Neither Heroes Nor Fools
"They forced us all out of the house and one of them held a gun to my head. `I am going to kill you. You are a child of FALINTIL.' `No,' I told the soldier, `I am a child.'"
-- an 11-year old East Timorese girl
Visiting East Timor after the August 30 vote for independence and the torrent of violence and destruction that followed, Pamela Sexton, of East Timor Action Network (ETAN) and Grassroots International, had the opportunity to talk with this young girl. She told the story of witnessing her aunt's rape and murder, and of having the same soldiers threaten to kill her. Her reply speaks volumes about the courage of even the very young in East Timor.
During 24 years of brutal repression at the hands of the Indonesian military, the East Timorese never gave up hope. Despite the daily fear and brutality, and knowing the high price they would mostly likely pay, 78% of the voters in the August 30 balloting chose independence. In the violence that followed, when pro-Indonesia soldiers and paramilitairies burned 80 percent of the country's buildings to the ground and forcibly exiled or killed a large portion of the population, the East Timorese decorated their gutted towns and villages with grafitti that cursed the Indonesian military and celebrated their newly won independence.
Internationally, East Timor has received critical support from solidarity groups, a small but stable independent media presence, and concerned individuals. In the United States, activists fashioned the East Timor Action Network out of meetings and demonstrations held after the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in which the Indonesian military killed 271 unarmed and peaceful demonstrators. Journalists Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn witnessed and survived that massacre, and helped bring the word back to the United States. Nairn's testimony before Congress and their combined effort to speak to grassroots organizations helped raise public awareness about the long history of U.S.-backed repression in East Timor.
As the ETAN web site reports, "At first without knowledge of each other, people from New York to Providence to San Francisco to Los Angeles began to organize in their communities to get the word out about the most recent and most blatant massacre in East Timor. . . When we held our first demonstration on Human Rights Day (December 10, 1991) at the Indonesian Mission to the United Nations in New York City, we had no intention of starting an ongoing movement. But when we found each other through the internet and existing networks, and began to pressure our representatives in Congress, we realized that we were not alone."
Several dozen people formed the East Timor Action Network at the end of 1991, defining their mission as pressuring the U.S. government to end its complicity with the Indonesian annexation of East Timor and pressing for genuine self-determination for the East Timorese.
Toward that end, ETAN nurtured a grassroots movement that led to the cancellation of several weapons deals with Indonesia, including sales of F-5 and F-16 warplanes, small arms, riot control equipment, armored vehicles and helicopter-mounted equipment, as well as a Congressional cutoff of International Military and Education Training (IMET). Since November 1997, ETAN succeeded in getting Congress to enact laws that effectively prohibited the use of U.S.-supplied weapons in East Timor. Most recently, in November 1999, ETAN spearheaded an effort to codify Clinton's cutoff of military aid by pressing for passage of a bill with provisions that military aid to Indonesia could not be resumed unless certain conditions are met.
According to Allan Nairn, who is currently working on a book about the Indonesian and U.S. militaries, U.S. weapons sales cancellations had a "chilling" effect on the Indonesian military, forcing them to tone down their violent tactics. Meanwhile, grassroots protests in Indonesia forced long-time dictator Suharto to resign in 1998 (in part, because of the Asian economic crisis). The burgeoning democracy movement throughout Indonesia had room to express itself, and quickly moved in to fill the spaces left by a fallen dictator, a slightly subdued military, and an economic crisis that rocked the region.
It was this constellation of forces that led to the August 30 referendum, which gave the East Timorese the opportunity to speak definitively in favor of independence.
The road to East Timor's independence is a long and complicated one. It features a people's courage, international solidarity, grassroots pressure for democracy, and evolving economic and political forces. In the U.S., most of us (with some notable exceptions) do not put our lives at risk when we choose to fight for social change. We do take other risks, however, such as isolation and a lifetime of uphill battles. The few dozen people who started ETAN (and the dedicated activists that worked on the issue before then) were courageous. They were taking on a struggle against Goliath (U.S. foreign policy and the Indonesian military) in support of David (a tiny country of not even a million people that rarely made it into U.S. newspapers, and which most Americans had never heard of).
And David won - though he has been made to pay a terrible price. East Timor faces many challenges as it attempts to rebuild a country reduced to rubble by the U.S.-backed Indonesian military, and to free more than 100,000 East Timorese who are being held against their will in Indonesia. It's time for U.S. activists to rethink their work. Certainly, there is much that remains to be done to support East Timor. But there is also the ongoing work of stanching the U.S. pipeline of weapons, training and support to the Indonesian military, uncovering U.S. and other corporate interests in the region, exposing the workings of international monetary institutions, and supporting regional democracy movements. With the energy produced by anti-WTO demonstrations, the growing anti-sweatshop movement, and the strength of ETAN and other peace and justice groups, we are at an important juncture. The other "Davids" - the indigenous people of Irian Jaya, the Acehnese secessionist movement, the Indonesian workers in Nike factories guarded by the military - would benefit from a strong solidarity movement in the United States that not only lobbied Congress on weapons sales, but built ties to U.S. unions and other community organizations.
ETAN may retain its single-issue focus on East Timor - perhaps properly so. Meanwhile, there is plenty of room for other activists to step forward in solidarity with the many Indonesians whose land and lives are being stolen in the name of corporate interests while U.S.-made weapons are leveled at them.
ETAN's founders, and the thousands who have worked on East Timor over the years, knew the difficulty of their mission, but they forged on anyway, educating hundreds of thousands on the topic, lobbying Congress, helping to create the political space for books, articles, and videos to be made that chronicle East Timor's story and expose big power complicity, and creating an infrastructure of knowledgeable activists with a deeper understanding of U.S. foreign policy and the mainstream media's role in reinforcing the status quo.
U.S. activists did not have to display the same courage that the 11-year old girl did when she responded to the soldier pointing a gun to her head. But U.S. activists displayed courage nonetheless. They did what was right despite the long odds of success and the seemingly insurmountable forces arrayed against them. They patiently built their movement not knowing how it would turn out.
To paraphrase Eduardo Galeano in the December Z, we need not think of ourselves as heroes for fighting for justice, but nor are we fools.