremor in
Amy Goodman's voice in her first reports to Pacifica's WBAI radio
here in New York, where she was News Director. Those reports
inspired several of us who knew each other from organizing campaigns
to begin meeting in New York. Out of those meetings ETAN began.
One detail from those reports was especially striking. Amy and Allan
Nairn (also from New York) attributed their survival to the fact
that they had waved their U.S. passports at the troops that were
assaulting them. The journalists were from the same country that the
soldiers' weapons came from.
Amy and Allan were the two U.S. eyewitnesses to the massacre and shared
their knowledge with our fledgling group. Our first demonstration
was on Human Rights Day 1991 at the Indonesian Mission to the UN.
Many more were to follow.
Reports of the massacre sparked organizing efforts in cities
throughout the U.S. Soon enough, there was ETAN/Rhode Island and
ETAN/Los Angeles, then Madison, DC, and San Francisco. Gradually, we
found each other and consolidated into ETAN/U.S. (We borrowed our
initials - with their blessing - from Canada's East Timor Alert
We seized the chance to speak out, something that East Timorese
could only do at great risk. One early ETAN leaflet bluntly
stated that East Timorese could be shot for attending a
demonstration, but that we in the United States could at much less
risk support them. A simple recitation of the facts was all that was
needed to convince many that the U.S. bore substantial
responsibility for a grave injustice and that we needed to take
responsibility for changing our own country's policies.
ETAN's John M. Miller (with bullhorn) speaks at the
Indonesian consulate in Manhattan, January 2000.
Protests also took place that day in Los Angeles, San
Francisco, Chicago, Houston and Washington, DC.
We built on the efforts of others who had been
working on the issues, some since 1975, many in church groups and
Congress. But we brought our own energy and new ideas, at times a
Early on, we determined to be non-partisan (working with people and
politicians with a wide-range of views on other subjects). After
all, U.S. presidents of both parties had supported Indonesia. We
embraced a wide range of tactics from lobbying and letter-writing to
supporting lawsuits against Indonesian generals. We spoke inside
(and outside) the UN and organized countless demonstrations at
Indonesia's diplomatic offices around the U.S. In New York, there
were two and we probably have had an equal number of protests at the
consulate and mission to the UN. Several hundred were arrested in
civil disobedience sit-ins. We organized international election
observers in 1999, 2001, and 2007. We successfully sued New York
City to have the street in front of the Indonesian consulate
temporarily renamed "East Timor Way" in 1999.
We always tried to be accurate; the situation was dire enough not to
need exaggeration. This approach has helped us build credibility
with the media, officials and others that carries through to today.
Our initial focus was on gaining self-determination for East Timor.
Our political strategy was ambitious, but simple. We saw the
Indonesian military as crucial to the occupation. The U.S. was the
military's chief benefactor, and we set out to sever that
relationship. Indonesia would value its ties to the U.S. more than
its continued occupation of East Timor. Events would bear out this
analysis - more quickly than many of us imagined in late 1991.
We won a quick victory when Congress barred Indonesia from IMET
military training in May 1992, in response to our pressure. At the
time, few other countries were barred from IMET. We learned that
while East Timor wasn't on the radar of many, a few voices from a
congressional district or state could sway many members of Congress.
Some of them became staunch supporters of East Timorese rights.
In the end, there were very few floor votes directly on East Timor
and we lost several of them. But each time East Timor was debated on
the floor of congress or in committee, more were educated and more
concessions were extracted. Bans on the transfer of categories of
military weapons and police equipment were imposed throughout the
1990s, either by the administration (always under Congressional
pressure) or Congress. Indonesia's dictator Suharto twice
refused training or weapons in a fit of pique over U.S. criticism of
repression in East Timor. Finally in September 1999, responding to a
global outcry at Indonesia's destruction after the East Timorese
chose independence, President Clinton announced a full cut off of
security assistance. The Indonesian military quickly agreed to honor
the result of the August 30 UN-organized referendum and withdraw.
