TIMOR: THE INCONVENIENT SLAUGHTER
In 1975, Indonesian troops entered a small Timorese village, looking for two Australian television crews. Some of the television crew members were shot dead on site, most were strung up by their feet and forced to choke on their severed genitalia before being stabbed to death. Their bodies there then dragged into a house, dressed in Timorese military uniform, propped up against a machine gun and photographed.
Eye witness accounts of the murders were eventually smuggled out of occupied East Timor by two Australian reporters (one of whom met a similar fate two months later). The Australian Government's response was to accuse the film crews of misadventure and participate in a farcical Indonesian enquiry, in which Indonesian soldiers and informants, dressed in civilian clothing, unconvincingly replaced the population of the village where the murders took place.
Why were the television crews murdered, and why was this atrocity ignored by their own country?
The television crews, like the people of East Timor themselves, were an obstacle to the strategically and economically beneficial relationship between the Suharto regime and western governments, especially those of Australia, Britain and the US.
The television crews had filmed an amphibious assault by Indonesian's special forces on the north-east coast of East Timor; an invasion that was officially not supposed to exist because of its illegality under international law. If footage of this invasion had reached the world's press, the western governments which actively supported it, like America, or simply tolerated it, like Australia, would have to officially ostracise Indonesia, and thereby put highly lucrative economic and political ties at risk.
General Suharto, Indonesia's military dictator and inspiration behind the invasion, came to power on the cold war's anti-Communist / pro-American ticket. In 1965 six generals, who happened to be potential rivals of Suharto, were murdered. Claiming the murders were the result of a communist coup, and labelling the dead generals martyrs for the anti-communist cause, Suharto then set about administering retribution by killing an estimated half a million 'suspected' communists. The CIA assisted him in this crusade by providing a 5000 name long 'hit list' of communist party supporters, including the heads of unions, youth groups and women's groups.
Applauded for his zeal by President Nixon, Suharto's calls for US 'assistance' (military hardware, advice and training courtesy of the US Army) were answered generously, and still are to this day. Suharto was also patronised by Australian's politicians who, all too aware of Indonesia's proximity and importance, saw his regime as a much needed Asian ally.
Under the newly formed Suharto Regime, most of Indonesia's economy and natural wealth quickly passed to Suharto's relations, cronies and trusted generals. But, more importantly, Indonesia's politically induced environment of oppression and poverty became a haven for multinationals seeking sweatshop labour and unregulated access to natural resources. This gave the Suharto regime clout over the countries which have benefited the most from this economic bonanza.
East Timor's aspirations for independence from Portugal and non-integration with Indonesia were, consequently, ignored by the countries that mattered. In addition to this, in 1975, America, recently humiliated by failure in Vietnam, was only too happy to let the pro-American Suharto incorporate East Timor into Indonesia, even if such an undertaking involved inevitable mass bloodshed. This would avoid the possibility of yet another independent developing nation joining the UN and voting against America's increasingly unpopular resolutions. It would also ensure that America's nuclear submarines would continue to have right of passage through the Ombia-Wetar channels off East Timor's coast.
In addition to wanting to remain on favourable terms with its most powerful neighbour, Australia too, had reasons of its own for letting the 'inevitability' of East Timor's integration into Indonesian take place. BHP, Australia's largest corporation, had already discovered one of the worlds potentially richest oil and natural gas fields in East Timor's territorial waters. Siding with the outnumbered and outgunned Timorese against a vindictive and ruthless regime might have put the exploitation of this veritable gold mine at risk.
The atrocities that have taken place during and since the invasion of East Timor, have, accordingly, been consistently dismissed by these countries.
John Pilger, a world renowned reporter and author, and three other reporters, visited East Timor disguised as travel agents in an attempt to collect eye witness accounts from the Timorese themselves. Many of the harrowing accounts of genocide and torture they recorded were given by people who risked their lives in doing so.
John Pilger's expanded addition of Distant Voices contains many eye witness accounts. One account describes what happened during the aftermath of the highly publicised Santa Cruz massacre.
The Santa Cruz massacre happened on the 12th of November 1991, as a peaceful march made its way to the Santa Cruz cemetery to lay flowers on the grave of a student who had recently been shot. Indonesian soldiers were waiting for them and opened fire, killing hundreds of people including many children.
