Solidarity with East Timor: New Challenges, New Opportunities
U.S. activists' contribution to the effort to end Indonesia's brutal 25-year occupation of East Timor paid off. In August 1999 a vast majority of East Timorese - after years of immense suffering and patient organizing -- courageously voted for independence. In September 1999, the Indonesian military pulled out of East Timor, finally ending its reign of terror.
The question for East Timor solidarity activists is: now what?
At first, some wondered if the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) should simply close up shop. Mission accomplished. For seven years, ETAN activists (currently numbering about 10,000 members in 25 chapters nationwide), lobbied congress to stop the sale of weapons to Indonesia, raised public consciousness about the U.S. role in the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, educated the public and the media, and built a grassroots campaign that successfully blocked U.S. military training aid to Indonesia, blocked numerous U.S. weapons sales to Indonesia, and pressured President Clinton to fully cut off military aid in September 1999.
With Indonesia out of East Timor, ETAN faced the question, what next? A series of ETAN meetings and conversations with East Timorese leaders and activists yielded some guidelines about what ongoing solidarity work might look like, and why it is still necessary. "Solidarity," it turns out, is an ongoing and complicated process. East Timor may now be free - or at least no longer occupied - but it is certainly not invulnerable to international pressures, global economic forces, and internal upheaval (the Indonesians left behind a traumatized people with very little infrastructure). Recognizing that independence is only one step towards creating a free society, ETAN activists decided to retool their efforts to support peace and justice and grassroots democracy in East Timor. Toward these goals, ETAN developed the following priorities.
** Maintain the ban on U.S. military aid to Indonesia; bring the "refugees" home.
Largely due to grassroots pressure, the U.S. suspended all military assistance to Jakarta in September 1999. ETAN helped secure a continuation of this ban in the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act (FY 2001), which "maintains last year's restrictions on virtually all military ties between the U.S. and Indonesia," according to Karen Orenstein, ETAN's Washington, DC, coordinator. ETAN stresses the importance of an ongoing weapons ban to encourage the disarming of the militias (particularly those that control the refugee camps in West Timor). At present -- 18 months after the Indonesian military pulled out -- about one-eighth of the East Timorese people are still under the control of the Indonesian military due to their forced re-location to camps in West Timor. The weapons ban will further encourage an end to human rights violations throughout the Indonesian archipelago, especially in West Timor, Aceh, West Papua and Maluku; and security for East Timor, which shares a border with Indonesia.
** Bring the perpetrators to justice.
Reconciliation and peace cannot be achieved without justice. Ajiza Magno, a young East Timorese woman working with the Sa'he Institute for Liberation, argued at a recent talk in Boston, "This international tribunal is not just essential for trying the crimes of the past, but for creating a foundation, a legal system that people will really believe in. Until now the East Timorese people have never believed in the law, never believed that there is such a thing as rule of law in their country. . . There's a fear that if these crimes of the past are not dealt with, a sort of lawlessness might continue in East Timor and the culture of violence [created by the Indonesian occupation] we have been brought up in for the past twenty-four years will perpetuate itself."
Further, U.S. activists have a unique responsibility to focus public attention on U.S. participation in Indonesian war crimes. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the "green light" to Suharto to invade East Timor back in 1975. President Carter provided the Indonesian military with the weapons used to kill more than a quarter of the East Timorese population. President Reagan and successive presidents maintained relations and weapons sales to Indonesia despite its abysmal human rights record, and Clinton continued plying the Indonesian military with weapons even as violence in East Timor escalated in the months leading up the August 1999 referendum on independence. His belated cutoff of military aid finally resulted in Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor, but not until the occupiers had exacted a huge price from the East Timorese in death and material destruction.
** Listen to East Timorese voices. The World Bank, which is administering over $150 million worth of grants for reconstruction, sees East Timor as "starting life with a clean slate." But East Timor is obviously not a "clean slate." As the East Timorese/international watch-dog organization, Lao Hamutuk, pointed out in a recent report (see www.etan.org/lh ), East Timor is a "society with a unique history, as well as its own traditions, sets of social relations, conditions, and needs. . . [It] needs the space to devise its own development paths."
The United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) has made it difficult for most East Timorese to participate in decisions about how to govern, claiming that many East Timorese lack the skills to fill positions in the current administration. Ajiza Magno, quoted in the winter 2001 Estafeta, claimed that East Timorese participation in government was still so low that East Timorese people "find themselves once again living as observers and marginalized citizens in their own country."
In this time of increasing corporate globalization, East Timor could be a model of how to develop a democratic government and economy. As such it could be a powerful "good example" to other countries currently under the thumb of neoliberal economic policies, secret trade agreements, and superpower (read: U.S.) foreign policy decisions. There is an important opportunity here for globalization activists and ETAN to work together to make sure this "good example" has a chance.
The story of ETAN is the story of how activism works. Not quickly, necessarily, and not perfectly. But the lesson is clear: when a group - even a small group - of committed individuals dedicate themselves to a goal, it is possible for them to achieve their aims. For ETAN, those aims have now broadened to include supporting grassroots democracy in East Timor and pressuring governments, aid agencies, and other international bodies (such as the UN) to support the East Timorese on their path towards freedom. Contrary to the "clean slate" theory, the East Timorese have been following this path for many generations. Our job as activists is to nurture and support that journey, to learn from it, and to demand that the relevant international institutions do the same - ensuring that the East Timorese are no longer "observers and marginalized citizens" but rather agents, finally, of their own destiny.
Cynthia Peters is a freelance writer and editor, and the coordinator of the Boston chapter of ETAN. To find out more about ETAN, and to get involved, visit www.etan.org.