APEC, the U.S. & East Timor
US involvement in genocide in
by Mathew Jardine, January 1995
Bill Clinton breathed a sigh of relief on Thanksgiving Day when
29 East Timorese ended their 12 day occupation of the U.S. Embassy
compound in Jakarta, Indonesia and left for exile in Portugal.
The Embassy occupation was only one in a series of events in and
around East Timor during the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation)
meeting that stole the spotlight from Clinton's and Indonesian
President Suharto's free trade showcase in Jakarta. CNN and many
national networks showed scenes from the Embassy compound and
violent clashes in Dili, the East Timorese capital. Most major
newspapers in the US (and throughout the West) reported these
incidents and many, including the USA Today, the New York Times,
and the Wall St. Journal, ran editorials criticizing Jakarta's
heavy-handedness in the former Portuguese colony, often calling
for East Timorese self-determination.
Most mainstream analyses, however, soft peddled the issue of U.S.
involvement in what is-proportionately-speaking- one of the worst
genocides since World War II. They also failed to appreciate the
reasons for U.S. cooperation in Jakarta's colonial project in
East Timor. Such analyses often presented the problem as one of
an errant child (Indonesia) that a strong parent (the U.S.) needs
to convince of the error of its ways, rather than seeing Indonesia
and the U.S. as partners in crime in East Timor.
Indonesia is today the world's fourth most populous country and
the world's largest Muslim country. It is a moderate member of
OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and generally
supportive of US and Western foreign policy objectives. Indonesia's
staunch anti-communism, strategic location, and wealth of natural
resources have made it very attractive to Western interests. Its
liberal investment laws and repressive labor conditions have helped
it develop into a major center for multinational corporate activity
with extensive mining, logging, and oil extraction operations.
With a legal minimum wage of less than $2 a day, Indonesia is
a leading manufacturing site for products ranging from Nike footwear
to Levi Strauss jeans.
U.S. support in 1975 for Indonesia's designs on East Timor was
principally a reward for Suharto's cooperation with Western geopolitical
and political-economic objectives; to a lesser extent it also
grew out of concerns that an independent East Timor might lead
to regional instability. Similar interests motivated other Western
countries, the majority of which followed the U.S. Iead.
But East Timor in and of itself was of relatively marginal concern
to U.S. policy makers; Indonesia was and is what matters. Suharto's
Indonesia has been traditionally among the region's more regulated
economies and resistant to APEC's free trade goal. In the last
couple of years, however, Jakarta has greatly reduced its opposition
to trade liberalization and has become convinced that Indonesia
will have to open up in order to improve the country's competitiveness
in the world economy. At the same time, Jakarta hoped to use its
hosting of the APEC forum as an opportunity to spruce up its image
as a country of slightly-suspect political stability due to its
authoritarian nature. In this regard, Jakarta proved to be its
own worst enemy. A series of heavy-handed actions by the Indonesian
state in the months preceding the APEC meeting only served to
highlight the repressive nature of the Suharto government.
In June, the government closed down two of Indonesia's biggest
magazines, Tempo and Editor, as well as the weekly tabloid newspaper
DeTik, for their reporting on a recent banking scandal, government
corruption in military purchases, and ongoing problems in and
around East Timor. Indonesia has also harassed and intimidated
a number of high-profile pro-democracy and human rights activists,
most notably Professor George Aditjondro whose publication in
Australia of two papers (previously distributed in Indonesia),
detailing the environmental and socio-economic impact of Jakarta's
invasion and occupation of East Timor outraged the authorities.
The launching of "Operation-Clean-Up" (Operasi Bersih
or Opsih), an anti-crime campaign meant to clean up Jakarta before
the APEC meeting, proved to be a further embarrassment for Jakarta
as Indonesian and international human rights groups heavily criticized
the repressive operation which often served as a smoke screen
to snuff out political dissent. (In June, for example, Indonesian
troops wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with Opsih, violently
suppressed a peaceful
demonstration in Jakarta protesting the closing of the three news
Finally, Jakarta committed a major mistake in late May when it
pressured the Philippines to disallow the holding of the International
Asia-Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET) in Manila. While
the Ramos government did not prohibit the conference from going
forward, it blacklisted and barred a number of foreigners from
attending, including the "first ladies" of France and
Portugal, Indonesian pro-democracy advocates, a Nobel Peace Prize
laureate from Northern Ireland, East Timorese resistance leaders
in exile, and four Christian bishops.
