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Noam Chomsky

Caricature by GOPI GAJWANI

It is not easy to write with feigned calm and dispassion about the events that unfolded in East Timor in 1999. 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 authorisation, 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, very likely, have sufficed for the U.S. and its allies to withdraw their 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 recognise 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 after the referendum of August 30, 1999, when the population voted overwhelmingly for independence. Atrocities mounted sharply, organised and directed by the Indonesian military (TNI). The UN Assistance 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."[1]

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,"[2] until compelled by international (primarily Australian) and domestic pressure to make some timid gestures. These limited measures 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, overwhelmingly so since Indonesia’s economic collapse in 1997.

These recent events should evoke bitter memories among those who do not prefer what has sometimes been called ‘intentional ignorance’.[3] They were a shameful replay of events of 20 years earlier. After carrying out a huge slaughter in 1977-78 with the support of the Carter Administration, the regime of General Suharto felt confident enough to permit a brief visit by members of the Jakarta diplomatic corps, among them U.S. Ambassador Edward Masters. The Ambassadors and the journalists who accompanied them recognised that an enormous humanitarian catastrophe had been created, reminiscent of Biafra and Cambodia. The aftermath was described by the distinguished Indonesia scholar Benedict Anderson. "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.[4]

While Clinton followed suit from February through August of 1999, the Indonesian military implemented a scarcely-veiled campaign of terror and intimidation that may have killed thousands of people. And as he "dithered" in the final weeks, most of the population were expelled from their homes with unknown numbers killed and much of the country destroyed. According to UN figures, the TNI-paramilitary campaign "drove an estimated 750,000 of East Timor’s 880,000 people from their homes,"[5] probably some 250,000 or more to Indonesian West Timor — elsewhere too, according to many reports, though no one is investigating. The Air Force that was able to carry out pin-point destruction of civilian targets in Novi Sad, Belgrade and Ponceva a few months before, lacked the capacity to drop food to hundreds of thousands of people facing starvation in the mountains to which they have been driven by the TNI forces armed and trained by the United States, and its no less cynical allies. The Administration also took no meaningful action to rescue the several hundred thousand captives held by paramilitaries in West Timor.

By year’s end, 100,000-150,000 or more people remained in West Timor as "virtual prisoners," Amnesty International reported, "trapped in makeshift camps and living in a state of constant fear under the rule of the militia groups that destroyed East Timor... often intimidated, harassed, extorted and in some cases sexually assaulted and killed." This is "the only place in the world where UNHCR workers are heavily escorted by police and army troops where they go into camps," the agency reported, adding that "The moment an East Timorese expresses a desire to leave the camps and go home, their life is in danger." Perhaps 500 had died "due to inadequate sanitation and medical care," officials said, mostly children, victims of diarrhoea and dysentery. "Every day, many of the people are dying from malaria, respiratory infections and acute gastro-intestinal diseases," says Arthur Howshen, a volunteer doctor. "There is also a lack of food, shortages of rice are common, and there are also a lot of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency." With the onset of the rainy season, conditions are even worse than when they were driven from East Timor. Touring camps on both sides of the border, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh reported that the refugees are "starving and terrorised," and that disappearances "without explanation" are a daily occurrence.[5]

To bring these crimes to an end has easily been within Washington’s power, as before.

At last report, the U.S. had provided no funds for the Australian-led UN force INTERFET (International Force in East Timor); Japan, long a fervent supporter of Indonesia, offered $100 million and Portugal $5 million. That is perhaps not surprising, in the light of Washington’s failure "to pay any of the $37.9 million assessed for the start-up costs of the United Nations civilian operation in Kosovo, which Washington supported in the Security Council." At the same time, the Clinton Administration asked the UN "to reduce the size" of its small peacekeeping force in East Timor.[6]

