East Timor Questions and Answers
by Stephen R. Shalom, Noam Chomsky, and Michael
Z magazine, October 1999
The following Q&A is intended to give readers background
information on the situation and U. S. interests in the area.
1. What was U.S. policy toward Indonesia before 1975?
In the aftermath of World War II, U.S. policy toward the Asian
colonies of the European powers followed a simple rule: where
the nationalists in a territory were leftist (as in Vietnam),
Washington would support the re-imposition of European colonial
rule, while in those places where the nationalist movement was
safely non-leftist (India, for example), Washington would support
their independence as a way to remove them from the exclusive
jurisdiction of a rival power. At first, Indonesian nationalists
were not deemed sufficiently pliable, so U. S. -armed British
troops (assisted by Japanese soldiers) went into action against
the Indonesians to pave the way for the return of Dutch troops,
also armed by the United States. In 1948, however, moderate Indonesian
nationalists under Sukarno crushed a left-wing coup attempt, and
Washington then decided that the Dutch should be encouraged to
settle with Sukarno, accepting Indonesian independence.
It wasn't long, however, before the United States concluded
that Sukarno was a dangerous neutralist, and under the Eisenhower
administration Washington attempted to subvert Indonesia's fragile
democratic government. These efforts-the largest U.S. covert operation
since World War II-were unsuccessful, so the United States shifted
its strategy to building up the Indonesian military as a counter-weight
to the mass-based Indonesian Communist Party. In 1965, this approach
bore fruit when a military coup, accompanied by the slaughter
of somewhere between half a million and a million communists,
suspected leftists, and ordinary peasants, deposed Sukarno and
installed General Suharto in his place. Washington cheered the
coup, rushed weapons to Jakarta, and even provided a list of Communist
Party members to the army, which then rounded up and slaughtered
them. According to a CIA study, "in terms of numbers killed"
the 1965-66 massacres in Indonesia "rank as one of the worst
mass murders of the 20th century." The United States established
close military, economic, and political ties with the Suharto
2. What was East Timor before Indonesia invaded?
From the 17th century, the Netherlands and Portuguese fought
over Timor, a small Southeast Asian island slightly larger than
the state of Maryland located 1,000 miles south of the Philippines
and about 400 miles northwest of Australia. Ultimately the two
colonial powers divided the island, with the western half going
to the Netherlands and becoming part of the Dutch East Indies
and the eastern half going to Portugal. When the Dutch East Indies
became independent following World War II, under the name Indonesia,
west Timor was part of the new nation. East Timor, however, remained
under Portuguese rule until the mid-1970s, when Portugal finally
moved to dismantle its colonial empire. East Timor differs from
Indonesia in terms of religion, language, and several hundred
years of colonial history.
3. How did Indonesia become involved in East Timor?
As long as Portugal controlled East Timor, Indonesia did not
consider attacking it, but once Lisbon declared its intention
to withdraw, the Suharto regime saw an opportunity to add to its
territory and resources. East Timor seemed like an easy target,
given that in 1975 Indonesia had a population of 136 million compared
to East Timor's 700,000 people. Indonesia first tried to block
Timorese independence by backing a coup in the territory, but
when this failed it launched a full-scale invasion of East Timor
in December 1975, using the pretext that it was maintaining order.
A standard propaganda line out of Jakarta-often repeated by
the western media-is that the fighting in East Timor represents
a "civil war." In fact, there had been a very brief
civil war before the Indonesians invaded. For the last 25 years,
however, it has been as much a civil war as the Nazi conquests
4. What was the United States role regarding Indonesia's December
On the eve of the invasion, U.S. President Gerald Ford and
his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, were in Jakarta meeting
with Suharto. Kissinger later claimed that East Timor wasn't even
discussed, but this claim has been exposed as a lie.
In fact, Washington gave Suharto a green light to invade.
Ninety percent of the weaponry used by the Indonesian forces in
their invasion was from the United States (despite a U. S. Iaw
that bans the use of its military aid for offensive purposes)
and the flow of arms, including counterinsurgency equipment, was
secretly increased (a point that should be borne in mind in interpreting
what is going on today).
The United States also lent diplomatic support to the invaders.