The Clinton administration was pleased that Jakarta served as
the venue for the most recent meeting. Indonesia's hosting helped
reduce the impression and fear of many member-states that APEC
is merely a tool for the U.S. (and Australia to a lesser extent)
to extend their economic influence throughout the proposed free
trade region. Despite an apparent receptivity to the Pacific Rim's
version of NAFTA, however, Indonesia and many other APEC countries
still fear that increased trade liberalization will lead to a
flood of U.S. goods that will overwhelm domestic producers, especially
in agriculture. Many also worry about potential negative repercussions
that the free trade ideology will have on their national economies
as they will be forced to dismantle the state-corporate relationships
so vital in nurturing and protecting domestic capital.
Such concerns are, of course, well-placed. From the U.S. perspective
APEC represents an opportunity to regain its economic pre-eminence
through the establishment of a U.S.-dominated free trade region
to counter the European trading bloc. In this sense, we should
not view APEC in isolation, but rather as one component of an
overall U.S. effort to open up the markets of the Asia-Pacific
region (and the world in general) and to provide U.S.-based multinationals
access to the human and natural resources of the area.
U.S. interest in APEC is an outgrowth of a shift in the world
economy from the industrial economies of the Atlantic to those
of the Pacific Rim. Over the last ten years, the Asia-Pacific
region has replaced Western Europe as the U.S.'s largest regional
trading partner in terms of both imports and exports. U.S. trade
in the Asia-Pacific region in 1993 was more than $374 billion,
63 percent more than transatlantic trade. U.S. direct investment
in the region reached $92 billion in 1993, 17 percent of total
U.S. overseas investment. Begun in Canberra, Australia in 1989,
APEC has quickly grown to 18 members-states: the six members of
the Association of South east Asian Nations-ASEAN (Brunei, Indonesia,
Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand), Australia,
Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Papua New Guinea,
New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S. In the first four
years of its existence, APEC was simply an annual meeting among
foreign ministers that focused on dialogue about customs procedures.
While APEC was originally seen as an Australian project, the U.S.
has come to play the dominant role.
In the short term, U.S. objectives for APEC are to accelerate
the integration of APEC member-states into the General Agreement
on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In the long term, the U.S. would
like to see the APEC countries move beyond GATT in terms of lowering
tariffs outside of the purview of the recently-concluded Uruguay
Round of GATT; this would include telecommunications and further
agreements on intellectual property.
It is against a backdrop of ongoing U.S. efforts to maintain and
to strengthen the economic position of U.S.-based capital in the
region that we can understand United States policy toward Indonesia
and East Timor since the 1975 invasion. APEC is only the latest
manifestation of U.S. empire-building and helps explain the Clinton
administration's response to the recent wave of unrest in and
around the former Portuguese colony.
The U.S. Sacrifice at the Indonesian Altar
Clinton's APEC visit was the first trip to Jakarta by a U.S. president
since 1975. Whether by coincidence or design, President Ford and
Secretary of State Kissinger were visiting Indonesian President
Suharto during the two days preceding the December 7, 1975 Indonesian
invasion of the newly-independent East Timor. There is little
doubt that the U.S. gave Suharto the green light to invade. In
Jakarta the day before the invasion with President Ford, U.S.
Secretary of State Kissinger told reporters that "the United
States understands Indonesia's position on the question"
of East Timor.
According to columnist Jack Anderson, Ford admitted that, given
a choice between East Timor and Indonesia, the U.S. "had
to be on the side of Indonesia." Suharto was eager to obtain
U.S. support for the invasion because of ABRl's (the Indonesian
Armed Forces) heavy reliance on U.S. weaponry which, by U.S. law,
could only be used for defensive purposes. Since Ford and Kissinger's
departure from Jakarta, well over 200,000 East Timorese-about
one-third of the 1975 population-have lost their lives as a result
of the invasion and ongoing occupation of the former Portuguese
According to the State Department, U.S. companies supplied some
90 percent of the weapons used by ABRI during the invasion. When
it looked as if Jakarta were actually running out of military
equipment in late 1977 due to its activities in East Timor, the
Carter "human rights" administration responded by authorizing
U.S. $112 million in commercial arms sales for fiscal 1978 to
Jakarta, up from U.S. $5.8 million the previous year (an almost
2,000 percent increase). U.S. arms sales to Indonesia peaked during
the presidency of Ronald Reagan, exceeding U.S. $1 billion from
As in the case of arms sales, military assistance also increased.
