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Noam Chomsky

In April 1999, shortly after the massacre of 50 or more refugees who had taken shelter in a church in Liquica, Admiral Dennis Blair, U.S. Pacific Commander, met with TNI commander General Wiranto, assuring him of U.S. support and assistance and proposing a new U.S. training mission, one of several such contacts.[31]

In the face of this record, only briefly sampled, and duplicated repeatedly elsewhere, Washington 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.[32]

The reasons for the disgraceful record have sometimes been honestly recognized. During the latest phase of atrocities, a senior diplomat in Jakarta formulated "the dilemma" faced by the great powers succinctly: "Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn’t."[33] 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 throughout, repeated a few days before the August referendum in full knowledge of how that responsibility had been carried out. The same stance was officially reiterated well after the referendum, while the most dire predictions were being fulfilled.[34]

The reasoning of the senior diplomat was spelled out more fully by two Asia specialists of the New York Times: the Clinton Administration "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 quoted Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center: "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."[35]

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 concern. 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.[36] The survivors of U.S.-backed crimes in a "tiny impoverished territory" are not even a small dog.

Commenting on Washington’s stance, the veteran Australian diplomat Richard Butler observed that "it has been made very clear to me by senior American analysts that the facts of the [U.S.-Australia] alliance essentially are that: the US will respond proportionally, defined largely in terms of its own interests and threat assessment..." The remarks were not offered in criticism of Washington. Rather, of his fellow Australians, who do not comprehend the facts of life: others are to shoulder the burdens and face the costs, unless some power interest is served.[37]

Serious commentators had recognized these realities long before. Twenty years earlier, Daniel Southerland reported that "in deferring to Indonesia on [the East Timor] issue, the Carter administration, like the Ford administration before it, appears to have placed big-power concerns ahead of human rights." Southerland referred particularly to the role of current UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who had direct responsibility for implementing Carter’s policy, and was so little concerned by the consequences—by then, some 200,000 killed—that he could find no time to testify before Congress about East Timor, Southerland reports, though "he did have the time, however, to play host at a black-tie dinner later the same day."[38]

The guiding principles were well understood by those responsible for guaranteeing the success of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion. They were articulated lucidly 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."[39] 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 U.S. military equipment, 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 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 and ridicule of the "propagandists for the guerrillas." Washington’s reaction to the carnage has already been described.

Media coverage of East Timor had been fairly high prior to the Indonesian invasion, in the context of concerns over the collapse of Portuguese fascism and its imperial system. As Moynihan observed, coverage declined as the U.S.-supported aggression and slaughter took its toll; in the national press it reached zero as the atrocities peaked in 1978. Journals were similar. Such coverage as there was during the worst atrocities kept largely to State Department fabrications and assurances from Indonesian Generals that the population was fleeing to their protection. By 1980, however, the story was beginning to break through, though only rarely the U.S. role, which remains well hidden to the present. By then, it was also becoming clear that the atrocities were comparable to Cambodia in the same years, though in this case they were major war crimes in addition, in the course of outright aggression supported by the great powers.

The first reports caused considerable annoyance. Commenting in a journalism review, Asia specialist and foreign correspondent Stanley Karnow said he could not bring himself to read a story on East Timor that had just appeared: "it didn’t have anything to do with me," he said. His colleague Richard Valeriani agreed, because "I don’t care about Timor." Reviewing a book that gave the first extensive account of what had happened, and the unwillingness to report it, former New York Times Indochina correspondent A.J. Langguth dismissed the topic on the grounds that "If the world press were to converge suddenly on Timor, it would not improve the lot of a single Cambodian."[40]

Langguth’s observation is surely accurate. More important, it captures lucidly the guiding criteria for approved humanitarian concerns: atrocities for which we bear responsibility, and which we could easily mitigate or terminate, do not "have anything to do with" us and should be of no particular concern; worse still, they are a diversion from the morally significant task of lamenting atrocities committed by official enemies that we can do little if anything about—though when the Vietnamese did end them in this case, Washington was presumed to have the obligation to punish them for the crime, by severe sanctions, backing of a Chinese invasion, and support for the ousted Khmer Rouge ("Democratic Kampuchea," DK).

