According to recent reports, the UN mission in East Timor has been able to account for just over 150,000 people out of an estimated population of 850,000. It reports that 260,000 “are now languishing in squalid refugee camps in West Timor under the effective control of the militias after either fleeing or being forcibly removed from their homes,” and that another 100,000 have been relocated to other parts of Indonesia. The rest are presumed to be hiding in the mountains. The Australian commander expressed the natural concern that displaced people lack food and medical supplies. Touring camps in East and West Timor, US Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh reported that the refugees are “starving and terrorized,” and that disappearances “without explanation” are a daily occurrence.
To appreciate the scale of this disaster, one has to bear in mind the virtual demolition of the physical basis for survival by the departing Indonesian army and its paramilitary associates (“militias”), and the reign of terror to which the territory has been subjected for a quarter-century, including the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people when the Carter Administration was providing the required diplomatic and military support.
How have its successors reacted during the current “noble phase” of foreign policy, with its “saintly glow,” to quote some of the awed rhetoric of respected commentators in the national press through the 1990s? One way was to increase the support for the killers — for “our kind of guy,” as General Suharto was described by the Clinton Administration before he fell from grace by losing control and failing to implement harsh IMF orders with sufficient ardor. After the 1991 Dili massacre, Congress restricted arms sales and banned US training of the Indonesian military, but Clinton found devious ways to evade the ban. Congress expressed its “outrage,” reiterating that “it was and is the intent of Congress to prohibit US military training for Indonesia,” as readers of the Far Eastern Economic Review and dissident publications here could learn. But to no avail.
Inquiries about Clinton’s programs received the routine response from the State Department: US military training “serves a very positive function in terms of exposing foreign militaries to US values.” These values were exhibited as military aid to Indonesia flowed and government-licensed sales of armaments increased five-fold from fiscal 1997 to last year. A month ago (Sept. 19), the London Observer international news service and the London Guardian Weekly published a story headlined “US Trained Butchers of East Timor.” The report, by two respected correspondents, described Clinton’s “Iron Balance” program, which trained Indonesian military in violation of congressional bans as late as 1998. Included were Kopassus units, the murderous forces that organized and directed the “militias” and participated directly in their atrocities, as Washington was well aware — just as it knew that these long-time beneficiaries of US training were “legendary for their cruelty” and in East Timor “became the pioneer and exemplar for every kind of atrocity” (Ben Anderson, one of the world’s leading Indonesia specialists).
Clinton’s “Iron Balance” program provided these forces with more training in counterinsurgency and “psychological operations,” expertise that they put to use effectively at once. As they and their minions were burning down the capital city of Dili in September, murdering and rampaging, the Pentagon announced that “A US-Indonesian training exercise focused on humanitarian and disaster relief activities concluded Aug. 25,” five days before the referendum that elicited the sharp escalation in crimes — precisely as the political leadership in Washington expected, at least if they were reading their own intelligence reports.
All of this found its way to the memory hole that contains the past record of the crucial US support for the atrocities, granted the same (null) coverage as many other events of the past year; for example, the unanimous Senate vote on June 30th calling on the Clinton administration to link Indonesian military actions in East Timor to “any loan or financial assistance to Indonesia,” as readers could learn from the Irish Times.
For much of 1999, Western intellectuals have been engaged in one of history’s most audacious displays of self-adulation over their magnificent performance in Kosovo. Among the many facets of this grand achievement dispatched to the proper place was the fact that the huge flow of brutalized refugees expelled after the bombing could receive little care, thanks to Washington’s defunding of the responsible UN agency. Its staff was reduced 15% in 1998, and another 20% in January 1999; and it now endures the denunciations of the (also saintly) Tony Blair for its “problematic performance” in the wake of the atrocities that were the anticipated consequence of US/UK bombing. While the mutual admiration society was performing as required, atrocities mounted in East Timor. Even prior to the August referendum, some 3-5000 had been killed according to credible Church sources, about twice the number killed prior to the bombing in Kosovo (with more than twice the population), according to NATO. As atrocities skyrocketed in September, Clinton watched silently, until compelled by domestic and international (mostly Australian) pressure to make at least some gestures. These were enough for the Indonesian Generals to reverse course at once, an indication of the latent power that has always been in reserve. A rational person can readily draw some conclusions about criminal culpability.
At last report, the US has provided no funds for the Australian-led UN intervention force (in contrast, Japan, long a fervent supporter of Indonesia, offered $100 million). But that is perhaps not surprising, in the light of its refusal to pay any of the costs of the UN civilian operations even in Kosovo. Washington has also asked the UN to reduce the scale of subsequent operations, because it might be called upon to pay some of the costs. Hundreds of thousands of missing people may be starving in the mountains, but the Air Force that excels in pinpoint destruction of civilian targets apparently lacks the capacity to airdrop food — and no call has been heard for even such an elementary humanitarian measure. Hundreds of thousands more are facing a grim fate within Indonesia. A word from Washington would suffice to end their torment, but there is no word, and no comment.
In Kosovo, preparation for war crimes trials has been underway since May, expedited at US-UK initiative, including unprecedented access to intelligence information. In East Timor, investigations are being discussed at leisure, with Indonesian participation and a tight deadline (Dec. 31). It is “an absolute joke, a complete whitewash,” according to UN officials quoted in the British press. A spokesperson for Amnesty International added that the inquiry as planned “will cause East Timorese even more trauma than they have suffered already. It would be really insulting at this stage.” Indonesian Generals “do not seem to be quaking in their boots,” the Australian press reports. One reason is that “some of the most damning evidence is likely to be… material plucked from the air waves by sophisticated US and Australian electronic intercept equipment,” and the Generals feel confident that their old friends will not let them down — if only because the chain of responsibility might be hard to snap at just the right point.
There is also little effort to unearth evidence of atrocities in East Timor. In striking contrast, Kosovo has been swarming with police and medical forensic teams from the US and other countries in the hope of discovering large-scale atrocities that can be transmuted into justification for the NATO bombing of which they were the anticipated consequence — as Milosevic had planned all along, it is now claimed, though NATO Commander General Wesley Clark reported a month after the bombing that the alleged plans “have never been shared with me” and that the NATO operation “was not designed [by the political leadership] as a means of blocking Serb ethnic cleansing…. There was never any intent to do that. That was not the idea.”
Commenting on Washington’s refusal to lift a finger to help the victims of its crimes, the veteran Australian diplomat Richard Butler observed that “it has been made very clear to me by senior American analysts that the facts of the alliance essentially are that: the US will respond proportionally, defined largely in terms of its own interests and threat assessment…” The remarks were not offered in criticism of Washington; rather, of his fellow Australians, who do not comprehend the facts of life: that others are to shoulder the burdens, and face the costs — which for Australia, may not be slight. It will hardly come as a great shock if a few years hence US corporations are cheerfully picking up the pieces in an Indonesia that resents Australian actions, but has few complaints about the overlord.
The chorus of self-adulation has subsided a bit, though not much. Far more important than these shameful performances is the failure to act — at once, and decisively — to save the remnants of one of the most terrible tragedies of this awful century.