In the year following the invasion, the Ford administration more
than doubled its military assistance (to U.S. $146 million) to
Jakarta. Similarly, U.S. military aid increased during the Carter
and Reagan administrations, during which the bulk of the killings
were taking place in East Timor. Since the invasion, over 2,600
Indonesian military officers have received military training in
the U.S. under the International Military Education and Training
(IMET) program. There is even strong evidence to suggest that
U.S. military advisers were present in Indonesian-occupied East
Timor in the late 1970s.
The U.S. policy of complicity with Indonesia's occupation of East
Timor remained essentially the same through the Bush Administration.
As for Clinton, East Timor supporters around the world saw some
hopeful signs in the candidate who promised to put human rights
in the center of U.S. foreign policy. Thus far, these signs have
proven to be of little substance.
The Clinton Administration: End of Complicity?
During the presidential campaign, candidate Clinton called U.S.
policy on East Timor unconscionable, but his record since taking
office is mixed at best. At the March 1993 meeting of the UN Human
Rights Commission, the U.S. delegation reversed its historical
intransigence and co-sponsored a resolution condemning Indonesian
human rights violations in East Timor. (The fact that a number
of Western countries-including Australia, who would have otherwise
voted against the resolution-supported it is indicative not only
of the preeminent position of the U.S. in international politics,
but also the key role of the U.S. in East Timor's future.)
Later that year, Clinton's State Department also blocked a proposed
sale by the Jordanian government of four U.S.-made F-5E fighter
jets to Jakarta. And in early 1994 the State Department announced
a ban on the sale of small arms to Indonesia.
But Jakarta's continuing economic and strategic importance has
exposed the limits of Clinton's concern for human rights and international
law. As reported by columnist Mark Baker in an August 1993 edition
of the Melbourne Age, "[a] U.S. official said the extent
to which the administration was prepared to press Indonesia on
human rights was tempered by the continuing economic and strategic
importance of Jakarta." Demonstrating such logic, the Clinton
administration has provided $180 million in economic assistance
to Indonesia's rulers over the last two years through the World
Bank-chaired Consultative Group on Indonesia (CGI), a consortium
of donor countries and organizations.
The U.S. also sold more than $30 million in weaponry in 1993 to
lndonesia in government-to-government transactions alone. U.S.
corporate arms sales- which require State Department approval-are
estimated at $57 million for 1994. The Clinton administration
has even side-stepped a September 1992 Congressional ban on IMET
funds to Jakarta by allowing Indonesia to purchase the training.
And joint U.S.-Indonesia military exercises continue.
Thus far the Administration has tried to put the most positive
spin on the APEC meeting, emphasizing Clinton's stern lecture
on human rights to Indonesian President Suharto and the signing
of 15 separate business deals totaling $40 billion over the next
decade (including a $30 billion deal for exploitation of natural
gas reserves by Exxon). The Embassy occupation and a series of
events in and around East Timor, however, have helped to divert
the international media spotlight away from APEC toward East Timor.
On November 12, the day before President Clinton's arrival in
Jakarta, Indonesian soldiers arrested U.S. journalists Amy Goodman
and Allan Nairn as they tried to return to East Timor on the anniversary
of the Santa Cruz Massacre. (Indonesian authorities released Nairn
and Goodman after 20 hours, but blocked a subsequent attempt by
the pair to fly to Dili from Jakarta. Nevertheless, the two were
able to later sneak into East Timor where they spent several days
undetected.) On that date in 1991 the Indonesian military opened
fire on a defenseless crowd gathered at a cemetery in Dili, the
East Timorese capital, killing hundreds.
Goodman, news director of WBAI Pacifica Radio in New York City,
and Nairn, a freelance journalist who has written for The Nation,
The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, were eyewitnesses to the massacre.