In the United Nations, U.S. ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan
successfully worked, as he boasted in his memoirs, to make sure
that the international organization was ineffective in challenging
Jakarta's aggression. Under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the
self-proclaimed champion of human rights, there was a further
increase in U.S. military aid to Indonesia. Since 1975, the United
States has sold Jakarta over $1 billion worth of military equipment.
5. What was the effect of Indonesia's invasion?
The Indonesian invasion and subsequent ruthless pacification
campaign led to the deaths-by massacre, forced starvation, and
disease-of some 200,000 East Timorese, more than a quarter of
the territory's people, making it one of the greatest blood-lettings
in modern history compared to total population. In addition, Indonesian
forces have engaged in torture, rape, and forced relocation on
a massive scale.
6. How did the international community respond to the 1975
On the one hand, the Indonesian aggression so clearly violated
international law and the right of self-determination that the
United Nations Security Council condemned the invasion, calling
on Indonesia to withdraw its armed forces from East Timor, and
the General Assembly rejected Indonesia's annexation of East Timor
as its 27th province, demanding that the people of East Timor
be allowed to determine their own fate. With a single exception,
Australia, no country has legally recognized Indonesian sovereignty
over East Timor.
On the other hand, for many countries considerations of morality
and decency were outweighed by the profits to be had from close
economic ties with Indonesia and its huge population ("When
I think of Indonesia-a country on the equator with 180 million
people, a median age of 18, and a Muslim ban on alcohol-I feel
like I know what heaven looks like," gushed the president
of Coca-Cola in 1992), by the prospects of selling arms to the
Indonesian armed forces, and by the geopolitical advantages of
allying with the largest nation in Southeast Asia, instead of
one of the smallest. Washington's support for Jakarta has already
been noted. Australia has provided military aid to Indonesia and
formally recognized Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, hoping
to divide up East Timor's offshore oil resources. Britain recently
was Indonesia's largest arms supplier, and Japan its largest source
of economic aid and foreign investment. Canada has provided Jakarta
with both economic and military aid, while the Netherlands and
Germany have also been major weapons suppliers.
7. How have the Timorese resisted over the years?
The people of East Timor have waged a truly inspiring and
courageous struggle. They have undertaken guerrilla warfare against
overwhelming odds, organized non-violent protests, and carried
out passive resistance. Students, the Catholic church, and many
others have been involved in the struggle in one way or another:
whether taking up arms, providing food for guerrillas, participating
in demonstrations, or hiding organizers. Remarkably, despite the
horrendous repression, and despite Jakarta's importation of large
numbers of Indonesian settlers into the territory, the East Timorese
have retained their passionate commitment to self-determination
8. What solidarity has there been outside East Timor, over
For a while, only a few lone voices spoke up. Arnold Kohen,
for example, has been at the center of East Timor activism since
the beginning. There were small groups in Australia and in England
trying to draw attention to the issue. Through the 1980s, the
numbers and activism increased. There was a considerable upsurge
following the Dili massacre in 1991-when Indonesian troops attacked
a peaceful funeral procession, slaughtering more than 270-the
massacre was publicized by U.S. free-lance journalists Amy Goodman
and Alan Nairn (who were nearly killed by Indonesian troops) and
a British TV photojournalist who secretly filmed the atrocities.
Church and human rights groups became active, and Charlie Scheiner
formed the East Timor Action Network.
By the mid-1990s there were substantial organizations in many
countries, and they were beginning to have an impact. The issue
was finally being covered in the mainstream media, if not always
accurately. Intensely lobbied by East Timor activists, the U.S.
Congress was increasingly placing restrictions on U.S. military
aid to Indonesia, often evaded, however, by the Administration.
In 1996, Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor's chief foreign representative,
and Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, East Timor's spiritual
leader, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, focusing further attention
on the situation.
9. How did the recent referendum come about and what were
Mass demonstrations in Indonesia, financial crisis, and massive
corruption combined in 1998 to force Suharto from office. His
successor, B. J. Habibie agreed to call elections for Indonesia
and to hold a referendum on the future of East Timor. The Indonesian
election was won by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the main opposition
leader, but even if she is allowed to become president in November
it is doubtful that she will move to dismantle the national security
apparatus, which dominates the state.
