Between the Guns and the Wall
Shortly before noon on April 6, several truckloads of the Red And White Iron militia rolled up outside a church where hundreds of people had fled seeking sanctuary. "Get out of the church!" the gun- and machete-wielding gangsters shouted. Then mayhem. The crackle of automatic weapons firing into the crowd. Cries of agony and cries of terror. And bodies falling everywhere, some hacked to pieces, some with their faces unsurgically removed. More than 50 people died that day on the church grounds. All of them murdered in plain view of military and police forces that did nothing to prevent the slaughter, but later promised to "look into it."
Izbica? Bela Crvka? Racak? No. This particular "crime against humanity" did not occur in any of the Kosovo towns whose names have been etched in the official memory because the so-called international community "saw horrors reminiscent of Nazi Germany being revisited on the continent of Europe at the end of the 20th century" (Britain's Tony Blair)--and taking their cue, the Western media trained everyone's eyes there.
Rather it occurred in a town few people had ever heard of before, called Liquica, in a part of the world that's as far from the U.S. media's radar screens as any place has the right to be--East Timor.
Indonesia's torture of East Timor began in 1975, following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, a leftist coup that led to the breakup of the Portuguese Empire, Angola, Mozambique, and East Timor included. Billions of dollars worth of undeveloped oil and natural gas reserves lie both on- and off-shore the half-island territory, located some 300 miles north of the Australian city of Darwin. But whereas an independent East Timor has always possessed the potential to turn into a "democratic Kuwait" or a "democratic Brunei," as the Indonesian scholar George J. Aditjondro observes, a re-conquered East Timor, subjugated by neighboring Indonesia on behalf of the international energy sector and the Western powers, gave both Indonesia and Australia the chance to capture these reserves for themselves.
From the beginning, Indonesia's December 1975 invasion of East Timor was accepted and even assisted by the United States and its allies, particularly Australia. Remember: This was shortly after the United States withdrew its forces from Indochina; Washington was not about to watch another Southeast Asian territory assert its independence, no matter how small and insignificant it seemed.
U.S. arms and economic aid flooded Indonesia in the late 1970s, the period when it was committing its worst atrocities against the East Timorese. Put simply, Washington liked what Suharto's fanatically anti-Communist rule meant both for Indonesia and for the larger Asian-Pacific region. As one academic treatment of the story notes, Suharto ran Indonesia more "as if it were a corporation than a nation"--and Western investors appreciated the fact. In turn, the contributions that Suharto's "New Order" made to the region's pro-Western alignment also made Suharto's own bloodshed and dictatorial rule perfectly acceptable in the West's eyes. Just as it would later provide the West with sufficient incentives to allow him to take over East Timor, and lend support to his regime whenever it floundered.
Then in May 1998 Suharto suddenly fell from grace, and his regime collapsed. At the time the Indonesian economy was reeling from a financial crisis that had begun in the Thai currency markets the previous summer, later spreading to several of the more "open" Asian-Pacific economies and beyond. By March, 1998, the Indonesian rupiah had depreciated by 90 percent, as capital fled the country and its foreign reserves plummeted. With this far deeper and more serious replay of the 1994-95 Mexican Meltdown sweeping across the region, the I.M.F. offered Indonesia a $43 billion bailout package. But the I.M.F. made delivery of the funds conditional on changes that would strike at the vast empire of family, military, and ruling party corruption sarcastically known as Suharto, Inc.--and Suharto wasn't biting. Summing up both Indonesia's own predicament and the I.M.F.-bloc's real fears, Business Week alluded to a "modern 'domino effect', the "possibility that countries such as Indonesia could fall away from the U.S. fold of free-market capitalism and open trade. That would cost the I.M.F. plenty in credibility and perhaps lead South Korea and Thailand to renegotiate their own bailout packages" (March 23, 1998).
