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East Timor: Reflections 41 Years After Invasion Day

Dili, Timor-Leste.

Recently, thousands of U.S. military veterans travelled to North Dakota to support the peaceful struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux to defend their sovereignty and protect their land and water. I watched the veterans bend down to ask forgiveness from the many indigenous tribes gathered there. They apologized as veterans from the same military that has carried out genocide against Native Americans since before the U.S. achieved independence. In this way, they acknowledged the past and affirmed their commitment to ensuring the bitter past doesn’t repeat itself.

This December 7, I bent down in Timor-Leste to apologize for the crimes of my government against the East Timorese people. On that day in 1975, U.S.-armed and -trained Indonesian troops launched their illegal invasion. I feel a deep sadness and shame that my government has not yet formally and responsibly acknowledged its support for crimes committed here on that day and the 24-year Indonesian occupation which followed. An important first step would be for the U.S. to declassify and release all its records related to Indonesia and its invasion and occupation of Timor-Leste.

As a citizen of the United States, I have a responsibility to learn and respond to injustices done by my own government. While my government would prefer not to emphasize or even acknowledge this past, I can still access this information, and I can speak freely. I am obligated to act when I see injustice – to use nonviolent means to prevent, reduce or acknowledge my complicity in my government’s actions.

In the U.S., most people know December 7 as Pearl Harbor Day, the anniversary of the 1941 Japanese bombing of a U.S. Navy base in Hawaii. Japan’s target was strictly military, and the pre-emptive strike was carried out because Japan believed that the U.S. was close to joining the war. In contrast, Indonesia’s invasion of Timor-Leste was an attack on a civilian population who did not want war with Indonesia. Most people in the U.S. don’t know about Timor-Leste, but the Indonesian invasion could not have happened without the military, economic and diplomatic backing of the U.S.

From December 6, 1975, until 1999, the U.S. supported Indonesia’s invasion and occupation. For this, they are responsible for numerous serious crimes committed here.

Some basic facts:

+ December 6, 1975: President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Suharto in Jakarta and gave a green light to the invasion.

December 7, 1975: Indonesia launched the invasion; 90% of the weapons used came from the U.S.

+ December 1975-1976: President Ford’s Ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote proudly that the U.S. wanted the UN to be “utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook [on Timor-Leste], …and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.” From 1976 to 1983, the U.S. voted against every General Assembly resolution supporting Timor-Leste.

+ January 1976: A U.S. State Department official stated: “In terms of the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East Timor…. The United States wants to keep its relations with Indonesia close and friendly. [It’s] a nation we do a lot of business with.”

+ 1977: President Jimmy Carter (known by many as ‘the human rights president’) increased military aid to Indonesia, including authorizing an additional $112 million worth of weapons. U.S. support for the occupation continued under the Reagan and Bush administrations of the 1980s.

+ December 10, 1991: A month after the notorious Santa Cruz massacre in Dili, capitol of Timor-Leste – witnessed by U.S. journalists Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn — U.S. officials met with Indonesian military leaders to reinforce their support, telling them: “We do not believe that friends should abandon friends in times of adversity.”

+ 1992-1999: East Timor Action Network (ETAN) activists worked with members of Congress to restrict U.S. government support for the occupation, resulting in a decrease in military assistance, training and arms sales to Indonesia. Despite this, President Clinton authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons sales and provided over US$500 million in economic aid.

+ Early September 1999: Despite the killings and massive destruction by the Indonesian military and their militia which preceded and followed Timor’s vote for independence – the Clinton administration delayed ending military and economic support for Indonesia. U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, Stapleton Roy, told a journalist: “The dilemma is that Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn’t.” Finally, on September 10, in the face of strong public and Congressional pressure, President Clinton suspended all U.S. economic aid and military ties to Indonesia.

The U.S. government has not yet responded to the basic recommendations presented in Chega!, the report of Timor’s truth commission. The commission called on the U.S. and others to support an international tribunal to bring perpetrators of crimes committed during Indonesian illegal occupation to justice. The commission recommended reparations to the Timorese people from countries like the U.S. that backed Indonesia.

Fidel Castro is now dead, and Donald Trump will be the next U.S. president. People in Cuba have access to quality healthcare. In the U.S., 17% of the population are food insecure and at least a million people have no permanent home. While the health system doesn’t yet cover everyone, many people’s insurance is now threatened with elimination by Trump.

While Cuba has little money, they have sent doctors and provide medical education to develop the health sector in many countries, including Timor-Leste. The U.S., a far richer nation, gives relatively small amount in aid, largely focused on promoting private business and supporting militaries.

As a U.S. citizen, I acknowledge this and redouble my commitment and solidarity as an individual, as an activist, and as a member of ETAN, to struggle to ensure genuine accountability and justice for crimes committed in Timor-Leste. I will continue to push my government to make people and their basic needs the priority, as opposed to corporate profits and the rich. I will continue to demand that my government:

+ release all U.S. government documents relating to Timor-Leste from 1974-1999, including intelligence files and intercepted communications between different parts of the military and government.

+ create an independent commission with the power to investigate, analyze and report on U.S. involvement in Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of Timor-Leste.

+ actively support the establishment of an international tribunal or other mechanism that can end impunity for those who committed crimes against humanity.

+ follow through on all the recommendations laid out in the Chega! report, including continuing to block visas to military officers who are mentioned in the report as possible perpetrators or command officers, and stopping weapon sales to Indonesia if human rights violations continue (as they do in West Papua).

+ apologize to the Timorese people for U.S. support for Indonesia and the crimes against humanity and war crimes carried out as part of the invasion and occupation.

+ begin discussions with Timorese people from various sectors about reparations from the U.S. government to the people of Timor-Leste.

A luta kontinua…

See also, Nevins, Joseph. A not-so-distant horror: mass violence in East Timor, Cornell University Press, 2005

Pam Sexton currently lives and works in Timor-Leste. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the U.S-based East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN,

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