East Timor’s Agony

East Timor’s Agony

With Dili burning and anti-independence militias carrying on a murderous terror campaign beneath the noses of Indonesian soldiers and police, the United Nations prepared to evacuate its East Tim


With Dili burning and anti-independence militias carrying on a murderous terror campaign beneath the noses of Indonesian soldiers and police, the United Nations prepared to evacuate its East Timor mission as we went to press. Left behind would be thousands of Timorese who took refuge in the UN compound. It appears that once again the Timorese people have been abandoned, as they have been repeatedly since the Ford Administration’s cynical acquiescence in Indonesia’s unprovoked invasion of the territory in 1975 and the subsequent murder of 200,000 people.

Allan Nairn, who reports in this issue on US complicity in the slaughter in East Timor, says that a senior Indonesian military official told UN personnel on September 8 that as soon as Timorese refugees are dealt with–meaning as soon as people who have sought safety outside their homes are deported–he will begin military operations. A Western military official told Nairn that he interpreted this as meaning a mass killing.

It is dangerously misleading to describe the current agony of East Timor as “chaos,” a word constantly repeated in Western news accounts. The militias are organized, armed and funded by Jakarta. More troubling is the response from Washington, with State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin challenging Indonesia’s forces to “restore order.” Restoring order is precisely what these militias are about: turning back the clock on the recent election, in which 79 percent of Timorese supported independence. The “martial law” Indonesian General Wiranto declared, supposedly in response to the militia terror campaign, simply returned East Timor to the repressive state that has prevailed for most of the past quarter-century of Indonesian occupation.

Are such misapprehensions of the situation in East Timor a matter of policy bumbling, or are they obfuscations of the West’s reliance on the Indonesian military as a guarantor of stability for Western economic interests and as a regional military surrogate? Tom Gallagher, a UN election observer evacuated in the first days of the post-election terror, writes, “The entire proposition was a house of cards that depended upon several improbabilities: the acceptance by the Indonesian government of a result unfavorable to it, and, most spectacularly, the proposition that the Indonesian national police force–only recently separated from the army that had waged a brutal war on the island–would provide the security necessary for a legitimate campaign.” Gallagher monitored the election in the eastern province of Lautem, where just hours after the polls closed the province’s pro-independence community leader “lay dead in his burning house, hacked by ten or twenty machete blows.”

In the aftermath of the election, it is clear that Washington and Europe deliberately chose to accept the fiction that the Indonesian military would rise above its brutal history–even after the militias began their most recent spate of killing ten months ago. As Nairn reveals here, US military officials, far from penalizing their Indonesian counterparts, promised them more aid. With Washington’s support, the World Bank extended its credit line. Britain and France continue to supply Indonesia with arms.

The East Timor crisis (at press time there were reports that it had extended to Indonesia in the form of an attempted military coup) has provoked calls for UN action. But with the UN unwilling to intervene without Indonesia’s permission and China certain to veto military steps, the UN has little leverage. Although the UN may eventually have on-the-ground responsibilities for a transition to independence, the power to prevent a second Timorese genocide and follow through on the promise of independence–held out by Portugal in 1975 only to be snatched away by Indonesia–lies in Europe and especially in Washington. This is not a question of US intervention. The United States has been intervening in East Timor for years, starting with Henry Kissinger’s approval of the invasion in 1975 and extending through last year, when the US military evaded Congressional restrictions to train Indonesian forces. It is time for President Clinton to make clear that Indonesian military assistance and World Bank credit are ended–ended not just until “order is restored” but until East Timor is free. After twenty-four years of covert intervention and overt abandonment, enough is enough.

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