We seized the chance to speak out, something
that East Timorese could only do so at great
risk. One early ETAN leaflet bluntly stated
that East Timorese could be shot for
attending a demonstration, but that we in
the United States could at much less risk
The Congressional and public pressure that
contributed to East Timor's independence came from years of
organizing within U.S. and the tenacity of the East Timorese people
in asserting their rights. ETAN initially built a base of support by
borrowing lists from national groups, including the War Resisters
League of which I and Charles Scheiner, another ETAN founder, are
long time members. These groups allowed us to call their members
just once (Brown University students did most of the calling). We
also gathered initial support from sign up sheets at talks by Allan,
Amy and others and by petitioning at showings of the
documentary "Manufacturing Consent," which features early ETAN
supporter Noam Chomsky and includes a substantial section on East
In the early 1990s, the online organizing was coming into its own as
an activist tool, both as a source of information and a way to spur
action and activism. The internet enabled us to quickly link up with
like-minded groups and individuals to compare information and share
strategy. East Timorese leaders abroad were soon in touch and
offered encouragement. We in turn supported their activities in the
U.S. and at the UN as best we could.
stayed current with events and activities through the reg.easttimor
e-mail listserv, begun by Tapol in Britain the previous year. We
soon became major contributors to the list and over time took over
the major responsibility for the list, now officially
the east-timor list. (People often confuse the list with ETAN
the organization at times, to our frustration.). In 1999, when I
first went to East Timor to observe the referendum, many Timorese
knew my name because of my many posts to the listserv. With access
to the internet limited, items from the list would be printed out
and passed around. Occasionally, I had to explain that I hadn't
written most of them, just forwarded the news, analysis and reports
from activists and others. Even now, much of my morning is taken up
with the list, which has more subscribers than ever (more than 2600
at last count).
Soon after the 1999 vote, ETAN met in Arizona to decide whether to
continue and what we should work on, now that East Timor was soon to
become independent. Whether to continue or not was only briefly
debated. We decided to focus our work for justice for East Timor
through an international tribunal and accountability for the U.S.
role, return of refugees, and support for human rights and
sustainable development. We committed to maintain the suspension of
military ties with Indonesia, both to pressure Indonesia on East
Timor and to support those still on the receiving end of Indonesian
military brutality. We also helped launch the Indonesia Human Rights
Network. When that network folded, ETAN changed our name in 2005 to
acknowledge that we were actively working on a number of Indonesia
specific issues. In recent years, that has meant highlighting
ongoing human rights violations in West Papua and monitoring the
impact of U.S. security assistance, which we believe serves to
undermine the democratic transformation of Indonesia. We have
opposed the lifting of restrictions on U.S. cooperation with
Kopassus, Indonesia's special forces, as well as abusive police
Soon after the 1999 vote, ETAN met in
Arizona to decide whether to continue and
what we should work on, now that East Timor
was soon to become independent. Whether to
continue or not was only briefly debated.
Justice for past rights violations at times feels as distant now as
self-determination for East Timor did in 1991. But justice and
accountability is not just about the past, it is also about
deterring future violations. On the 20th anniversary of the Santa
Cruz massacre, ETAN
reaffirmed our commitment to pursue justice: "Ongoing impunity
for decades of systematic Indonesian military and police atrocities
keeps the Timorese and Indonesian people from consolidating their
democracies and moving on with their lives. ETAN will not rest until
justice is done." This past year, we have confronted a very visible
Henry Kissinger multiple times about his role in giving a U.S. go
ahead to Indonesia's invasion and occupation to highlight the need
to hold U.S. leaders accountable.
In addition to campaigning for justice for the
past, ETAN monitors human rights issues in the new country. Since
East Timor became the independent nation of Timor-Leste, ETAN has
supported the new country's efforts to gain control over petroleum
resources that are rightfully theirs. Working with groups in
Timor-Leste and elsewhere, ETAN
has raised concerns about plans by the government to take out
As ETAN continues our work, we face a number of
challenges. ETAN has never been very large or well-funded. We
sometimes joked that our work was done with smoke and mirrors. While
many in both East Timor and Indonesia continue to ask a lot from us,
money and other resources have become harder to come by. Our staff
has shrunk over the years and we had to close our Washington office.
There are only a few active chapters. Many of those most active in
the past have moved on to other issues and other priorities. We have
more ideas and possible projects than we can possibly
implement. But a core of people remain committed to ETAN and our
issues, even as we work to develop new supporters. And we try get
the most out of the resources we have.
The U.S. activist Mother Jones is credited with the saying, "My
business is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
For the past 20 years, ETAN has to work to afflict the
powerful and pressure them to change their destructive policies. We
will continue this work and by
doing so we hope that we provide some comfort to the victims of
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