East Timor: Blood on Our Hands, The US Abets Mass Murder

East Timor: Blood on Our Hands, The US Abets Mass Murder

by John W. Bartlett

“The Indonesians set fire to the dwellings of East Timorese… When [they] protested, the Indonesians turned their guns on them…the troops shot..2000 of the Timorese, some on their knees, others with their hands raised. The victims …included women and children.” – John G. Taylor Indonesia’s Forgotten War: The Hidden History of East Timor

It has been called “the forgotten war.” Indonesia’s 16-year occupation of East Timor has received little coverage, and that in tiny articles buried deep inside the newspaper, yet this slaughter is worse in per capita terms than has been the case in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Nearly one-third of the population of East Timor, a tiny island nation east of Java and 400 miles north of Australia, has died under a brutal Indonesian oppression which journalist Allan Nairn of The New Yorker calls “nothing less than a calculated mass murder …carried out with American arms.”

Since 1976, U.S.-funded brutality
in tiny East Timor has killed
more than 200,000 people.

Timor’s plight returned briefly to the world’s attention in November 1991, at the Santa Cruz cemetery when Nairn and fellow journalist Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio survived – barely – the massacre of at least 200 unarmed Timorese mourners by the Indonesian military. “They just walked up in formation, lowered their American- made M-16s, and began firing into the crowd. There was no provocation,” reported Goodman.

Such a massacre is the continuation of a murderous policy dependent upon $58 million in American military aid each year, and nearly half a billion dollars in commercial arms sales. The massacre at the cemetery is another event in a long, terrible history.

The known history of Timor – written from a European perspective – begins with a Portuguese colony at Malacca in 1571. The boundary currently dividing East (Portuguese) and West (Indonesian) Timor was established through a series of battles between the Portuguese and Dutch in the early 18th century.

The matriarchal and matrilineal society which defined Timor’s political and economic system shortly before colonization – a hierarchy of kingdoms, princedoms and clans – was undermined by the expansion of Portuguese influence in the same century. The web of Portuguese commerce reinforced the already-existing system of trade in Timor, although the Timorese continued to have a “strong desire to be freed from the hateful yoke of the Portuguese.”

Destruction wrought under Japanese occupation during World War II ceded to a reduction in Dutch colonial power in Indonesia and Indonesian support for Timorese independence – with an eye to future assimilation. The Timorese were more interested in the re-establishment of ancient links between East and West Timor. While Timor’s attempts at self-determination were being squashed by the Portuguese, Suharto of Indonesia, who is still president, came into power by coup d’etat in 1966.

Portuguese colonial power was weakened by the 1974 overthrow of the i Caetano regime by a leftist coup. Faced suddenly with the need to concretize previously vague notions of self-determination, the Timorese organized into two pro-independence parties, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) and Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT); a third party, the Apodeti (“the Association for the Integration of Timor into Indonesia”) found most of its support in the East-West border area and within the Indonesian military.

In September 1974, the ASDT became the “Frente Revolucionara do Timor Leste Independente” (Fretilin). Realizing the need for a firm agricultural base, Fretilin established a system of farming and distribution cooperatives. An educational system was also established in an attempt to reduce Timor’s 93 percent illiteracy rate, with some “fairly dramatic successes.”

Fretilin’s success with these programs – and later health programs which even included the manufacture of medicines – came from its ability to turn general themes into concrete policies which were both reliable and popular because they were based on experience. Fretilin quickly became the most popular political party, and was joined in coalition by the UDT in early 1975 to move towards “total independence, rejection of integration, repudiation of colonialism, and recognition of decolonization.”

Meanwhile, Indonesia had its eye on absorption of East Timor for “security reasons” and for control of the oil discovered in the Timor Sea 10 years earlier. With access to the international press and the support of foreign governments, which little Timor could not muster, Indonesia appealed to the West’s Cold War fears of communist expansion, predicting an “imminent Marxist takeover” in East Timor.

Throughout the autumn, Indonesian irregulars struck at towns near the East West border, burning and looting, only to be beaten back by the well-organized Fretilin forces. After disseminating (false) reports of Fretilin incursions into Indonesian territory, Suharto chose to invade East Timor on December 7,1975.

Indonesian soldiers
took hold of the legs
of small children and
threw them around in
the air a number of
times and smashed
their heads against
a rock.