Both journalists were badly beaten. Nairn, who was struck repeatedly
by soldiers wielding the butts of U.S.-made M-16 rifles, suffered
a fractured skull. Nairn's and Goodman's award-winning reporting
brought the massacre and the issue of East Timor to world attention.
On the same day as the arrests, 29 East Timorese students and
workers scaled the spiked fence of the U.S. Embassy, unfurling
banners and shouting pro-independence slogans. Camped out in the
embassy parking lot, the demonstrators called for East Timorese
self-determination and the withdrawal of Indonesian troops from
their country. In a written petition to Bill Clinton, the protesters
demanded that he call upon Indonesia to release East Timorese
resistance leader Xanana Gusmao and all other East Timorese political
prisoners and to enter into direct negotiations with the different
elements of the resistance, including the East Timorese Catholic
Church and to allow for "an independent and impartial mission
with the aim of conducting a serious investigation into the Santa
The students vowed not to leave the Embassy compound until the
U.S. met their demands, including a meeting with Secretary of
State Christopher or President Clinton. (They turned down an offer
of a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Jakarta, Robert Barry.)
While both Clinton and Christopher promised that the 29 were welcome
to stay in the compound for as long as they desired and that they
would not be pressured to leave the Embassy grounds, the behavior
of the Embassy staff suggests otherwise.
The East Timorese were given no water for two days. After that
they were only provided with water and two servings of white rice
a day. The Embassy also denied them shelter and access to sanitary
facilities. Such conditions, combined with the Clinton administration's
lack of compliance with the demands and repeated exposure to taunts
and death threats from the hundreds of Indonesian military personnel
ringing the fence around the compound, convinced the protesters
to finally accept Portugal's offer of political asylum. (Under
international law, Portugal remains the "administering authority"
of East Timor as the territory has never been properly decolonized.)
Shortly after the original 29 scaled the Embassy fence, Indonesian
authorities arrested about 50 other East Timorese who were on
their way to the U.S. Embassy to join in the sit-in. While Indonesia
has released some of the group, a number of them have been re-arrested.
As of this writing, the whereabouts of many of the arrestees is
unknown; it is feared that many of them are being tortured and
that some have been "disappeared."
On the day following the beginning of the Embassy sit-in, a small
pro-independence rally took place after a Sunday morning Catholic
mass in Dili to commemorate the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre. With
dozens of foreign journalists present in Dili for the APEC conference
in Jakarta, several dozen young people marched with FRETILIN flags
and banners calling for independence and President Clinton's support.
Following the peaceful march, over a thousand East Timorese youths
rioted in Dili, attacking Indonesian-owned homes, stores and hotels,
burning cars and clashing with riot police who responded with
tear gas. Frequent and violent protests continued for at least
two weeks. Several were reported dead and hundreds arrested.
Reminiscent of the U.S. Reaganesque policy toward South Africa
of "constructive engagement," the Clinton administration
has clearly made the unsurprising decision of privileging economic
interests over basic human rights. Recent events have largely
served to highlight the tragedy of Indonesia's imperial project
in East Timor and of U.S. policy, leading to a sobering assessment
of the possibilities for progressive change in U.S. practice toward
Indonesia and East Timor- especially in light of the recent House
and Senate elections. At the same time, however, there are a number
of reasons for hope for East Timor's future.
While Clinton's response to the recent wave of unrest has been
totally inadequate, his public censure of Indonesia marks the
first time the U.S. government has made any sort of critical statement
regarding the political administration of East Timor. Furthermore,
although the Administration has maintained the essence of U.S.
policy toward Indonesia and East Timor, noteworthy changes (outlined
above) have taken place.
Prior to 1992, the U.S. had never taken any action limiting assistance
to Indonesia on the basis of the latter's presence in East Timor.
Significantly, due to grass roots pressure and mobilization, U.S.
policy in East Timor is now a public and Congressional subject
of debate. The fact that important voices in the U.S. corporate-owned
media are calling for East Timorese self-determination (and implicitly,
and sometimes explicitly, for an end to U.S. complicity) is certainly
cause for concern in Jakarta.
