East Timor Retrospective

By Noam Chomsky

It is not easy to write with feigned calm and dispassion about the events that have been unfolding in East Timor. Horror and shame are compounded by the fact that the crimes are so familiar and could so easily have been terminated. That has been true ever since Indonesia invaded in December 1975, relying on U.S. diplomatic support and arms -- used illegally, but with secret authorization, even new arms shipments sent under the cover of an official "embargo." There has been no need to threaten bombing or even sanctions. It would have sufficed for the U.S. and its allies to withdraw their active participation, and to inform their close associates in the Indonesian military command that the atrocities must be terminated and the territory granted the right of self-determination that has been upheld by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. We cannot undo the past, but should at least be willing to recognize what we have done, and to face the moral responsibility of saving the remnants and providing ample reparations, a pathetic gesture of compensation for terrible crimes.

The latest chapter in this painful story of betrayal and complicity opened right after the referendum of Aug. 30, 1999, when the population voted overwhelmingly for independence. At once, atrocities mounted sharply, organized and directed by the Indonesian military (TNI). The UN Mission (UNAMET) gave its appraisal on September 11:

The evidence for a direct link between the militia and the military is beyond any dispute and has been overwhelmingly documented by UNAMET over the last four months. But the scale and thoroughness of the destruction of East Timor in the past week has demonstrated a new level of open participation of the military in the implementation of what was previously a more veiled operation.

The Mission warned that "the worst may be yet to come.... It cannot be ruled out that these are the first stages of a genocidal campaign to stamp out the East Timorese problem by force."

Indonesia historian John Roosa, an official observer of the vote, described the situation starkly: "Given that the pogrom was so predictable, it was easily preventable... But in the weeks before the ballot, the Clinton Administration refused to discuss with Australia and other countries the formation of [an international force]. Even after the violence erupted, the Administration dithered for days," until compelled by international (primarily Australian) and domestic pressure to make some timid gestures. Even these ambiguous messages sufficed to induce the Indonesian generals to reverse course and to accept an international presence, illustrating the latent power that has always been at hand.

The same power relations ensure that the UN can do nothing without Washington consent and initiative. While Clinton "dithers," almost half the population has been expelled from their homes according to UN estimates, and thousands murdered. The Air Force that was able to carry out pin-point destruction of civilian targets in Novi Sad, Belgrade, and Ponceva lacks the capacity to drop food to people facing starvation in the mountains to which they have been driven by the terror of the TNI forces armed and trained by the United States, and its no less cynical allies.

The recent events will evoke bitter memories among those who do not prefer "intentional ignorance." We are witnessing a shameful replay of events of 20 years ago. After carrying out a huge slaughter in 1977-78 with the decisive support of the Carter Administration, Indonesia felt confident enough to permit a brief visit by members of the Jakarta diplomatic corps, among them U.S. Ambassador Edward Masters. They recognized that an enormous humanitarian catastrophe had been created. The aftermath was described by Benedict Anderson, one of the most distinguished Indonesia scholars. "For nine long months" of starvation and terror, Anderson testified at the United Nations, "Ambassador Masters deliberately refrained, even within the walls of the State Department, from proposing humanitarian aid to East Timor," waiting "until the generals in Jakarta gave him the green light" -- until they felt "secure enough to permit foreign visitors," as an internal State Department document recorded. Only then did Washington consider taking some steps to deal with the consequences of its actions.

As TNI forces and their paramilitaries were burning down the capital city of Dili in September 1999, murdering and rampaging with renewed intensity, the Pentagon announced that "A U.S.-Indonesian training exercise focused on humanitarian and disaster relief activities concluded Aug. 25," five days before the referendum. The lessons were applied within days in the standard way, as all but the voluntarily blind must understand after many years of the same tales, the same outcomes.

One gruesome illustration was the coup that brought General Suharto to power in 1965. Army-led massacres slaughtered hundreds of thousands in a few months, mostly landless peasants, destroying the mass-based political party of the left, the PKI. The achievement elicited unrestrained euphoria in the West and fulsome praise for the Indonesian "moderates," Suharto and his military accomplices, who had cleansed the society and opened it to foreign plunder. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara informed Congress that U.S. military aid and training had "paid dividends" -- including half a million corpses; "enormous dividends," a congressional report concluded. McNamara informed President Johnson that that U.S. military assistance "encouraged [the army] to move against the PKI when the opportunity was presented." Contacts with Indonesian military officers, including university programs, were "very significant factors in determining the favorable orientation of the new Indonesian political elite" (the army).