The invasion came just one day after a visit to Jakarta by President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The next day, asked for a reaction to the Indonesian attack, Ford replied: “We’ll talk about that later.” This same approach has been followed by the United States government ever since. Despite the Foreign Assistance Act of 1958 – which prevents the use of U.S. military assistance and material for “external aggression” – and repeated rhetoric about human rights, the United States has ignored its extensive knowledge of the Timor situation for the sake of its own “security concerns.”

The story of the first several years of Indonesia’s occupation is in one sense a tribute to Fretilin and the determination of the Timorese people. Fretilin, prepared for a full-scale invasion, was supported by a national network based in Timor’s many small towns and villages. Their agricultural and education programs continued in areas which they controlled, and an inter-regional medical network was set up to provide care and medicine. Their national communication infrastructure and knowledge of the difficult terrain afforded them several early victories; Indonesian troops, demoralized by their failures, were rotated quickly through their Timor duty.

Ultimately, however, such resistance could not stand up to the vastly superior Indonesian forces. Defeat effectively came in 1980, although Fretilin re-built itself in the early 1980s and inflicted additional damage on the occupying forces. Fretilin still controls a few isolated areas of East Timor, and is currently under the leadership of Xanana Gusmao, who has led the Fretilins for several years.

Indonesia’s policy in East Timor is nothing short of genocide. Their rule has seen a litany of mass murders carried out by the military, 90 percent of whose armaments are American. Despite the grand humanitarian show put on for foreign observers (military guidelines suggest that local officials “Indicate some building that might serve as a prison …Select some sensible people, particularly among the armed forces, to play the role of prisoners of war who… are being well-treated”) and the “Act of Integration” signed by Timorese “delegates” in 1976, more than 200,000 Timorese have died in what the Australian Consul in 1976 to East Timor called “the most serious …contravention of human rights facing the world at this time.”

Timorese are killed by the hundreds: Lined up on the beach and shot, dropped from helicopters into the ocean, or rounded up and killed publicly by knife wielding nanggalas. To read survivors’ accounts*, one must wonder how anyone could survive such unimaginable atrocities, and what human being or society could commit them:

“The Indonesian troops advanced in groups, organized into long lines, burning crops and villages behind them …simultaneous with naval and aerial bombardment. They captured the majority of the population, but many people died from bombardment and illness.”

“The waters of the river were filled with blood and bodies.” “…after plundering the population of all their belongings, [the soldiers] firmly tied up…more than 60 people. They made them lie on the ground and then drove a bulldozer over them, and then used it to place a few centimeters of earth on top of the totally crushed corpses.”

“Indonesian soldiers took hold of the legs of small children and threw them around in the air a number of times and smashed their heads against a rock…And then this soldier…said a sentence which was considered to be part of the wisdom of Java. He said: ‘When you clean your field, don’t you kill all the snakes, the small and large alike?'”

In their zeal to destroy the Timorese people, Indonesian troops utterly humiliate and dehumanize their victims. There is neither honor nor dignity – nor even military discipline – in their actions.

“Three women who refused to dress in shorts and play volleyball with the soldiers were accused of being agents of Fretilin. They were taken away…[and] subjected to electrical torture and lighted cigarettes were used to burn their faces and sexual organs.”

“[After] heavy Indonesian casualties…the Indonesian officers were angry.. .They punished the female population by forcing them to do heavy work in the rice fields, completely naked, in the role of buffaloes.”

Beatings and “disappearances” are common; there are said to be hundreds of jails and torture chambers scattered throughout the country. Imprisonment is described as “arbitrary,” “indeterminate,” and often without trial.

“They held me on the ground, face down, and trampled so hard on my head that my two front teeth fell out …I refused to tell them anything, so on the third night they used electric shocks and threats.’

The Indonesians have established a system of “resettlement camps” in Timor. Timorese are rounded up, particularly in areas where Fretilin is suspected of being active, and moved into refugee camps where they are completely at the mercy of the Indonesians. The Timorese are not allowed to venture from the camps to tend their fields, so little or no food is produced. What small plots of land these displaced persons may receive is insufficient to feed their families, and the soil is quickly depleted. Malnutrition is at an all-time high; in some places, up to 80 percent of the children are said to suffer from it. The Indonesian military, meanwhile, mandates the raising of cash crops like coffee for export.

Humanitarian aid packages from outside the country are usually intercepted by the Indonesian occupiers. What they choose not to take for themselves is sold at high prices in the market. Medicines, in particular, demand a very high price; healthcare is in decline and infant mortality has skyrocketed.