Some nevertheless felt uneasy that while bitterly denouncing atrocities in Cambodia, we were "looking away" from comparable ones in Timor—the standard rendition of the unacceptable truth that Washington was "looking right there," and acting decisively to escalate the atrocities. That quandary was put to rest in 1982 by the State Department, which explained that the Khmer Rouge-based DK is "unquestionably" more representative of the people of Cambodia than the resistance is of the East Timorese, so therefore it is proper to support both Pol Pot and Suharto. The contradiction vanishes, as did the grounds for its resolution, which remain unreported.[41]

For the next 20 years the grim story continued: atrocities, complicity, and refusal to submit. By 1998, some rays of hope began to break through. By then Suharto had committed some real misdeeds, and was therefore no longer "our kind of guy": he had lost control of the country after the financial crisis, and was dragging his feet on implementing harsh IMF programs. Debt relief had been granted to "our kind of guy" after he took power, but not to the 200 million Indonesians who are now compelled to pay the huge debts accumulated by Suharto and his cronies, amounting now to over 140% of GDP, thanks to the corruption of the regime and the eagerness of the World Bank, the IMF, and Western governments and financial institutions to provide lavish funds for the ruler and his clique.[42]

On May 20, 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called upon Suharto to resign and provide for "a democratic transition." A few hours later, Suharto transferred formal authority to his hand-picked vice-president B. J. Habibie. The events were not, of course, simple cause and effect, but they symbolize the relations that have evolved. With Suharto gone, the way was paved for the first democratic election in 40 years—that is, the first election since the parliamentary system had been undermined in the course of the U.S. clandestine operations of 1958 that aimed to dismantle Indonesia by separating the resource-rich outer islands, undertaken because of Washington’s concern that the government of Indonesia was too independent and too democratic, even going so far as to permit a popular party of the left to function. The praise for Indonesia’s first democratic election in 40 years managed to overlook the background.[43]

Habibie moved at once to distance himself from Suharto, surprising many observers. In June 1998, he called for a "special status" for East Timor. In August Foreign Minister Ali Alatas suggested a "wide-ranging autonomy." And on January 27, 1999, Habibie made the unexpected offer of a referendum on autonomy within Indonesia, implying that were the offer rejected, Indonesia would relinquish control of the territory it had invaded and annexed.

The military, however, was following a different track, already described, moving even before Habibie’s January announcement to prevent a free choice by violence and intimidation. From February through July, 3-5000 East Timorese 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.[44] The terror was widespread and sadistic, presumably intended as a warning of the fate awaiting those foolhardy enough to disregard army orders elsewhere.

The events were reported extensively in Australia, to some extent in England. In Australia there was extensive protest along with calls for action to end the atrocities. Though information was much more sparse,[45] there was mounting protest in the U.S. as well. On June 22, the Senate unanimously supported an amendment to a State Department authorization bill asking the Clinton administration to "intensify their efforts to prevail upon the Indonesian government and military" to crack down on the militias, reiterated on June 30 by a vote of 98-0. In a July 8 press briefing, in response to a query about the Senate vote, State Department spokesperson James Foley repeated the official stand that "the Indonesian military has a responsibility to bring those militias under control"—namely, the militias it was organizing, arming, and directing.[46] Database searches found no report of any of this in the U.S.

Braving violence and threats, almost the entire population voted on August 30, 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 Ximenes 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.[47]

TNI forces responsible for the terror and destruction from February 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,[48] not only in the post-referendum period to which inquiry is to be restricted. Well before the referendum, the commander of the Indonesian military in Dili, Colonel Tono Suratman, had 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." On July 24, Suratman met with a police commander and militia leaders at the Dili military headquarters, where they took "the major decisions...in the recognition that the pro-integration side was unlikely to win the vote," according to an August 6 report by Australian intelligence officer Wayne Sievers; he is facing charges for having informed the Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade of the secret reports he had sent to the UN from his arrival in June, predicting the post-referendum violence and identifying militia leaders as Indonesian intelligence officers, available to the Australian government through its UN Embassy. A TNI document of early May, when the UN-Indonesia-Portugal 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."[49]

