Washington Fiddles While East Timor Burns

September 15, 1999

Mark Weisbrot
Boston Globe, September 15, 1999

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, September 15, 1999


The violence and crisis in East Timor has raised pointed questions about U.S. foreign policy and what we stand for in the world. It was only months ago that we bombed Serbia for 78 days, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent civilians, ostensibly to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

Now we are witnessing a horrible ethnic cleansing in East Timor: hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes since the people there voted overwhelmingly for independence on August 30. Militias organized by the Indonesian military and police have gone on a rampage of arson and looting, murdering their political opponents. Tens of thousands of East Timorese have been loaded onto boats and trucks and taken to camps, where their destination and fate is unknown.

Yet the Clinton administration’s response has been slow and timid from the outset. In the months preceding the vote, human rights groups pleaded with the Administration to use its enormous influence in the UN Security Council and with the government of Indonesia, to arrange for East Timor’s security. One hundred members of the U.S. Congress wrote to President Clinton, warning him of “yet another bloodbath in East Timor” if he failed to act. The White House ignored these pleas, even as the militias– with the complicity and sometimes active help of the Indonesian military– drove 60,000 people from their homes prior to the vote. The Administration insisted that security in East Timor was the responsibility of the Indonesian military.

When the mass killings and cleansing began after the elections, the White House took a full week to cut official ties to the Indonesian military. It took another couple of days to announce a cutoff of arms sales. But these were small gestures. More importantly, the Administration has not cut economic aid. At the APEC summit in New Zealand on Sunday, while Dili was ablaze with fires set by the militias, President Clinton remained cautious, stating only that his “willingness to support future economic assistance from the international community will depend upon how Indonesia handles the situation from today forward.”

On legal, moral, and political grounds, the case for helping the East Timorese is much stronger than that of the Kosovar Albanians. East Timor has never been part of the same country as Indonesia. The Indonesian military, with the tacit approval of the Ford administration, invaded East Timor in 1975 and has been illegally occupying it ever since. This brutal occupation took the lives of some 200,000 people, or a quarter of the population– a crime that can only accurately be described as genocide.

During the past twenty-four years of occupation, the United States has armed, trained, and supplied the Indonesian military. And therein lies the real explanation for the difference between East Timor and Kosovo. The ethnic cleansers in the Indonesian military and government are Washington’s friends. Very close friends.

Such close friends are these that we continued to train the Indonesian military units responsible for the torture and “disappearance” of Suharto’s political opponents, right up to the eve of the dictator’s departure last year. And this was in spite of a Congressional mandate to end such assistance.

Even more recently, award-winning journalist Allan Nairn reports that Admiral Dennis Blair, the head of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, met with General Wiranto, Indonesia’s top military officer, on April 8 and promised him new assistance. Contrary to official US policy, Admiral Blair did not ask Wiranto to shut down the militias that have terrorized East Timor.

The evidence indicates that these militias are not simply rampaging on their own, but are co-ordinated and controlled by the Indonesian security forces. For example, they were eerily inactive during the election, as if under orders to wait for the results. And witnesses have reported widespread participation of the Indonesian military and police in the attacks.

In light of this situation, and given our close ties with the Indonesian military, the Clinton administration must share some of the blame for what has occurred. It could have acted to prevent the violence, and done much more to stop it once it started. But the White House has been afraid that to do so would alienate its friends– and, as the New York Times reported, “could also harm American corporations that have large investments in Indonesia.”

In spite of the Indonesian government’s announcement that it will now accept peacekeeping troops, the situation remains desperate. The killings continue, with international observers and journalists having been driven out, and hundreds of thousands of refugees are reported stranded in the mountains. Many are running out of water and facing starvation. Other refugees remain in camps in Indonesia that are policed by paramilitary gangs.

Now is the time to call the White House and Congress and ask that the Indonesian government be cut off from all economic assistance until they put an end to the violence, and cooperate fully with international efforts to rescue and protect the refugees and remaining residents of East Timor. The lives of tens of thousands of people may be at stake.

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