US support for Indonesia

from the book

East Timor: Genocide in Paradise

by Matthew Jardine

America stands as it always has, against aggression, against those who would use force to replace the rule of law.

US President George Bush, 1990, referring to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait

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.

Coca-Cola President Donald R. Keough, c. 1992

It's clear that the US knew about the upcoming invasion [of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975] and avoided taking any action that might have stopped it. In August 1975, Australia's ambassador to Indonesia cabled the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra (Australia's capital), as follows: The United States might have some influence on Indonesia at the present as Indonesia really wants and needs US assistance in its military re-equipment program.... But [US] Ambassador Newsom told me last night that he is under instructions from [US Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger personally not to involve himself in discussions on Timor with the Indonesians on the ground that the US is involved in enough problems of greater importance overseas at present....His present attitude is that the US should keep out of the Portuguese Timor situation and allow events to take their course.

US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta visiting Indonesian President Suharto the two days before the invasion. There's little doubt that Ford gave Suharto the green light to invade. Kissinger told reporters in Jakarta that "the US understands Indonesia's position on the question" of East Timor, and Ford said that, given a choice between East Timor and Indonesia, the US "had to be on the side of Indonesia." (US support for the invasion was important to Suharto because ABRI (the Indonesian military) relied heavily on US weaponry, which US law states can only be used for defensive purposes.)

In early 1976, the US voiced its defacto recognition of Jakarta's annexation of East Timor. An unnamed US State Department official explained: "In terms of the bilateral relations between the US and Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East Timor."

These US actions weren't surprising, given the history of business relations between the two countries. By the end of World War I, the US and Japan supplied almost a third of the Dutch East Indies' imports. In turn, US-based corporations located there supplied the US with tin, rubber and oil. By 1939, the Dutch East Indies were supplying the US with over half of its needs for "no less than fifteen distinct commodities."

W.W.II radically changed the map of the Pacific, with the US emerging as the region's dominant power. US policymakers recognized that the region held great promise:

These areas not only offer many markets for American products but are substantial producers of raw materials useful to our economy....Our merchant marine and commercial firms should be given the opportunity to take over a large portion of that trade formerly handled by the Japanese and their vessels.

George Kennan, Director of the Policy Planning Staff at the US State Department, noted that the US had "about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3 % of its population," and offered this advice: Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. We should make a careful study to see what parts of the Pacific and Far Eastern world are absolutely vital to our security, and we should concentrate our policy on seeing to it that those areas remain in hands which we can control or rely on.

Indonesia, with its fertile soils, wealth of natural resources and strategic location, is certainly an important area to "control or rely on." In a 1965 speech in Asia, Richard Nixon argued in favor of bombing North Vietnam to protect the "immense mineral potential" of Indonesia, which he later referred to as "by far the greatest prize in the southeast Asian area."

To protect its prizes, the US eventually killed over four million people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos between 1965 and 1975. In South Vietnam alone, the war resulted in a million widows and 879,000 orphans. It destroyed 9000 out of 15,000 hamlets, almost 40,000 square miles of farmland and 18,750 square miles of forest. Such carnage indicates what the US would be willing to support in Indonesia and East Timor.

In the late 1940s, US government and corporate leaders decided to support Indonesian independence over the continuing instability of Dutch rule (as mentioned above). To their chagrin, however, the new Indonesian government became highly nationalistic, anti-imperialist and non- aligned. Worried that the area might move beyond its control, Washington began (in the 1950s) to curry favor with the Indonesian army, through military assistance and training programs.

The US soon reaped the benefits of this policy. In 1965, using an alleged Communist plot to overthrow the government as an excuse, pro-US General Suharto assumed control of the military and launched "one of the great slaughters of our time." Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were killed, mostly landless peasants and members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (many of whose names had been supplied to the army by the US Embassy in Jakarta) .

Suharto's government repealed the previous regime's "extremely restrictive" investment laws and paved the way for large-scale foreign investment. By the 1970s, the US was investing more in Indonesia than in any other Southeast Asian country, even the Philippines. Part of that trade was arms-the State Department estimates that US companies supplied about 90% of the weapons used during the invasion of East Timor.

The Suharto regime's support for US and Western political objectives, its liberal investment climate and its repressive labor conditions-the minimum wage is less than $2 a day-make it very attractive to Western companies. Under Suharto, Indonesia has developed into a major center for international business operations. Extensive mining, logging and oil extraction takes place there, as does manufacturing by a wide variety of US companies, including Nike and Levi Strauss.

Support for Indonesia's actions in East Timor and elsewhere is a small price to pay for the investment opportunities (and political support) Indonesia offers. So the US not only refused to condemn the invasion, but sharply increased aid to Indonesia since then.

In the year following the invasion, the Ford administration more than doubled its military assistance to Indonesia (to $146 million). In late 1977, when it looked as if Indonesia might run out of military equipment, the Carter "human rights" administration authorized $112 million in commercial arms sales to Jakarta, up almost 2000% from the previous fiscal year. US military sales peaked during the Reagan administration, exceeding $1 billion from 1982 to 1984. Over 2600 Indonesian military officers have received training in the US since the invasion of East Timor, under the International Military Education and Training Act (IMET).

As a State Department official explained shortly after the invasion: "The United States wants to keep its relations with Indonesia close and friendly. [It's] a nation we do a lot of business with. "

Because the corporate media tend to follow the lead of their governments, people in the West learned almost nothing about Indonesia's brutal invasion and the ensuing war. When political parties in East Timor were working toward independence from Portugal (in 1975), a number of US newspapers reported on the process. But after the invasion, news of East Timor largely disappeared from the Western press.

The Los Angeles Times is a typical example. From August 1975 until the invasion on December 7, it ran sixteen articles dealing with East Timor. But from March 1976 to November 1979-during a time when Indonesia's occupation was described (in a report to the Australian parliament) as "indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history"-East Timor wasn't mentioned once. This neglect by the US media continued throughout the 1980s.

from the book
East Timor: Genocide in Paradise
by Matthew Jardine

published by Odonian Press
Box 32375
Tucson, AZ 85751
800-REALSTORY phone

Asia watch

Home Page