NOVEMBER 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 11
E D I T O R I A L
The U.S. & E. Timor
On November 12, Allan Nairn, a contributing writer to Multinational Monitor, witnessed and survived a massacre on East Timor, a tiny Southeast Asian island-nation occupied by Indonesia since 1975.
The massacre was carried out by the Indonesian military, armed with U.S.-supplied M-16s. The Indonesian Army used the U.S. weapons to beat Nairn, fracturing his skull, and to shoot at a crowd of unarmed Timorese.
Dozens of Timorese died in the bloodbath. Catholic Church and human rights sources say as many as 180 may have died. The Indonesian Army acknowledges killing 19 (down from a prior acknowledgement of 50) and wounding 91 more.
Mass murder is nothing new in East Timor. Amnesty International and other sources estimate that 200,000 people, approximately one-third of East Timor's population, have died in the wake of the December 1975 Indonesian invasion which followed the withdrawal of Portugal, East Timor's former colonial ruler. Many perished as a result of direct military action and brutal torture; others died as a result of forced starvation.
The United States has played the role of accomplice in this long-running slaughter. The 1975 invasion took place the day after President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ended a visit to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. Ninety percent of the Indonesia's arms supply at the time of the invasion came from the United States, and the United States has remained Indonesia's main source of weapons since the invasion.
Those Timorese who have survived the Indonesian invasion and occupation face severe repression. A climate of fear pervades East Timor, with those who openly express pro-independence sentiments risking arrest, torture and death. Amnesty International and other human rights sources report widespread detention and torture of political prisoners. "The forms of ill- treatment and torture alleged," according to Amnesty, "include beatings with iron bars, batons, fists, and lengths of cable and bamboo, burning with lighted cigarettes, sexual molestation and rape, electrocution and threats of death." Extrajudicial executions are also common, according to human rights groups.
Despite the overwhelming power of the Indonesian forces, the Timorese refuse to accept the occupation.
The event preceding the November 12 massacre, a several thousand person march to a cemetery where a recently killed pro-independence activist was buried, was the latest expression of that opposition.
Following a Catholic mass, mourners left a church in Dili, East Timor's capital, and began to march to the cemetery. Some participants held banners and others cried "Viva East Timor," dangerously bold actions in East Timor. But, Nairn emphasizes, the crowd was unarmed, remained disciplined and posed no threat to the soldiers and police who stood along the procession route.
As the procession reached its destination, soldiers suddenly closed in on the marchers from the two roads leading to the cemetery. Nairn and his colleague Amy Goodman of WBAI-Pacifica radio moved between the crowd and the military, hoping that the presence of Western journalists holding a camera and a microphone would deter the soldiers from violence. They were unsuccessful. The soldiers pushed them aside and, without warning or provocation, opened fire on the mourners.
The ensuing bloodshed was not itself unique, but the fact that foreign journalists--Nairn, Goodman and a few others--were there to witness it was. As a result of their eyewitness accounts, the massacre has received considerable international media attention (though only a moderate amount in the United States). They have been able to dispel the Indonesian government's claims that the soldiers asked the mourners to disperse, that some marchers attacked the soldiers and that many of the marchers were armed.
Since the massacre, there have been reports of mass arrests and another round of killings on East Timor. Some reports indicate that Indonesian soldiers have killed up to 100 people whom they believed witnessed the cemetery shooting.
The U.S. State Department has condemned the killings on East Timor, called in the Indonesian ambassador to the United States and urged an investigation of the November 12 incident. This is a shamefully inadequate response.
As Nairn points out, the United States has a responsibility not merely to criticize Indonesia's abuses, but to stop serving "as a sponsor and knowing accomplice in what are unmistakably criminal acts." To protect the lives of the Timorese, the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration should immediately cut off all military aid to Indonesia and place an embargo on arms sales to the country. Additionally, the United States, which has in the past blocked the United Nations from taking effective action on East Timor, should support a UN peacekeeping force to protect the Timorese and oversee a referendum on self-determination.