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Time for a US Truth Commission on East Timor
17 May 2002
East Timor today stands on the brink of independence, less than three years after it seemed to be on the edge of annihilation. But while the United Nation's formal transfer of power to an independent East Timorese government on May 20 is certainly cause for celebration, it should also be an occasion for reflection on the reasons for East Timor's recent horrors.
Well over 200,000 East Timorese--about one-third of the pre-invasion population--lost their lives as a result of Indonesia's Dec. 7, 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation. Indonesia's military could not have carried out its crimes without the assistance of numerous countries--most significantly that of the United States. Such complicity, along with Washington's debt to the people of East Timor and its obligations to the American public, highlights the need for Congress to establish an independent commission to fully investigate and publicize the U.S. role.
President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger met with Indonesia's dictator, Suharto, on Dec. 6, 1975. Suharto was eager to gain American authorization for the planned annexation of East Timor given his country's heavy dependence on U.S. weaponry, which was limited by treaty to defensive use. According to formerly classified meeting transcripts, Ford and Kissinger gave the green light for the invasion. In doing so, they aided and abetted an international crime against peace and violated U.S. law.
In early 1976, an unnamed State Department official explained why Washington condoned Jakarta's actions: "We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation--a nation we do a lot of business with." Similar logic governed the thinking of all subsequent administrations. Washington thus provided billions of dollars in weaponry, military training, and economic assistance--as well as diplomatic cover--to Jakarta during its almost 24-year occupation.
As a final act of state terrorism, the Indonesian military (TNI) and its "militia" proxies launched a systematic campaign of revenge in Sept. 1999 following an overwhelming pro-independence vote in a United Nations-run referendum. In approximately three weeks, they destroyed 70 percent of the territory's buildings and infrastructure, forcibly deported about 250,000 people to Indonesia, and raped untold numbers of women--in addition to massacring at least 2,000.
It was not until Sept. 11, 1999--one week into the final rampage--that President Bill Clinton ended all U.S. support for the TNI. Washington's ambassador to Jakarta at the time, Stapleton Roy, explained why a president who had once called U.S. policy toward East Timor "unconscionable" was so resistant to ending American support for resource-rich Indonesia. "The dilemma is that Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn't," he stated.
It was such thinking that allowed the slaughter in East Timor to go largely unreported in the United States through the early 1990s. But even as coverage picked up in the mid- and late 1990s, press reports and editorials almost never discussed U.S. complicity in the invasion and occupation. The same is true today.
The failure to compel Washington to account for its own misdeeds is one reason why it often disregards international norms and mechanisms, and justifies such behavior in a self-righteous manner. Washington's ongoing refusal to provide Haiti unhindered access to files confiscated by the U.S. military during the 1994 invasion, its use of intimidating tactics to ensure the victory of its favored candidate during the November elections in Nicaragua, and its undermining of the International Criminal Court are just a few of the recent examples.
"If done well a truth commission can change how a country understands and accepts its past, and through that, if it is lucky, helps to fundamentally shape its future," asserts Priscilla Hayner, author of Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity. Truth-telling processes can lead to a more informed, vigilant, and active citizenry--an indispensable component of any democracy worthy of its name.
In November 1999, Richard Holbrooke, at the time the Clinton administration's U.N. ambassador, traveled to Jakarta. "You cannot deal with the future unless you also come to terms with the past," he told Indonesian leaders in reference to the TNI's scorched-earth withdrawal from East Timor. "Accountability is one of the two or three keys to democracy."
East Timor's independence marks an auspicious time to begin putting these lofty words into practice here at home. For reasons of the health of American democracy, the universality of international law, and the inherent worth of all human lives, East Timor--and the U.S. Role in the country's plight--must matter. Congress should ensure that Washington allows full disclosure of, and atones for its role in East Timor's suffering. Only in this manner can the United States begin redeeming itself for its complicity in one of recent history's most horrific chapters.