In terms of East Timor, while Jakarta has defeated the East Timorese
militarily, a small guerrilla force (FALINTIL) continues to challenge
ABRI and to serve as an important symbol of resistance to Indonesian
domination. Of greater significance, however, is the East Timorese
clandestine front (with formal links to FALINTIL) and the growing
civilian resistance which often operates outside of traditional
resistance structures. The recent wave of unrest demonstrates
not only the failure of Indonesia to win the hearts and minds
of the vast majority of the population, but also the growing organizational
and political strength of the East Timorese resistance, adept
both in limiting Indonesia's ability to subjugate the territory
and its people and in helping to raise and maintain
consciousness in Indonesia and abroad regarding Jakarta's criminal
occupation of East Timor.
Within Indonesia, a growing number of national elites understand
the high cost that Indonesia is paying both in a material sense
and in terms of international opinion, by maintaining its occupation
of East Timor. In terms of the pro-democracy and human rights
movements, significant components champion East Timorese self-determination,
a position unthinkable prior to the Santa Cruz Massacre. Increasingly,
elements of the East Timorese resistance are forming links with
progressive Indonesians. George Adibondro, for example, has recently
formed the Indonesian Campaign for a Referendum for Self-Determination
for East Timor.
Internationally, principally as a result of Santa Cruz and the
recent APEC debacle, East Timor is almost universally synonymous
with Indonesian repression. In a number of countries throughout
the world, East Timor solidarity and human rights groups have
emerged and developed. In terms of both public and elite opinion,
Indonesia's isolation is growing.
Regarding the United Nations, the publicity that grew out of the
Santa Cruz Massacre combined with the new UN Secretary-General,
Boutros Boutros Ghali, have reinvigorated activity on East Timor
in the international body. UN-sponsored talks between Indonesia
and Portugal resumed in 1992, this time, however, accompanied
by consultations with East Timorese independent of Jakarta. And
recently, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas ended Jakarta's
refusal to meet with pro-independence East Timorese and sat down
with Jose Ramos-Horta, co-leader of the umbrella group of the
resistance, the National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM).
That said, while such hopeful signs have emerged in the three
years since Santa Cruz, not much has changed in East Timor. As
Bishop Belo-the head of the East Timorese Catholic Church and
a nominee for the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize-recently stated, "the
situation is as bad as ever....We live in a scorched land."
Jakarta maintains a heavy military presence in the territory and,
despite the UN-sponsored talks, refuses to discuss East Timorese
self-determination. And there are definite limits to the ability
of the East Timorese to force Jakarta's hand given the vastly-superior
resources at Indonesia's disposal.
In terms of U.S. policy, the types of "pressure" brought
to bear upon Jakarta are clearly inadequate. Entrenched economic
interests will certainly resist any sort of policy toward Indonesia
perceived as punitive. U.S.-based weapons contractors and multinationals
such as mining conglomerate Freeport McMoRan and AT&T have
championed Jakarta's cause. While support for East Timor within
the U.S. Congress has grown, Indonesia's supporters, including
some prominent Senate Democrats, such as Bennett Johnson (Louisiana),
Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), and Dianne Feinstein (California), have
helped to undermine East Timor's cause.
Apart from radical changes within Indonesia, it is doubtful that
East Timorese self-determination will become a reality in the
foreseeable future. Barring such change, it is only through Western--principally
U.S.--pressure in the form of a cut off of military and non-humanitarian
economic assistance that Jakarta will perceive a withdrawal from
East Timor to be in its best interest. Anxious to maintain good
relations with the United States, Indonesia would be under intense
pressure to withdraw from East Timor in the face of such clear
U.S. resolve. But without a strong signal from the Clinton administration,
Indonesia's occupation of East Timor will continue, as will U.S.
complicity with one of history's ugliest chapters.
The South African and Central American solidarity movements demonstrated
the power of ordinary citizens to limit Washington's imperial
destructiveness and to facilitate progressive change abroad. Thus
far, human rights activists and East Timor solidarity groups have
played a key role in making East Timor an issue of public discussion
and in bringing about the small but significant changes in U.S.
policy. Such efforts must continue and intensify as the road ahead
is a long one.
from Z magazine, January 1995
For more information contact:
East Timor Action Network / U.S., P.O. Box 1182, White Plains,
914-428-7299; Fax: 914-428-7383. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.