Catastrophe in Timor

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Bob Sudeyko

CBC News Online, September 13, 1999

QUESTION: Mr. Chomsky, the attention of world leaders and the media seems to be once again focused on East Timor following the independence vote there and all of the ensuing violence that we’ve seen flow from that. Are you at all surprised at what has happened since that vote in East Timor?

CHOMSKY: It’s hard to be surprised. The violence, after all, was going on since April. Very extensively in fact. The Australian press, at least, which has by far given the most extensive coverage, was reporting in July that the paramilitaries and so-called militias were organized by the Indonesian army and were stockpiling arms to carry out and initiate extreme violence if they didn’t succeed in intimidating the population enough to win the vote. It was anticipated I’m sure.

QUESTION: Should there have been an international force available to East Timor at the time of that vote to ensure that the will of the referendum was carried through and not the acts that we’re now seeing.

CHOMSKY: I think that there’s very little doubt of that. For example Bishop Belo who is as much of a spokesman for East Timor as there is … the bishop of East Timor who won the Nobel Prize a couple of years ago. He was calling for an international force months earlier and in fact every sensible observer could see that that was necessary. The Indonesian army was organizing terror and destruction on quite a remarkable scale. Bishop Belo and others estimated deaths in the range of three to five thousand before the referendum.

QUESTION: How much influence does the West, in particular the United States, have over Indonesia? Could all of this have been prevented or has the Indonesian government simply lost control over the military?

CHOMSKY: We just saw this weekend how much influence the United States has. As soon as the United States finally was pressed to take at least a kind of a tepid position Indonesia immediately backed down. If the United States had, before, called on Indonesia to terminate the violence there is very little doubt that they would do so. I should say that this issue still remains. The Clinton administration is not giving Indonesia strong indications that it wants the violence ended. People are dying up in the mountains; they are starving to death; they are being murdered in West Timor in camps that are under Indonesian army control. We don’t know what’s going on in the countryside where nobody’s observing and the United States is doing nothing about it. Indonesian generals can understand that. There would be nothing to stop the United States from flying in humanitarian aid to the people who have been driven into the mountains and are starving to death. Indonesia is not going to shoot down U.S. relief planes.

QUESTION: Do you think that the financial concerns of Indonesia have always outweighed the humanitarian concerns?

CHOMSKY: For the United States and other Western powers there is no doubt. In fact they say so quite openly. The New York Times had a cynical but good article a few days ago through their Asian specialists, who simply described what they called the calculations of the Clinton administration. The calculations are that Indonesia is a country with rich resources and big markets with lots of investment opportunities and are strategically important and East Timor is a poor impoverished country of 800,000 people so therefore why bother.

QUESTION: Lots of talk now about accountability for the situation … for what has happened in East Timor we’ve also heard those same calls following the situation in Kosovo. Do you think accountability will ever be brought forward here?

CHOMSKY: I think that the analogy to Kosovo is very misleading. The question of accountability is very straightforward even though Canada is not as big a player. Since the invasion in 1975 the West has supported it throughout … participated in it. The invasion was carried out with decisive U.S. diplomatic support. We know that from the memoirs of the U.S. diplomatic ambassador at the time, Patrick Moynihan. It was carried out with U.S. arms…. Illegally, because they were sent only for self defense. The U.S. immediately expanded the flow of arms, secretly. The arms increased again in 1977 and 1978 with the Carter administration as the atrocities really peaked … the figure of 200,000 dead that you now hear that was from 1977-78. Jet plane attacks with napalm up in the mountains creating a huge disaster. We are actually in a hideous way reliving that disaster now. In 1979 Indonesia finally allowed foreign visitors … they allowed in Western ambassadors including the U.S. ambassador. Carter’s ambassador, (Ed) Masters. They were horrified by what they saw. They compared it to Biafra and Cambodia, a total disaster. However Ambassador Masters intervened to prevent humanitarian aid from flowing for about nine months. This was reported in congressional testimony by one of the leading Indonesian scholars of the West in 1979. He pointed out that Masters intervened for nine months to delay humanitarian aid while I don’t know how many tens of thousands of people died until they got a green light from the Indonesian generals who said they had the situation under control and therefore they would allow humanitarian aid in. So that’s exactly what’s happening now.

QUESTION: Now that we see the UN actually saying that they will send in a military force … and we don’t exactly know when that’s going to happen. Is that any indication to you that things are going to change in terms of the West’s relationship with Indonesia?

CHOMSKY: If the United States waits until they get a green light from the Indonesian generals as they did in 1979 there will just be more destruction and murder. They can move in right away. There is nothing to stop them from bringing in humanitarian aid this minute to prevent the people from starving to death in the mountains. Just this morning The New York Times reported that 300 children starved to death. Bishop Belo who is now abroad reported of 10,000 killed since September. This is going on. There is no reason to let it go on unless Britain and the U.S, who are the major powers, decide to let it continue.

QUESTION: So do you not think then that the attitude has changed towards Indonesia from the West?

CHOMSKY: There is a lot of pressure from the public in many countries including the United States and Canada to do something. As a result, a few days ago Clinton finally made some moves. They were small moves but they were enough to get Indonesia in principle to agree to an international force. If they made more moves they would back off, almost certainly. It’s simply a question of whether there is going to be enough domestic pressure and turmoil in many countries to compel the leadership to take the steps that they know perfectly well that they can take. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with intervening in Indonesia. East Timor is not part of Indonesia. It’s kind of like asking Indonesia to invite in the peacekeepers. Would be like asking Saddam Hussein to invite in peacekeepers to Kuwait.

QUESTION: Yet at the same time that did seem to be the position of many Western countries. That they didn’t want to move into Indonesia with a peacekeeping force until invited to do so.

CHOMSKY: Nobody asked them to invite peacekeepers into Kuwait. Nobody asked Nazi Germany to invite peacekeepers into occupied France.

QUESTION: What about the domino effect? If independence does go ahead in East Timor will there be other Indonesian provinces that will want to follow leading to the disintegration of Indonesia?

CHOMSKY: First, remember that East Timor is not part of Indonesia. Independence for East Timor which has been called for by the Security Council of the United Nations 25 years ago and endorsed by the World Court … This will probably stimulate the already existing, real separatist movements within what is formerly Indonesia. It’s possible. On the other hand, we should bear in mind that the United States which is the main player has no principle objection to it. We know that because the Eisenhower administration in 1958 carried out what are probably the major post-World War Two clandestine operations to try to break up Indonesia. They forced a rebellion in the outer islands where most of the resources are to try to strip them away.

QUESTION: What are your thoughts on what lies ahead for the people of East Timor? We are talking about a UN force moving in there sometime in the future. What lies ahead there?

CHOMSKY: It is not a matter for prediction — it is a matter for action. I don’t know what lies ahead. It will depend on what we do. If people in the United States and Canada and Britain and elsewhere pressure their governments to act, then there is some hope. It’s been a huge disaster already. Maybe it can’t be reconstructed. But maybe if they act now at least they will stop a worse catastrophe. If they don’t, it will continue to run along as it did in 1979 where everything was put on hold until an Indonesian general said okay. What the West ought to do, particularly the United States and others, is to pay enormous reparations … They are responsible for the catastrophe.

QUESTION: Mr. Chomsky thanks very much for this interview today. We appreciate your time.