On September 19, as the UN peacekeeping force was deploying in the ashes of Dili, our correspondent Allan Nairn was deported from West Timor to Singapore. In 1991 Nairn was declared a “threat to national security” by the Indonesian Army after he witnessed a massacre of 271 people in East Timor. Now the facts Nairn and others reported as lonely voices are emerging into the light–too late, however, to prevent ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. Thousands are reported dead and perhaps 400,000 displaced by rampaging militias.
Never was a debacle so predictable as the slaughter that surrounded the UN-sponsored referendum in which thousands of East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence. At the UN on September 21, President Clinton congratulated himself for “concerted economic and political pressure…in making possible the introduction of forces in East Timor.” But human rights advocates and East Timorese activists futilely sought such pressure on Jakarta for years. Even after the militia rampages began, Washington pretended that the same army that has killed up to one-third of the population over a quarter-century of illegal occupation would halt the carnage. Clinton did not suspend military aid and IMF loans until the slaughter was at its zenith. If he had acted even two weeks earlier thousands might have been spared.
Now the army’s role in the post-referendum violence has been confirmed by international observers. Recently, the South China Morning Post reported an interview with Tomas Goncalves, a former militia leader. Goncalves said that the murders of pro-independence leaders and their entire families had been called for by an intelligence officer, Lieut. Col. Yahyat Sudrajad, at a conclave of militia leaders on February 16. Sudrajad was perceived as speaking for his superiors. The meeting was held soon after President B.J. Habibie announced the East Timor referendum.
Nairn, who never stopped being a reporter even in detention, described seeing militia members in their black uniforms wandering in and out of military headquarters. “Clearly the militias were operating out of the army and police bases.” On the plane taking him from East to West Timor, Nairn said, he recognized the faces of militiamen he had seen on the streets of Dili. “It turns out all these men were police intelligence, and they were being rotated back–after having fulfilled their assignments in Dili.”
After Nairn’s arrest, both he and State Department officials were told he would face criminal prosecution for reporting from East Timor in defiance of his ban. What set him free was a transnational campaign on his behalf. The Nation sent a letter of protest to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Indonesian Embassy, and organized a petition signed by dozens of prominent writers, journalists and scholars. The Committee to Protect Journalists confronted President Habibie, pointing out that the policy of blacklisting journalists for reporting unfavorably on the military was a relic of the Suharto regime and contradicted Habibie’s declared allegiance to a free press. Senators Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold interceded with the State Department. Nobel laureate José Ramos Horta pleaded with Albright for greater vigor in seeking Nairn’s release. Nation readers and Pacifica listeners barraged the State Department with calls. The perils reporters face in East Timor were underscored by the murder of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes by Indonesian soldiers even as peacekeepers were securing Dili. (Thoenes is remembered here as a coordinator of the 1992 InterNation Conference on Investigative Journalism in Moscow.)
The Australian-led force shoulders the dangerous and difficult task of restoring order so that desperately needed humanitarian aid can be brought to refugees. The welfare of the East Timorese forcibly held under unspeakable conditions in detention camps in West Timor must be addressed by the UN Refugee Commission. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson’s call for a tribunal to investigate atrocities must have international support.
Particularly because of its long history of involvement with the Indonesian military, the United States must not be allowed to duck its responsibilities in the area. It must maintain political and economic pressure on Indonesia. A good first step is the bill introduced by Senator Feingold that would prolong Clinton’s cutoff of aid to the Indonesian military until it gets out of East Timor completely. The Pentagon should not be allowed to resume doing business with the Indonesian generals. As Nairn cautions: “There are important questions about this military cutoff. It appears, for one thing, that weapons already in the pipeline are still being shipped to Indonesia. And after the invasion of 1975, there was also a cutoff that turned out to be bogus.”
On a recent radio discussion of the media’s neglect of East Timor, Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, who was with Nairn at the 1991 Dili massacre, was asked about spotting “the next East Timor.” She replied, “The next East Timor is East Timor.” In other words, this story isn’t over. Not for Allan Nairn, certainly. He’s determined to return to East Timor. We hope to publish a report from him in an upcoming issue.