In the negotiations over the terms of the referendum on the
future of East Timor, the international community essentially
accepted Indonesia's ground rules. The referendum would be run
by Indonesia, the occupying power. The UN was permitted to send
a few hundred unarmed monitors, but they had no means of stopping
the paramilitary forces ("militias") that had been organized
by the Indonesian army and were carrying out large-scale terror
under its direction and with its direct involvement, particularly
by its special forces (Kopassus), trained by the United States
and Australia, and noted for their extreme violence and brutality.
Rather than pressing for a more substantial UN presence, the Clinton
administration actually delayed the dispatch of the monitors.
The referendum was postponed several times by the UN because of
the ongoing terror, which was clearly intended by the army to
intimidate the population into voting for incorporation within
Indonesia. On August 30, 1999, in an astonishing display of courage,
virtually the entire population of East Timor went to the polls,
about four out of five voting for independence.
Having failed to cow the Timorese people into accepting Indonesian
rule, the army and its militias then proceeded to unleash a ferocious
attack on the civilian population, displacing hundreds of thousands,
killing an unknown number, but certainly thousands, burning, and
10. What are the likely motives of Indonesia and the militias
now, after the referendum?
For the Indonesian army the motives are probably to demonstrate
to people within Indonesia who may raise their heads that the
cost will be extremely severe. The army demonstrated this same
point during the massacres of 1965-66 when Suharto came to power,
intimidating the country for years, and many times subsequently-and
always with enthusiastic support from the United States and the
West generally. There are now secessionist movements in several
parts of Indonesia (though, while the East Timorese independence
movement is commonly called "separatist," that makes
as much sense as calling the French resistance to the Nazi occupation
"separatist"), and the army presumably fears that independence
for East Timor may encourage other breakaway movements.
Other motives probably include undermining civilian authority
in Jakarta and placing the military in the dominant position in
the post-Suharto succession. Pure revenge is also a likely motive:
the East Timorese have resisted with enormous courage and integrity
for 25 years and so they are being punished by massacre and destruction.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the military, and the Suharto
family, have taken over most of the resources of East Timor, and
do not want to relinquish them. And in the background is the important
question of the oil wealth of the Timor Gap, and who will control
11. What is the role of the United Nations?
It is a little misleading to speak of the role of the UN.
The UN is nearly powerless as an abstract entity or even as a
representative of the world's nations. It can act, instead, only
insofar as it is given authorization by the great powers, which
means primarily the United States.
The UN has no standing peacekeeping force and thus is dependent
on finding countries willing to contribute troops for any particular
mission. The organization suffers as well from an extreme shortage
of funds because of the continual U.S. refusal to pay its dues.
Any peacekeepers sent to East Timor will probably not be a UN
force because the U.S. Congress has required that there be a 15-day
delay before the U. S. government can approve any UN peacekeeping
operation and has forbidden Washington from paying its authorized
share of the costs of any such operation.
U.S. influence is greatest in the Security Council, but some
organs of the UN, such as the General Assembly or bodies dealing
with economic and social issues have had a Third World majority
ever since the era of decolonization. Accordingly, U.S. policy
has been to undermine and marginalize the UN. The United Nations
should have an important role in world affairs, but U. S. policy,
and the policies of other leading states, severely limits the
international organization. From the point of view of U. S. policymakers,
however, there is one crucial role played by the UN: it serves
as a convenient scapegoat when something goes wrong. For example,
the current catastrophe in East Timor is directly attributable
to the refusal of the United States and other Western powers to
deter the atrocities there over a period of a quarter century,
yet the UN will probably take the blame.
12. What are the likely motives of the United States now,
after the referendum?
U.S. motives now are the same as always: to pursue those policies
that will enhance the power and economic returns of U.S. corporate
and political elites with as few dangers of disrupting existing
relations of power as possible, and especially as few disturbing
effects in the form of enlarging public awareness and dissidence.
The United States has a long history of cozying up to ruthless
dictators, being indifferent to if not enthusiastic about their
atrocities, and disengaging only when Washington concludes that
the dictator has provoked so much instability and dissidence that
U.S. interests are threatened. Thus, President Jimmy Carter backed
the Shah of Iran until it seemed as if the army would fall apart
in trying to suppress mass demonstrations; President Reagan embraced
Marcos in the Philippines until splits in the armed forces and
huge numbers of people in the streets put U.S. interests at risk.
