The price of independence

May 20, 2002|By Ben Terrall

OAKLAND, Calif. -- East Timor will celebrate its independence today after throwing off a 24-year Indonesian military occupation that killed 200,000 East Timorese.

But while the world should rightly congratulate the East Timorese people on their incredible accomplishment, it is important to remember that for more than two decades the United States provided bipartisan support for the Indonesian military (TNI), not the East Timorese.

For that, Washington should formally apologize to the world's newest nation, situated 400 miles north of Australia, as the first step in a broader process of accountability for its role in financing TNI terror.

Declassified documents released in December by the National Security Archive show that on Dec. 6, 1975, then-President Gerald R. Ford and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger gave Indonesian dictator Suharto a green light to invade East Timor, which his regime did the next day. The United States supplied 90 percent of the weapons used in the military occupation, which was characterized by indiscriminate slaughter.

For the next 24 years, from Mr. Ford to Bill Clinton, the United States consistently sided with Indonesia's rulers. Mr. Clinton will represent President Bush at the independence festivities.

As assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under President Jimmy Carter, Richard Holbrooke, who was accompanying Mr. Clinton, oversaw the shipment of 16 A-4 Skyhawk jets that were used during the intensification of attacks on tens of thousands of East Timorese civilians.

Although the United Nations passed resolutions condemning Indonesia's illegal occupation, Mr. Ford's ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, acknowledged in his memoirs that he worked to make U.N. efforts "utterly ineffective."

In the 1990s, grassroots and congressional pressure did push U.S. policy on Indonesia, and activists managed to help stop some military training of the TNI and block weapon sales.

In 1999, the East Timorese resistance triumphed over Indonesian military-backed violence and intimidation and the people voted overwhelming for independence in a U.N.-administered referendum. Indonesian police and military, and their militia proxies, responded by killing between 1,500 and 2,000 people, raping hundreds of women and girls, displacing three-fourths of the population and destroying more than 70 percent of the territory's infrastructure.

Through Australian intelligence intercepts, the United States knew such a scorched-earth campaign was being planned but declined to discourage such mass violence by threatening a cutoff in military or economic aid. But after a week of TV images of the destruction, grassroots and congressional pressure forced Mr. Clinton to cut military aid to Jakarta.

In January 2000, a U.N. commission recommended that the Indonesian military be brought before an international human rights tribunal on East Timor. Such a court has not been formed, and apologists for Jakarta point to the Indonesian ad hoc Human Rights Court on East Timor as an adequate substitute. But that court's mandate is limited to two months in 1999 and three of East Timor's 13 districts.

Only a few mid-level officers, including three generals who are not among the top tier in the chain of command, will be tried, the systematic planning and execution of 1999's devastation will go unexamined and massacres committed over the previous 24 years will be ignored.

Generals present in court serve to intimidate witnesses, and the Indonesia program director of the International Crisis Group, Sidney Jones, reported that "In the sloppiness of their work, the prosecutors have not only helped the defendants, they have trivialized the whole concept of crimes against humanity." The Brussels-based International Crisis Group is a think tank devoted to containing conflicts worldwide.

The Bush Administration should not be allowed to follow through on current plans to restart aid to the Indonesian military with $8 million to train a counter-terrorism unit and $8 million more for domestic peacekeeping .

Congress must push the administration to instead support an international tribunal on East Timor to try Indonesian military and political leaders for their roles in the destruction of East Timor in September 1999, as called for by House and Senate resolutions (which have yet to be voted on). And to be consistent, Congress should also begin investigations of the U.S. role in East Timor's invasion and occupation.

Ben Terrall is coordinator of the San Francisco chapter of the East Timor Action Network.

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