Bush and the Indonesian Generals

As the U.S. empire continues its so-called “war on terror” via blank checks for the military-industrial complex, the Bush Administration recently overrode a congressional ban on military aid to Indonesia and restored all such assistance by exploiting a “national security waiver.”

Under intense U.S.grassroots pressure, the Clinton administration suspended all assistance after the September 1999 Indonesian military destruction of East Timor, and Congress subsequently legislated continuing limits on aid. On November 22 of this year, the State Department announced, “it is in the national security interests of the United States to waive conditionality pertaining to Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and defense exports to Indonesia.” Senator Patrick Leahy, author of the Congressional restrictions this maneuver overrode, called the move “an abuse of discretion and an affront to the CongressTo waive on national security grounds a law that seeks justice for crimes against humanity ­ without even obtaining the Indonesian government’s assurance that it will address these concerns ­ makes a mockery of the process and sends a terrible message.”

Joseph Nevins’s A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (Cornell, 2005) is essential for understanding the broader context of Washington’s latest support for Jakarta’s military. The book provides a thorough overview of “international community” backing for the 24 year Indonesian military occupation of East Timor, and shows the blatant power calculations that went into the sell-out of the East Timorese. As Nevins quotes then-U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Stapleton Roy saying in 1999, “Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn’t.”

Nevins methodically shows the double standards implicit in the relative importance accorded “ground zero” in the U.S. (New York City on 9/11/2001) and the scorched-earth “ground zero” the Indonesian military left in its wake when departing East Timor in September 1999. Though we see or hear admonitions to “never forget” September 11 virtually on a daily basis, few in the U.S. are aware that a military armed and trained by our government destroyed 80% of East Timor’s infrastructure only two years earlier. In the midst of that destruction, the military and its militia proxies killed some 1500 civilians.

Even that abhorrent body count is dwarfed by the many tens of thousands killed, often with U.S.-supplied weapons, in the previous two decades of Indonesian military terror largely ignored by mainstream coverage of the 1999 carnage. Nevins writes of the corporate media’s disinterest in East Timor, “This silence, or ‘forgetting’ is a crime of omission of sorts as it facilitates impunity. It also helps to perpetuate myths about the supposed dedication to human rights and principles of international law among the powerful.”

Nevins, a Vassar College professor who spent many months in occupied East Timor throughout the 1990s, shows how both powerful Democrats and Republicans share responsibility for keeping the occupation’s ugly history out of the public eye. Nevins cites one especially galling example of this bipartisan collusion, a 2000 speech in which Richard Holbrooke, former Clinton Administration ambassador to the UN and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under Jimmy Carter, heaped fulsome praise on Iraq invasion cheerleader Paul Wolfowitz, calling the Reagan-era ambassador to Indonesia “a continuing participant in the effort to find the right policy for one of the most important countries in the world, Indonesia.” Holbrooke went on to explain that Wolfowitz’s “activities illustrate something that’s very important about American foreign policy in an election year and that is the degree to which there are still common themes between the parties. East Timor is a good example. Paul and I have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep it out of the presidential campaign, where it would do no good to American or Indonesian interests.”

Washington and other governments have consistently blocked efforts by activists in East Timor, Indonesia and the U.S. to achieve justice with real reckoning for the crimes of 1974-1999.

Sadly, opposition to those efforts has also come from East Timor’s president, the former guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao. Gusmao recently downplayed the findings of his country’s truth commission, the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (known by its Portuguese initials, CAVR) and its recommendations for justice and reconciliation. These include reparations to victims from countries — including the U.S. — which backed the occupation, and from corporations which sold weapons to Indonesia during that period.

John M. Miller, the National Coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) described the CAVR report as “the product of three years of extensive research by dozens of East Timorese and international experts.” Miller added, “Its completion is especially timely, given the Bush administration’s recent decision to ignore the criminal record of many high-ranking Indonesian military officers.”

