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ZNet Commentary / Oct 4 / Noam Chomsky / East Timor

East Timor
By Noam Chomsky

The events of the past weeks in East Timor should elicit shame as well as horror. The crimes could easily have been stopped. That has been true since Indonesia invaded in December 1975, relying on U.S. arms and diplomatic support. It would have sufficed for the U.S. and its allies to withdraw their active participation, and to inform the Indonesian military command that the territory must be granted the right of self-determination that has been upheld by the United Nations and the World Court.

The latest chapter in this sordid tale opened after the referendum of August 30, when the population voted overwhelmingly for independence. At once, atrocities mounted sharply, organized and directed by the Indonesian military, who reduced the capital city of Dili to ashes and subjected virtually the entire population to terror and expulsion. The UN Mission (UNAMET) reported on September 11 that the "direct link between the militia and the military is beyond any dispute and has been overwhelmingly documented by UNAMET over the last four months," warning that "the worst may be yet to come," even a "genocidal campaign to stamp out the East Timorese problem by force."

Indonesia historian John Roosa, an official observer of the vote, described the situation starkly on September 15 in the New York Times: "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," until compelled by international (primarily Australian) and domestic pressure to make some gestures. These sufficed to induce the Indonesian generals to reverse course, illustrating the latent power that has always been at hand.

The latest events evoke bitter memories from 20 years ago. After carrying out a huge slaughter in 1977-78, Indonesia permitted a brief visit by members of the Jakarta diplomatic corps, among them U.S. Ambassador Edward Masters. They witnessed an enormous humanitarian catastrophe. The aftermath was described by the pre-eminent Indonesia scholar Benedict Anderson, in testimony at the United Nations: "For nine long months" of starvation and terror, "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.

The reasons have sometimes been honestly recognized. During the latest phase of atrocities, a senior diplomat in Jakarta described "the dilemma" faced by the great powers: "Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn't." The reasoning was spelled out more fully by two Asia specialists of the New York Times: the Clinton Administration, they wrote on September 14, "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 operative principles had been articulated years earlier by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was UN Ambassador at the time of the U.S.-backed Indonesian invasion. The Security Council 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."

In the next few months, Moynihan reports, 60,000 people were killed, ten percent of the population. Atrocities peaked as his memoirs appeared. Relying on a new flow of advanced weapons from the Carter Administration, the Indonesian military carried out a devastating attack against the hundreds of thousands who had fled to the mountains, driving the survivors to army 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. Washington's reaction has already been described. As the slaughter approached genocidal levels, Britain and France joined in with arms and diplomatic support. Other powers too sought to participate, always following the principles that have been lucidly enunciated.

This year opened with a moment of hope. Indonesia's interim president Habibie called for a referendum with a choice between incorporation within Indonesia ("autonomy") or independence. The army moved at once to control the outcome by terror. In the months leading to the August referendum, 3-5000 were killed according to highly credible Church sources -- twice the number of deaths prior to the NATO bombing in Kosovo, with more than twice the population of East Timor. The terror was widespread and sadistic, intended as a warning of the consequences of refusal to obey the orders of the army of occupation, which announced that "if the pro-independents do win, all will be destroyed" -- the grim words of the Indonesian commander in Dili.

In an awe-inspiring display of courage and dedication, almost the entire population voted, many emerging from hiding to do so, choosing independence. Then followed the latest phase of army atrocities -- exactly as had been proclaimed, loud and clear. Within two weeks, more than 10,000 might have been killed, according to Nobel Laureate Bishop Belo, who fled under a hail of bullets. Hundreds of thousands have been driven to an unknown fate under army rule in Indonesia, while most of the survivors face starvation in the mountains. The one country that could easily have sent extensive humanitarian aid, including air drops, refuses to do so, preferring that others shoulder the burdens of its years of betrayal and complicity.

We cannot undo the past, but should be willing to face it honestly, to accept the moral responsibility of saving the remnants, and to provide ample reparations as at least a gesture of compensation for terrible crimes.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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