So matters have continued for 35 years of intensive military aid, training, and communication, up to the humanitarian training exercises of August 1999. A few months earlier, shortly after the massacre of dozens of refugees who had taken shelter in a Church in Liquica, Admiral Dennis Blair, U.S. Pacific Commander, assured TNI commander General Wiranto of U.S. support and assistance, proposing a new U.S. training mission. In the face of this record, only briefly sampled, and duplicated repeatedly elsewhere, the government lauds "the value of the years of training given to Indonesia's future military leaders in the United States and the millions of dollars in military aid for Indonesia," urging more of the same for Indonesia and throughout the world.

The reasons for the disgraceful record have sometimes been honestly recognized. During the latest phase of atrocities, a senior diplomat in Jakarta described "the dilemma" faced by the great powers: "Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn't." It is therefore understandable that Washington should keep to ineffectual gestures of disapproval while insisting that internal security in East Timor "is the responsibility of the Government of Indonesia, and we don't want to take that responsibility away from them" -- the official stance a few days before the August referendum, repeated in full knowledge of how that "responsibility" had been carried out, and maintained as the most dire predictions were quickly fulfilled.

The reasoning of the senior diplomat was spelled out more fully by two Asia specialists of the _New York Times_: the Clinton Administration, they write, "has made the calculation that the United States must put its relationship with Indonesia, a mineral-rich nation of more than 200 million people, ahead of its concern over the political fate of East Timor, a tiny impoverished territory of 800,000 people that is seeking independence." The second national journal quotes Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center, stating the facts of life: "Timor is a speed bump on the road to dealing with Jakarta, and we've got to get over it safely. Indonesia is such a big place and so central to the stability of the region."

The term "stability" has long served as a code word, referring to a "favorable orientation of the political elite" -- favorable not to their populations, but to foreign investors and global managers.

In the rhetoric of official Washington, "We don't have a dog running in the East Timor race." Accordingly, what happens there is not our business. But after intensive Australian pressure, the calculations shifted: "we have a very big dog running down there called Australia and we have to support it," a senior government official concluded. The survivors of U.S.-backed crimes in a "tiny impoverished territory" are not even a "small dog."

The guiding principles were well understood by those responsible for Indonesia's 1975 invasion. They were articulated by UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in words that should be committed to memory by anyone with a serious interest in international affairs, human rights, and the rule of law. The Security Council condemned the invasion and ordered Indonesia to withdraw, but to no avail. In his 1978 memoirs, Moynihan explains why:

The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.

Success was indeed considerable. Moynihan cites reports that within two months some 60,000 people had been killed, "10 percent of the population, almost the proportion of casualties experienced by the Soviet Union during the Second World War." A sign of the success, he adds, is that within a year "the subject disappeared from the press." So it did, as the invaders intensified their assault. Atrocities peaked as Moynihan was writing in 1977-78. Relying on a new flow of advanced military equipment from the Human Rights Administration, the Indonesian military carried out a devastating attack against the hundreds of thousands who had fled to the mountains, driving the survivors to Indonesian control. It was then that highly credible Church sources in East Timor sought to make public the estimates of 200,000 deaths that came to be accepted years later, after constant denial. The U.S. reaction to the carnage has already been described.

As the slaughter reached near-genocidal levels, Britain and France joined in, providing arms and diplomatic support. Other powers too sought to participate in the lucrative aggression and massacre, always following the principles that have been lucidly enunciated.

The story does not begin in 1975. East Timor had not been overlooked by the planners of the postwar world. The territory should be granted independence, Roosevelt's senior adviser Sumner Welles mused, but "it would certainly take a thousand years." With an awe-inspiring display of courage and fortitude, the people of East Timor have struggled to confound that cynical prediction, enduring monstrous disasters. Perhaps 50,000 lost their lives protecting a small contingent of Australian commandoes fighting the Japanese; their heroism may have saved Australia from Japanese invasion. A third of the population were victims of the first years of the 1975 Indonesian invasion, many more since.

The current year opened with a moment of hope. Indonesia's interim president Habibie called for a referendum with a choice between incorporation within Indonesia ("autonomy") or independence. The army moved at once to prevent this outcome by terror and intimidation. In the months leading to the August referendum, 3-5000 were killed according to highly credible Church sources -- twice the number of deaths prior to the NATO bombing in Kosovo, more than four times the number relative to population. The terror was widespread and sadistic, intended as a warning of the fate awaiting those foolhardy enough to disregard the orders of the occupying army.