Indonesia has also instituted a strict population control program, denying women the right to control their own bodies. Many Timorese women have been sterilized without their knowledge, usually during other operations like Caesarian sections. Women who are forced to be involved in this “Family Planning Programme” receive injections of contraceptive drugs. In the words of one Indonesian feminist writer: “[T]he status of women has been so degraded that they are treated like cattle who can be told when to produce children and ‘castrated’ when they are no longer required to do so.”

In the meantime, Indonesia has established an aggressive program of immigration. Indonesian families are moved into areas “abandoned” by the Timorese and given land to farm. By this means, despite the drop in the indigenous Timorese population from almost 700,000 to barely half a million since 1976, Indonesia hopes to increase East Timor’s population to one million by the end of the century.

“All the worst things that have happened would have been impossible without American support,” says Benedict Anderson, Director of the Modern Indonesia Project at Cornell University. Even during the period “when the U.S. was ‘deeply shocked and weapons deliveries were suspended,'” he adds, “weapons deliveries continued month by month.” According to Anderson, a young employee of the State Department tried to alert then- Secretary of State Kissinger to the violation of the Foreign Assistance Act, but Kissinger allegedly shredded the memorandum. “No paper trail,” he reputedly said.

How could the United States, bastion of democracy, have given a nod to Indonesia’s action in 1975? How can it continue that support – including the $2.3 million International Military Education Training(IMET) program, which the State Department claims “help[s] to promote democratic values and respect for human rights” among Indonesian military personnel – well into the 1990s, even proposing an increase in military aid for fiscal year 1993?

Principles aside, explains Anderson, the United States had three reasons to support the oppressive Suharto regime. First, Suharto’s supporters killed almost half a million communists in the mid-1960s; this all but destroyed the Indonesian communist party, the third largest in the world at that time. “All this without the Americans having to sacrifice a single soldier.”

The second reason that the United States found for ignoring Indonesian atrocities was that nation’s membership in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries(OPEC). “From the American point of view at that time, Indonesia was a moderate [in OPEC]. They opposed certain extraordinary price increases suggested by Iran and Iraq” in the mid-1970s.

The third and most crucial reason for America’s continued kow-towing to the oppressive Suharto regime is that of “security interests.” During the Cold War, Indonesia allowed American nuclear submarines to pass through its territorial waters without surfacing. This violation of international law made American subs invisible to Soviet satellites. The deepest, most easily-negotiable channel for traverse is within Timorese waters.

“All this is history now,” adds Anderson. “The reason to support the [Suharto] regime.. .have been fading away. No one really remembers or cares how many communists he killed. OPEC is no longer the organization it was in the 1970s; and the Soviet Union is simply no longer.”

Further, Suharto is 72 years old now, and the economic success of his 26-year reign has created a small Indonesian middle class which is fed up with the regime’s brutality. In the wake of last spring’s uprising in Thailand – partly the result of a disgruntled middle-class – there may be more opportunity than ever for an overthrow of his regime. When he goes, however,”he will be toppled by the army,” says Anderson. And that could mean anything, although “they will likely be much weaker and will have to make deals” with the moderates and the middle class.

Perhaps this is all history now. A bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May which could effect a reversal of current U.S. policy. H.R. 5176 would suspend bilateral aid to Indonesia, deny certain trader preferences given to Indonesia by the United States, and obligate the American representatives in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to oppose loans and grants to Indonesia. Introduced by Representative Tony Hall (D-OH) and four co-sponsors, H.R. 5176 is the strongest such legislation to be considered since the invasion.

The bill has been assigned to three different subcommittees, and may be a long time in coming to the house floor, says a member of Hall’s staff. As a fairly unknown issue, and politically unimportant in this election year, the pro Timor legislation may get lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy and power politics. Even if it passes, there is no indication that President Bush or his successor will have any more compassion for the Timorese than did Gerald Ford.

Meanwhile, the Timorese continue to ask: “When will we have our freedom?” When indeed.

John W. Bartlett, a junior at Brown University, has an abiding interest in oppressed nationalities. As co-founder of the Brown IRISD Baltic Student Association (BALTIKA)in the spring of 1991, he brought national college attention to the plight of the then-Soviet occupied Baltic states and was invited to meet with a member of President Bush’s staff to discuss the Soviet crackdown which claimed 20 Lithuanian lives in January of 1991.