With the United Nations seriously considering the final evacuation of the last members of its international staff from the capital city of Dili any day now, East Timor is threatened with being plunged into a black hole from which virtually no news could any longer escape. But no news is better than bad news, the Indonesian Government must have figured. The outside world would be left to imagine the scale of the destruction its civil society and its people were to suffer.
Not that the outside world doesn't have anything to go on. For those of us old enough to remember-or for those of us who bothered to remember-we knew that this wasn't the first time that news out of East Timor had been "disappeared." Back in the late 1970s, a similar feat had been accomplished. In the four years following Indonesian's December 1975 invasion of the tiny half-island territory at the far-eastern end of its 3,000 kilometer-long archipelago, two curiously intertwined events happened. One: The Indonesian military's brutal occupation caused the deaths of some 200,000 East Timorese, perhaps as many as one-third of its pre-invasion population. Two: Hardly anyone heard their screams.
What Indonesia did to the East Timorese in the late 1970s rightly should be called an act of GENOCIDE-Genocide I, in fact. The question that everyone ought to be asking is, Is Indonesia about to repeat its gruesome achievement today?
Just ten days after the successful holding of an U.N.-sponsored referendum that saw its people vote four-to-one in favor of gaining their independence form Indonesia, the Indonesian military's campaign of terror and forced-relocation had driven as many as 250,000 East Timorese from their houses, and left untold numbers dead. Speaking in Dili shortly before the escalating violence forced him to flee to the Australian city of Darwin, U.N. Assistance Mission in East Timor spokesman David Wimhurst summed up the U.N.'s predicament quite well--the same predicament that had faced the entire "popular consultation" from its start in May. "We've been defenseless since the beginning," he said. "We came in unarmed. Unless [there is a change in policy] this situation will continue to remain extremely negative."
Under the terms of the agreement signed by Indonesia and Portugal in New York City on May 5, responsibility for the "general maintenance of law and order" in East Timor until such time as Indonesia officially disengaged from the territory was to rest "with the appropriate Indonesian security authorities." But by May 5, this term already was transparently absurd. Since at least January, Indonesia's security forces had been organizing and providing technical support for upwards of 24 armed "militia" groups that had committed some of the worst atrocities that East Timor had seen since the Indonesian military massacred 250 mourners at the Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991. Permitting Indonesia to guarantee the security of East Timor made about as much sense as permitting Saddam Hussein to guarantee the security of his Kurdish opposition in the weeks following the Gulf War. That the U.N. would have signed onto such a flawed arrangement was likely a case of its accepting what looked like the best of a basketful of bad deals. Nevertheless, I doubt whether anyone, today, outside Jakarta, would want to argue that the May 5 agreement has worked out well.
Note that at NO stage in his several reports to the Security Council had the Secretary General ever concluded that the "necessary security conditions exist" for the "holding of a free and fair popular consultation" on the question of East Timor--HIS main responsibility under the May 5 agreement. In fact, by August 9, Kofi Annan had dropped all references to East Timor's non-existent security from his report to the Council. Despite repeated warnings from international human rights groups that East Timor's political climate was rife with violence and terror, and could dramatically worsen in the days after the referendum, the U.N. decided to proceed with its mission, come hell or mass slaughter. That the U.N. could expose the East Timorese to the terror they are now facing, without taking concrete measures to protect them from the violence that many had predicted was to come next, was nothing short of criminal negligence.
Nor has the so-called "international community"--the same one that had gotten so worked up last spring over "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo--done anything to dissuade the Indonesian military from its recourse to terror. At least noting SERIOUS. Empty words and cynical gestures are another matter.
As the leader of the pack, and as a longtime supporter of its ruling military-political regime, Washington, more than any other world power today, was uniquely positioned in the months leading up to the August referendum to take one of two constructive approaches to ending the terror in East Timor. By far the simplest course, and the one that U.S. citizens still should demand, it has always been within Washington's power to use its enormous influence over Jakarta and its military to persuade the Indonesians to call off their attack dogs, once and for all. A bit more cumbersome, yet another real option, Washington could have empowered the United Nations to take more effective measures to curb the violence-the introduction of armed U.N. peacekeepers to guarantee East Timor's security above all else.
In fact, Washington did neither. In stark contrast to its hyper-aggressive response to the Kosovo bloodbath, Washington washed it hands of the matter. Indeed, as the carnage mounted in the days after the referendum, Washington let Jakarta know how it really felt about the question of East Timor and Indonesia's latest rape of the territory (September 8):
"QUESTION: The problem seems to be getting worse, not better, in Indonesia .Is the United States at least making contingency plans to possibly put peacekeepers in there? And if not, why not?
"DEFENSE SECRETARY WILLIAM COHEN: The United States is not planning on any insertion of peacekeeping forces. What we are doing is we are coordinating and talking to Australians and others who would be interested in a peacekeeping force should the Indonesian government invite such a force in and should the United Nations approve it. But we are not planning on any peacekeepers going into Indonesia."
SHOULD THE INDONESIANS INVITE SUCH A FORCE? AND SHOULD THE UNITED NATIONS APPROVE IT? These phrases are but the latest in that form of international torture known as "diplomatic realism." What they really mean is: "Go right ahead. We won't tell anybody. Besides, remember last time? We're not going to lift a finger to stop you from wiping out East Timor."
Long ago, it seems, official Washington weighed Indonesia against East Timor: On the one side of the scale, the fourth-most populated country in the world, rich in natural resources and investment opportunities, and a bastion of what diplomats like to call "regional stability," and on the other, a tiny speck of land way off somewhere in Southeast Asia, with a few hundred thousand inhabitants and not a bourse or a company worth privatizing to speak of. And you know what? Washington found East Timor lacking. Sorry, guys. Better luck next time.
Fully understanding what Washington is really telling it, of course Jakarta knows it need not fear any kind of punitive action--neither from Washington nor the "international community." Not economic and military sanctions. Not a cut-off of the I.M.F.'s largesse. Certainly not something called Operation Bomb Jakarta. Or the creation of yet another armed multinational force.
At this moment in history, it is clear that the fate of East Timor has been taken out of the hands of the East Timorese to decide. Once again they are fleeing for their lives. And only the lucky will survive. Or the most desperate.
Which is to say that if WE ourselves take no action, and leave the fate of East Timor up to Jakarta and to the so-called "international community" to decide, then no one will have to worry about the composition of the "peacekeeping" force, about the niceties of the U.N. Charter, about difficult questions concerning sovereignty versus human rights, or about whom is going to foot the bill. Because by that time, the peacekeepers will be a burial squad. And the responsibility for the destruction of East Timor will be ours as much as anyone else's.