When the soldiers discovered that a number of foreigners had joined the march (one of whom they had accidentally shot dead), they loaded the fallen bodies into vans and took them to an Indonesian military hospital.
The following extract is an account by a Timorese orderly of what happened to the bodies when they arrived at the hospital.
Using descriptions given by one of the protesters who survived the massacre by pretending to be an informer, John Pilger managed to obtain some of these pills. Scotland Yard's forensic laboratories classified them as paraformaldehyde, a powerful disinfectant and very effective poison.
This mopping up operation is more typical of most atrocities that go on in East Timor in so much as it was unwitnessed by foreign eyes. Visitors, other than those representing pro-Indonesian governments and companies, are unwelcome in Indonesian occupied East Timor and journalists, with few exceptions, are banned.
'The Village of the Widows' is a good example of one of these many hidden atrocities. This is the name that the Timorese give to the village of Kararas, where 287 people were slaughtered in 1983. A priest recorded the age and names of the dead, as well as the name of the battalion responsible. Max Stahl, a reporter who stayed on after the invasion, made a copy of the list and managed to send it to Pilger before he was himself discovered and executed. The youngest victims were babies barely three months old. Considering that the Indonesian army's objective was to wipe out entire families if not the village itself, the name 'Village of Widows' seems somewhat of an understatement.
For every major atrocity such as this one, there are hundreds of smaller, more personal, ones. Indonesian troops, especially the special forces which do most of the killing, are well steeped in the arts of torture. This is not something that goes on behind the backs of unwitting generals: it is standard army procedure described to the last detail in army manuals written especially for the purpose. Often torture is simply a means of terrorising and debilitating the spirit of those who are forced to watch. The following is an account in Distant Voices by a Timorese, given the alias, Agio.
After initial success in massacring unarmed civilians, especially women and children, the Indonesian army met unexpectedly fierce resistance from the Timorese independence fighters known as the Fretilin. But the tide was turned decisively against the Fretilin by a corresponding increase in 'assistance' to the Suharto regime by the US and the regime's ability to negotiate its way out of any potential arms embargoes by 'buying big' from the countries that mattered, especially the US and Britain.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the Fretilin also had some new and devastatingly cruel Indonesian tactics to contend with such as the 'wall of legs'. This involved rounding up Timorese civilians between the ages of eight and fifty and making them form human chains to flush out and trap the Fretilin. Indonesian troops would follow the chains, killing, to use an old proverb, two birds with one stone.
Today more subtle means of exterminating the Timorese are employed.
The 'United Nations Fund for Population Activities Prize' was awarded to General Suharto in 1989 for his 'support for family planning' . In Distant Voices an anonymous witness, who has been given the alias 'Christina', gave the following account of the Suharto regime's 'support for family planning' in East Timor.
In addition to this form of genocide by sterilisation, the Timorese have had to endure cultural genocide as well. Many are rounded up into concentration camps to be 're-educated'. Once there the Timorese are banned from speaking in their own native language and are used as slave labour. The spoils of their labour, usually cash crops, are profitably marketed by an Indonesian monopoly run by generals close to Suharto.
Contrary to most western government's 'politically correct' view of events in East Timor, the number of Timorese deaths caused by the Indonesia invasion and occupation is not measured in thousands or even in tens of thousands. In 1983, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in East Timor gave the estimate of 200,000, which amounted to one third of the Timorese population at the time.
When the first Indonesian marines stepped off their amphibious landing craft onto the beaches of Dili, East Timor's capital, they started shooting at the women and children who tried to greet them. Returning to Dili disguised as a travel agent, John Pilger noted that the amphibious landing craft remained on the beaches where they landed to remind the Timorese that still lived in Dili of that day. The people of the world's most powerful western democracies need a similar image, to awaken them from their own ignorance and negligence. If they think East Timor is something that has nothing to do with them, they are very wrong. East Timor is a strategic and tactical victory for the blitzkrieg of oppression and corruption that is sweeping the developing world. By allowing East Timor to fall, they have allowed such outrages to come one island closer to their own shores.
As well as the tragedy of East Timor, Distant Voices (ISBN 0-09-938721-2, Vintage Press 1994) takes deadly and at times blackly hilarious aim at Cambodia, the Gulf War(TM), the British Labour Party and other topics.