APEC, the U.S. & East Timor

US involvement in genocide in Indonesia

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 media.)

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 colony.

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 1982-84.

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 Cruz massacre."

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, NY 10602;
914-428-7299; Fax: 914-428-7383. Email: cscheiner@igc.apc.org.

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