Braving violence and threats, almost the entire population voted, many emerging from hiding to do so. Close to 80% chose independence. Then followed the latest phase of TNI atrocities in an effort to reverse the outcome by slaughter and expulsion, while reducing much of the country to ashes. Within two weeks more than 10,000 might have been killed, according to Bishop Carlos Filipe Belo, the Nobel Peace laureate who was driven from his country under a hail of bullets, his house burned down and the refugees sheltering there dispatched to an uncertain fate.

Even before Habibie's surprise call for a referendum, the army anticipated threats to its rule, including its control over East Timor's resources, and undertook careful planning with "the aim, quite simply,...to destroy a nation." The plans were known to Western intelligence, as has been the case from the outset. TNI recruited thousands of West Timorese and brought in forces from Java. More ominously, the military command sent units of its dread U.S.-trained Kopassus special forces, and as senior military adviser, General Makarim, a U.S.-trained intelligence specialist with experience in East Timor and "a reputation for callous violence."

Terror and destruction began early in the year. The TNI forces responsible have been described as "rogue elements" in the West, a questionable judgment. There is good reason to accept Bishop Belo's assignment of direct responsibility to commanding General Wiranto in Jakarta. It appears that the militias have been managed by elite units of Kopassus, the "crack special forces unit" that had "been training regularly with US and Australian forces until their behaviour became too much of an embarrassment for their foreign friends," veteran Asia correspondent David Jenkins reports. These forces are "legendary for their cruelty," Benedict Anderson observes: in East Timor they "became the pioneer and exemplar for every kind of atrocity," including systematic rapes, tortures and executions, and organization of hooded gangsters. They adopted the tactics of the U.S. Phoenix program in South Vietnam that killed tens of thousands of peasants and much of the indigenous South Vietnamese leadership, Jenkins writes, as well as "the tactics employed by the Contras" in Nicaragua, following lessons taught by their CIA mentors. The state terrorists were "not simply going after the most radical pro-independence people but going after the moderates, the people who have influence in their community." "It's Phoenix," a well-placed source in Jakarta reported: the aim is "to terrorise everyone" -- the NGOs, the Red Cross, the UN, the journalists.

Well before the referendum, the commander of the Indonesian military in Dili, Colonel Tono Suratman, warned of what was to come: "I would like to convey the following," he said: "if the pro-independents do win ... all will be destroyed... It will be worse than 23 years ago." An army document of early May, when international agreement on the referendum was reached, ordered that "Massacres should be carried out from village to village after the announcement of the ballot if the pro-independence supporters win." The independence movement "should be eliminated from its leadership down to its roots." Citing diplomatic, church and militia sources, the Australian press reported "that hundreds of modern assault rifles, grenades and mortars are being stockpiled, ready for use if the autonomy option is rejected at the ballot box." It warned that the army-run militias might be planning a violent takeover of much of the territory if, despite the terror, the popular will would be expressed.

All of this was understood by the "foreign friends," who also knew how to bring the terror to an end, but preferred evasive and ambiguous reactions that the Indonesian Generals could easily interpret as a "green light" to carry out their work.

The sordid history must be viewed against the background of U.S.-Indonesia relations in the postwar era. The rich resources of the archipelago, and its critical strategic location, guaranteed it the central role in U.S. global planning. These factors lie behind U.S. efforts 40 years ago to dismantle Indonesia, perceived as too independent and too democratic, even permitting participation of the leftist peasant-based PKI. The same factors account for Western support for the regime of killers and torturers who brought about a "favorable orientation" in 1965. Their achievements were, furthermore, understood to be a vindication of Washington's wars in Indochina, motivated in large part by concerns that the "virus" of independent nationalism might "infect" Indonesia, to borrow Kissingerian rhetoric. Support for the invasion of East Timor and subsequent atrocities was reflexive, though a broader analysis should attend to the fact that the collapse of the Portuguese empire had much the same consequences in Africa, where South Africa was the agent of Western-backed terror. Throughout, Cold War pretexts were routinely invoked, serving as a convenient disguise for ugly motives and actions, particularly so in Southeast Asia.

Surely we should by now be willing to cast aside mythology and face the causes and consequences of our actions, not only in East Timor. In that tortured corner of the world there is still time, though very little time, to prevent a hideous consummation of one of the most appalling tragedies of the terrible century that is winding to a horrifying, wrenching close.