In Kosovo, preparation for war crimes trials began in May 1999, in the midst of the NATO bombing campaign, expedited at the initiative of Washington and London, which also provided unprecedented access to intelligence information. In East Timor, investigations were discussed at leisure, with numerous delays and deference to Jakarta’s wishes and sensibilities. "It’s an absolute joke, a complete whitewash," Lucia Withers, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International, informed the British press: it will "cause East Timorese even more trauma than they have suffered already"; a leading Indonesian role "would be really insulting at this stage." Few seriously expect that the U.S. or U.K. will release vital intelligence information, and the Indonesian generals are reported to feel confident that their old friends will not let them down — if only because the chain of responsibility might be hard to snap at just the right point. By mid-January, UN officials said that a tribunal was unlikely. U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and others "are pinning their hopes on an internal tribunal held by Indonesia, whose military controlled East Timor from 1975 until August and is blamed by human-rights groups for the atrocities." It was claimed that China and Russia are blocking a tribunal, an obstacle that the West cannot think of any way to overcome, unlike the case of Serbia.[7]

On January 31, 2000, the UN International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor issued a report calling for an international human rights tribunal under UN auspices. Its mandate should be "to try and sentence those accused by the independent investigation body of serious violations of fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law which took place in East Timor since January 1999." "It is fundamental for the future social and political stability of East Timor," the Commission concluded, "that the truth be established and those responsible for the crimes committed be brought to justice. Every effort has to be made to provide adequate reparation to the victims for only then can true reconciliation take place."[8]

On the same day, an Indonesian government Commission of Inquiry issued a "damning report" condemning "the Indonesian military and its militia surrogates" for atrocities "following the territory’s August 30 vote for independence," including former army chief General Wiranto.[9] Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, then at the Davos conference in Switzerland, called upon Wiranto to resign his cabinet post, and promised to pardon him if he is convicted. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson expressed her "hope that efforts to hold those responsible for the atrocities in East Timor accountable will go on so that there is no impunity." But that is "not very likely," correspondent Dan Murphy observed: "Support within the UN for a war-crimes tribunal is low." Crucially, support in the great powers is not merely "low" but negative. The general attitude is expressed by the editors of the Washington Post: "But before a Bosnia-style tribunal is created, Indonesia should be given a chance to judge its own"— and to pardon them if convicted, as the President announced at once.[10]

Australian UN correspondent Mark Riley reported from New York that the UN "is set to ignore the strong advice of its own human rights body for a war crimes tribunal in East Timor, instead deferring debate on the issue until Indonesia’s probe into the killings is completed. The decision is a political victory for Jakarta, which has argued that it should be left alone to investigate allegations of atrocities on what it considers was its sovereign territory." UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan "does not endorse the [international] tribunal in his accompanying letter to the report," Riley added: "the absence of a clear recommendation from Mr Annan meant that no decision was likely to be reached on a tribunal," UN officials said. The "suggestion of dual representation is a significant departure from the UN tribunal models established in Rwanda and Bosnia," Riley comments, "aimed at avoiding allegations of bias in the prosecutions," a matter of concern when the perpetrators of crimes are acting with the support and complicity of the U.S. and its allies and inquiry must therefore be controlled. But the question is academic, in the absence of a tribunal.

Sonia Picado, head of the UN Inquiry Commission, was not optimistic, Riley reported further, recognizing "that there is little prospect of the UN Security Council supporting an international war crimes tribunal." "The East Timorese deserve compensation - moral and material compensation—because their families and their country have been devastated," Picado said, and "the UN has to give that to them": "it cannot be provided through an Indonesian tribunal." Picado "had no faith in the ability of a planned Indonesian tribunal to deliver justice to the East Timorese people." "It is just not feasible for [the Indonesians] to create a tribunal out of the blue and bring their own generals to justice," she said. Furthermore, no meaningful tribunal can be held in Jakarta because "East Timorese people remained scared of the Indonesian authorities and most were reluctant to travel to Jakarta to give evidence to a government tribunal. How can they expect the military courts in Indonesia to bring justice to the people of East Timor?" But "East Timor deserves not to be forgotten," and with an international tribunal unlikely, she recommended a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission with commissioners from East Timor, Indonesia and UN-appointed members, with powers to indict or pardon, meeting outside Indonesia.[11]

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 Endnotes

Noam Chomsky is Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA. A political analyst, he is believed to be the most quoted author alive