Suharto's dogged resistance to I.M.F. dictates led to his precipitous loss of support within the I.M.F.-bloc--Washington in particular. Washington's response was to step up its training and involvement with the Indonesian military--always the real power behind the "New Order"--while it ushered Suharto out the back door of the Merderka Palace.
If anything, Suharto's fall has had greater consequences for East Timor than Indonesia itself. The sudden collapse of the Suharto regime raised within both Indonesia and the governments that had most strongly supported it questions about the cost-effectiveness of allowing his successor to maintain Indonesia's grip on East Timor. In short order, the Habibie presidency began to make noises about the possibility of reviewing the status of East Timor, perhaps even cutting it loose. Negotiations toward this end between the governments of Indonesia and Portugal led to the signing of an agreement in New York City on May 5 of this year--an "historic opportunity to resolve the question of East Timor," Secretary General Kofi Annan rightly called it.
Under the terms of May 5 agreement, acceptance of the "special autonomy" option would compel the U.N. to recognize East Timor as Indonesia's "27th province," just as the Indonesians have claimed it to be since 1976. A "special autonomy" vote would also remove the question of the status of East Timor from the U.N. agenda, once and for all (Article 5).
Rejection promises to be a stickier matter--and a much bloodier one as well. If voters reject the "special autonomy" option, the New York agreement binds the Indonesian Government to "take the constitutional steps necessary to terminate its links with East Timor thus restoring under Indonesian law the status East Timor held prior to 17 July 1976" (Article 6)--so-called Integration Day in Indonesia's version of history, the day on which Indonesia annexed the territory in a move the U.N. has never recognized.
Thus rejection of "special autonomy" means independence from Indonesia, and eventual statehood for East Timor. At least that's what it should mean--after perhaps a three- or five-year transition period during which time the U.N. would have to remain actively engaged in the territory.
But what the May 5 agreement says, and how the competing powers ultimately will enforce it, are not necessarily the same thing.
Since the Habibie Government first seriously broached the possibility of a referendum in late January, a highly-organized campaign of political terror has been waged by as many as two dozen "militia" groups against East Timor's pro-independence faction--the vast majority of its 800,000 people, in fact. That the militias have the backing of the Indonesian National Army (TNI) is beyond doubt. Since they emerged, they have acted with what Amnesty International and several other international observers call "almost total impunity," often in plain view of Indonesian security forces that not only do nothing to stop their rampages, but sometimes lend their support to them.
Of course, the May 5 agreement does call on the "appropriate Indonesian security authorities" to establish an "environment devoid of violence and other forms of intimidation" prior to the ballot (Annex III). But Indonesia has observed this responsibility almost strictly in the breach rather than in actual fact. As U.N. Special Representative for East Timor Ian Martin said just days before the scheduled referendum, "The security criteria have clearly not been fulfilled or indeed each of them individually met fully." Indonesian police repeatedly fail to arrest militia members who carry weapons "outside the designated cantonment area." And those TNI personnel "who have been most closely and obviously associated with the militia activities" have not been removed from their positions.
Acting with "almost total impunity," the militias have murdered several hundred East Timorese this year alone, often in a spectacularly brutal fashion. Several different militia groups have also staged a series of attacks on U.N. convoys and offices operating in the territory. And just days before the referendum, Indonesian military jets buzzed a church compound in Maliana, a site where close to 3,000 refugees had fled to seek shelter from the local militia. A total of 60,000 people (maybe more) have been driven from their homes. No credible source claims that anything less than a climate of terror and intimidation reigns in East Timor today. As one farmer who with his family had fled to the U.N. headquarters in Dili asked a reporter for the Washington Post, "How can they hold a vote if we are too scared to go to the polling booth?"
The question is worth pondering, whatever the outcome of the referendum. However reminiscent of Nazi Germany, the horrors of East Timor have not only failed to evoke that newfound "humanitarian" conscience which the West now struts and preens before the world. But they have gone largely unnoticed as well. Indeed, largely and willfully ignored.