Documents discovered in Dili in October 1999, "and analysed in Jakarta by Indonesian investigators and Western diplomatic sources, provide evidence...that, for months before the referendum on East Timor’s independence in August, it was being systematically undermined by Indonesia’s top generals," including plans for "the forcible deportation of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese." A Western diplomat who reviewed the documents describes them as "the missing link," showing "a clear chain of command from close to the very top," also expressing his surprise at the "sheer quantity" of the weapons provided to local militia and pro-Jakarta figures. As the May 5 referendum agreement was signed, a letter from General Subagyo to Colonel Suratman, copied to senior military figures, ordered preparations for "a security plan to prevent civil war that includes preventive action (create conditions), policing measures, repressive/coercive measures and a plan to move to the rear/evacuate if the second option [independence] is chosen." A July document drafted by an officer of a Dili-based regional command, Colonel Soedjarwo, outlines a battle plan directed against what it calls the "Enemy Forces":

"not only the guerrillas of the resistance movement, Falintil, but civilians, including unarmed student groups and political organisations." In August, the Dili police department produced "a meticulous plan to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Timorese after the referendum," with extensive detail. The plans were soon implemented, and it would be most surprising if they were not known at least in a general way to Western intelligence.[50]

Citing diplomatic, church and militia sources, the Australian press had reported in July 1999 that "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. Leaked official cables reveal the "Australian Government’s harsh assessment of the Pentagon’s ‘overly generous’ interpretation of Indonesian army (TNI) involvement with the militias."[51] The Indonesian Generals had every reason to interpret the evasive and ambiguous reactions of their traditional friends and backers as a "green light" to carry out their work.

The sordid history should be viewed against the background of U.S.-Indonesia relations in the postwar era.[52] The rich resources of the archipelago, and its critical strategic location, guaranteed it a central role in U.S. global planning. These factors lie behind U.S. efforts 40 years ago to dismantle Indonesia, then support for the military in preparation for the anticipated military coup, and unbounded enthusiasm for the regime of killers and torturers who brought about a "favorable orientation" in 1965 and for their leader, who remained "our kind of guy" until his first missteps in 1997, when he was abandoned in the usual pattern of criminals who have lost their usefulness or become disobedient: Trujillo, Somoza, Marcos, Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Mobutu, Ceausescu, and many others. The successful cleansing of Indonesia in 1965 was, furthermore, understood to be a vindication of Washington’s wars in Indochina, which were motivated in large part by concern that the "virus" of independent nationalism might "infect" Indonesia, to borrow standard rhetoric, just as concern over Indonesian independence and excessive democracy had been motivated by fear that a "Communist" (meaning independent nationalist) Indonesia would be an "infection" that "would sweep westward" through all of South Asia, as George Kennan warned in 1948.

In this context, support for the invasion of East Timor and subsequent atrocities was presumably reflexive, though a broader analysis should attend to the fact that the collapse of the Portuguese empire had similar consequences in Africa, where South Africa was the agent of Western-backed terror. Throughout, Cold War pretexts were routinely invoked. These should be analyzed with caution; all too easily, they can serve as a convenient disguise for ugly motives and actions that had little to do with shifting relations among the U.S., Russia, and China, not only in Southeast Asia but in Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

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."[53] With an awe-inspiring display of courage and fortitude, the people of East Timor have struggled to confound that prediction, enduring monstrous disasters. Some 50,000 lost their lives protecting a small contingent of Australian commandoes fighting the Japanese; their heroism may have saved Australia from Japanese invasion. Perhaps a third of the population were victims of the first years of the 1975 Indonesian invasion, many more since.

Surely we should by now be willing to cast aside mythology and face the causes and consequences of our actions realistically, not only in East Timor. In that tortured corner of the world there is now an opportunity to remedy in some measure at least one of the most appalling crimes and tragedies of the terrible century that has finally come to a horrifying, wrenching close.


Expanded from ‘Feu vert’ occidental pour les massacres, Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1999.

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