East Timor Activism in Boston
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday, September 14, 1999 that "Piles of bodies were burnt on the streets of Dili at the weekend and tens of thousands of refugees were without food or water as they fled the militias and the Indonesian Army. . . Dr Andrew McNaughton, spokesman for the Darwin-based East Timorese International Support Centre, feared the militias and the Indonesian Army had embarked on "a final solution" in East Timor that had echoes of Nazi Germany."
Like many U.S. progressives, I am overwhelmed and sickened by this fresh bout of heinous crimes for which my government is largely responsible. I have been wracked with questions about what I should do, what actions would be most effective, and how progressives can ameliorate the short-term crisis (and save lives) yet stay rooted in a long-term vision and a deep understanding of how these crises develop in the first place (and build alternative institutions that will support grassroots democracy and justice at home and abroad).
Assuming others are pondering similar questions, I have written a profile of what's happening in Boston around the crisis in East Timor, what it says about the state of our movement, and the challenges we face - all in the hope to inspire some exchange amongst us. I hope others will write about what is going on in their cities, and that we can constructively share information about strategies and goals.
On Monday, September 13th in front of Boston's Federal Building, approximately 100 people picketed, chanting "Indonesia Out! Peacekeepers In!" while three area activists went into the building to meet with Steve Kerrigan, legislative aid to Ted Kennedy. They wanted to remind Kennedy of U.S. complicity in the slaughter, ask him to use his influence on the armed services committee to ensure the withdrawal of Indonesian troops, press upon him the urgent need for rapid deployment of UN peacekeeping forces, push for a War Crimes Tribunal that would investigate and prosecute Indonesian military war crimes, and to rush humanitarian aid to East Timor.
Demonstrators, meanwhile, spoke spontaneously into a portable microphone. I asked one young man after he had made an impassioned plea for increased activism and awareness of the consequences of U.S. foreign policy how he got involved in political work. "I'm not," he answered. "I just read a book by Noam Chomsky." The book was The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism - published 20 years ago, but highly relevant not only for its analysis of the roots of terror in East Timor, but for its overall analysis of the systems and institutions emerging out of Washington that give rise to and support terror abroad.
At the end of the demonstration, Cathy Hoffman, Peace Commissioner for the city of Cambridge, announced that an ad hoc group of activists were pulling together last minute meetings to determine strategies for responding to the current crisis in East Timor. She stressed that hours and days matter.
The Boston office of the East Timor Action Network, along with Mobilization for Survival and a number of unaffiliated individuals, is providing the framework for most of the organizing going on in the Boston area. In general, ETAN is calling for the United States to:
- "lock in" the temporary suspension of military assistance through congressional action.
- back the speedy deployment of an international force to support the UN in taking control of security, ending martial law, demanding Indonesian military withdrawal, and disarming and arresting paramilitaries.
- demand immediate access by humanitarian and relief agencies to internal refugees and refugees forcibly displaced from East Timor and support emergency airlifts of food and medical supplies.
Specific congressional bills that are pending and that speak to the above include: HR 2809 in the House and S. 1568 in the Senate, which call for: the immediate suspension of all U.S. military and economic assistance to Indonesia until the results of the August 30 ballot have been implemented, and U.S. support for an international mission in East Timor. For the longer term, rally support for HR 1063 the binding bill with over 80 co-sponsors, that would ban all U.S. combat training (under law) to any country currently restricted from receiving any single training program due to human rights violations. Massachusetts residents can call Ted Kennedy at 617-565-3170 and John Kerry at 617-565-8519 and your congressperson at 202-224-3121 or check www.congress.gov for additional information.
Boston Mobilization for Survival's Wells Wilkinson praised ETAN for their long-term educational work, and credits them with ensuring that this crisis is well understood in international terms, especially the U.S. role. But Wilkinson lamented the state of the peace movement in Boston. MOBE itself is so underfunded and underresourced that they are having trouble staying in touch with the two dozen or so committed volunteers that would like to play a role in their work. A representative from a Boston area South Asian peace and democracy group that is helping to mobilize people around the crisis in East Timor questioned the lack of a network of peace and justice groups in the Boston area who could combine efforts at a time like this. The American Friends Service Committee is using its e-mail networks to disseminate news, analysis and action alerts. A few churches and some of the Portuguese communities in the Boston area have also been active around East Timor.
The ETAN coordinator for the Boston area is overwhelmed with requests for information, speakers, and queries about everything from how to start collecting humanitarian aid to how to set up a teach-in. Despite major and very commendable efforts on the part of individuals and small organizations, Boston-area social change groups lack resources and any kind of real network that can be activated during a crisis. Currently, there is more interest from the community in being involved than there is infrastructure to plug them in.
A meeting on Tuesday evening, called with one day's notice, brought a core group of five people together to consolidate plans for the next few days and weeks, and the long term. Here are some of their plans.
East Timor teach-in 7-10 pm Tufts University, Medford Pearson (chemistry Lab) on Talbot Avenue, Room 104
Jerry Meldon 617-627-3570; featured speakers Peter Dale Scott and Constancio Pinto
Teach-ins are being planned at Harvard University's Kennedy School of government on either September 21 or 23, and Boston University (date to be announced). Call 781-648-0548 for more information.
There will be a demonstration in Harvard Square at noon on Saturday, September 18th.
Future demonstrations are being planned for the fashionable Newbury Street's "Nike Town," the Federal Building, and possibly the Boston Globe.
East Timor activists are interested in working with other peace and justice organizers to demand reparations for the East Timorese. The United States bears tremendous responsibility for the tragedy in East Timor, but our organizing should not be based on this single issue. In addition to ending the short-term crisis, we should find ways to address the underlying causes of the crisis, such as the U.S. need for markets, new colonial strategies, the role of the IMF and the World Bank, militarism, etc.
Today (Tuesday) on Christopher Lydon's local "Talk of the Nation," Alan Nairn, a U.S. reporter who is currently being detained by the Indonesian military in East Timor, reported that he has watched military officials toss their files into a bonfire. When he asked them why, they answered, "It's all over. We're out of here." Nairn says the Timorese have won. The Indonesian military will do as much damage as they can (and as the international community allows), but ultimately their 25-year occupation is over. Progressives will need to set their sites on how to support the rebuilding of a ruined country.
Progressives should support alternative media. The book (The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism) that so motivated the young picketer at Monday's demonstration was originally suppressed by the mainstream publisher that had agreed to publish it. It saw the light of day through South End Press - an independent publisher that has kept it in print. Countless small media outlets keep independent analysis and perspective alive, and provide an indispensable organizing tool.
Lastly, peace and justice activists should work with others in their locales, including labor unions, religious groups, and women's, gay/lesbian, anti-racist and community-based organizations in coalition around a wide range of issues. We should understand the connections between local struggles and those abroad. At a minimum, Boston should have a network of organizations that is at least loosely associated and poised to rally its resources in moments of crisis.