Miller further noted, “Since Timor’s independence referendum in September 1999, Washington has provided monetary and other assistance to East Timor’s reconstruction and development, but such aid does not even begin to compensate the East Timorese people for the suffering caused by 24 years of U.S. support for Indonesian military occupation. Along with the CAVR, we agree that the U.S. owes East Timor reparations.”

Despite East Timorese and Indonesian calls to publicly release the CAVR report, Gusmao has thus far failed to do so.

East Timorese parliamentarian Leandro Isaacs, who has campaigned for an international tribunal on Indonesian military crimes committed in East Timor, told Australian journalist John Martinkus, “It’s not just people from Kosovo, I’m sorry to say it, who have a right to justice because they are white. It’s not just Yugoslavs who have rights. We here also have the same level of humanity as the rest of the world. ”

The truth commission’s findings follow a May 2005 UN Commission of Experts report on human rights violations in East Timor in 1999. That report concluded, “The Commission wishes to emphasize the extreme cruelty with which these acts were committed, and that the aftermath of these events still burdens the Timorese society. The situation calls not only for sympathy and reparations, but also for justiceWhile recognizing the virtue of forgiveness and that it may be justified in individual cases, forgiveness without justice for the untold privation and suffering inflicted would be an act of weakness rather than of strength.” The UN Security Council is awaiting the Secretary General’s recommendations in response to that report.

The Washington-based National Security Archive’s Indonesia and East Timor Documentation Project assisted the CAVR in obtaining U.S. documents via Freedom of Information Act requests. According to the Documentation Project’s director, Brad Simpson, these documents showed that “Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor and the resulting crimes against humanity occurred in an international context in which the support of powerful nations, especially the United States, was indispensable.”

They also provide further backing for Nevins’s argument about the bipartisan nature of U.S. support for the Indonesian military occupation of East Timor. The documents show that in 1977, Zbigniew Brzezinski and other Carter Administration officials blocked declassification of the explosive cable transcribing President Ford’s and Secretary of State Kissinger’s December 6, 1975 meeting with Indonesian dictator Suharto. In that exchange, Ford and Kissinger explicitly approved the invasion of East Timor. Also newly-released was a 1978 message Vice President Walter Mondale wrote President Carter to request accelerated approval for the sale of sixteen A-4 fighter jets to Jakarta. On May 9, as Mondale arrived in Indonesia, Carter approved the sale but sought clarification “on the circumstances in which they envision the planes will be used, in particular in East Timor.” The extent of the Carter Administration’s concern for the East Timorese can be gauged by a telegram in which Mondale reassures Suharto of their two nations’ “mutual concerns regarding East Timor,” in particular, “how to handle public relations aspects of the problem.”

As Dan Lev, Indonesia specialist at the University of Washington, said in a recent interview with Indonesia Alert [www.indonesiaalert.org], “people in the Department of Defense in the United States are constantly arguing that the thousands of Indonesian officers who they train are advantaged by that training. But there’s no evidence of that! And the places where they have trained don’t have to do with human rights. They have to do with crushing people, actually. And they have to do with intelligence services and the like.”

Lev added, “The United States, the major country in the world, sees the Indonesian army as an ally, and very useful to America. And that’s what helped the army become more engaged in the first place, in 1957, 1958, when the United States spotted the army as the principal means for getting rid of the communist party, at that point the third largest communist party in the world [in] 1965, it’s true that the American government of the time was deeply grateful to the Indonesian army for carrying out and implementing in a sense one of the worst massacres of the last century Then the issue was communism, now the issue is terrorism.”

But, as Karen Orenstein, ETAN’s National Coordinator, told me, “Given the lack of oversight or serious reform, the armed forces of the archipelago remain by far the most significant purveyor of terror for the people who live there. ”

BEN TERRALL is a writer and activist in Oakland. He can be reached at: bterrall@igc.org


Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com