So in Indonesia, the United States supported Suharto until a popular
explosion seemed to imperil U.S. economic and geopolitical interests.
The United States supported Indonesian policy in East Timor-with
weapons, training, and diplomatic support-as long as doing so
seemed to further U.S. interests. As long as East Timor could
be kept off the front page, Washington was happy to give Jakarta
a free hand. But news of the latest atrocities could not be suppressed.
Some courageous journalists and independent observers, some UN
workers who refused to abandon the Timorese, and networks of activists
have all spread the word. This has raised the costs to the U.S.
government of continuing to tolerate Indonesian terrorism in East
Timor. Washington still hopes, however, to protect its economic
stake in Indonesia and maintain close ties with that country's
13. What could the United States do that would be positive
in East Timor?
The United States and its major allies have tremendous leverage
over the Indonesian government. Indonesia doesn't have much of
a military industry, and relies heavily on its suppliers: the
United States, Britain, Australia, and others. Indonesian troops
receive training and participate in joint exercises with U.S.
troops, the most recent just a week before the August 30, 1999
referendum. Indonesia's economy is also totally dependent on financial
aid from the United States and other rich nations and from the
International Monetary Fund whose policies are controlled by these
same rich nations. Without funds from these sources, Indonesia
will find foreign investment drying up and domestic capital flight
as well. In short, Indonesia cannot act without the approval of
Washington and the leading Western nations.
The same sort of pressure that seems in the past few days
to have forced Jakarta to accept international peacekeeping troops
could have been used-and could still be used-to compel the Indonesians
to call off the slaughter and destruction in East Timor, something
that would have a far more critical and immediate effect on the
lives of East Timorese than the dispatch of peacekeepers. Peacekeepers,
if they get there in time, can play a useful role in facilitating
the distribution of humanitarian aid and in restraining any of
the militias that refuse an Indonesian order to disband.
Of course, the same pressure that got Jakarta to buckle today
could have been employed immediately to stop the atrocities. It
could have been used six months ago to force Indonesia to disband
the militias and call off its terror forces. And it could have
been used at any point over the past quarter century to get Indonesia
to withdraw from East Timor. And it could have been used in December
1975 to forestall the Indonesia invasion in the first place.
14. Will the United States do something positive in East Timor?
The United States government does not act out of humanitarian
concern. U.S. political and economic elites pursue their own interests
and are willing to tolerate-and even welcome-incredible brutality
in the furtherance of those interests.
Sometimes, however, U. S. elites can be pressured into following
a positive course of action if the social costs of their not doing
so can be significantly raised. The U.S. government didn't wind
down the Vietnam War because a burst of humanitarianism entered
the calculation of policymakers. Rather, it ended the war because
the resistance of the Vietnamese and the social disruptions at
home made the costs of continuing the war too high.
The U.S. government will do something positive-more accurately,
it will stop doing something horribly negative-with regard to
East Timor only if public pressure raises the social costs of
continuing to abet the massacre.
The strategy, then, for those who wish to change U.S. policy
on East Timor is the same as for those who want to change U.S.
policy more generally. U.S. elites respond not to moral persuasion
but, instead, to a calculus of interests. When one wants to influence
their choices, therefore, it is necessary to create conditions
that change the calculus they confront. The only way to do that
is to raise consciousness of true conditions and organize dissent
that threatens things they hold dear. If pursuing or permitting
genocidal activity in Timor strengthens elite positions and enriches
their coffers, and if there is no offsetting cost to the behavior,
it will continue. If popular activism threatens business as usual,
if it threatens to grow, and not only address Timor, but the basic
institutions behind events like these-that is a real and dangerous
cost that elites very well understand.
So what does a morally concerned person do? Try to become
knowledgeable, try to educate others, try to facilitate efforts
to make dissent visible-whether financially, via donations to
worthy projects and institutions, or with one's time and labors
given to organizing. It is the same answer for Timor as for Kosovo
as for the Gulf War as for Nicaragua as for Vietnam. It is the
same answer for foreign policy pursuits as it is for trying to
win strikes against corporations, reverse NAFTA, and preserve
affirmative action (or win it in the first place). To impact elites
it is necessary to raise social costs so high that elites have
no choice but to relent.