The Western Betrayal of East Timor
and David Peterson
Led by Australia, U.N.-sponsored peacekeepers continue to arrive in East Timor, where they are finding a staggering level of destruction. Reconnaissance flights over the half-island territory report scenes of Biblical dimensions, where the "Lord rained down fire and brimstone from the skies." The departing Indonesian forces have burned virtually every city to the ground, killed thousands, and driven the rest of the population from their homes. "It's quite evident that it's very systematic," one aid worker observed. "They burned the towns and cities first, and now they are burning the villages." And the threat and terror grows. Amnesty International reported on September 24 a pattern of continued mass killing with pro-independence activists being "hunted down at checkpoints, on boats and in house-to-house searches. Militias and members of the Indonesian army (TNI) continue to intimidate, threaten and attack the displaced East Timorese with total impunity."
But what a breathtaking difference in the West's handling of this crisis from their treatment of Yugoslavia just a few months earlier! At that time bombing was allegedly necessary because of the West's "moral perspective and conscience," its newfound readiness "to right wrongs and prosecute just causes" (Tony Blair), and the "dangers of not acting" when a "defenceless people" were under assault (Clinton). Evidence of Serbian crimes was aggressively assembled and placed before a war crimes tribunal, that quickly indicted Milosevic even as NATO bombs fell on Serbia. NATO didn't let any niceties of international law or state sovereignty impede its actions. Milosevic was given an ultimatum. Capitulate to NATO's demands--one of which was NATO's occupation of all of Yugoslavia--or be bombed. The rest is history.
But in East Timor, even though Indonesia's deadly occupation has never been recognized by the UN, the West has insisted that Indonesia's permission be obtained before any (belated) entry of peacekeepers, whose small forces have been obliged to work with many of the same Indonesian troops that had participated in the killing. Crucially, no troops are contemplated for West Timor to rescue the thousands essentially kidnapped and removed out of East Timor. And no further pressure is being exerted on Indonesia to rein in its death squads on the island. No U.S. or British leaders have called for a war crimes tribunal for East Timor, and there has been no suggestion that Indonesia should have to pay massive reparations for its devastation of East Timor.
In the East Timor case "moral values" have had to take a back seat to "interests," and to a newly discovered U.S. inability to "do everything everywhere." But if "interests" can override moral values their use anywhere is compromised, and questions must be raised concerning the possible role of interests whenever these admittedly second order considerations are proclaimed to be the basis of action, as in Kosovo. The West's timid and tardy response to the crisis in East Timor makes it crystal clear that its professed values are but instruments of policy, and are in no way universals establishing a new moral order.
The West bombed Yugoslavia allegedly in order to establish its "credibility" as an instrument able to contest ethnic cleansing. Somehow, neither its credibility nor its honor required that it protect the East Timorese against serious Indonesia-sponsored terror. What this shows is that the credibility argument is mustered only as a rationalization for doing what the West wants to do. The UN-negotiated arrangement with Indonesia that gave the East Timorese the right to vote on whether to exit from Indonesian authority was given verbal support by the United States and other Great Powers, and the right of the East Timorese to freedom from external rule is part of the proclaimed values of the West. Thus, when Indonesia showed its unwillingness to support the referendum by arming several dozen anti-independence militias who engaged in serious pre-election violence, and then carried out the mass slaughter after the August 30 vote for independence, the absence of a strong response from the West was not only a betrayal of the East Timorese, but of Western credibility and honor as well.
Actually, the West's dishonorable behavior and betrayal runs much deeper. When the referendum was organized, Indonesia was given the responsibility for security, which was like putting Saddam Hussein in charge of security for Iraq's Kurds after the Persian Gulf war. This was surely done because the West, on friendly terms with Indonesia, would not insult its friend by demanding more reasonable security arrangements. (The blame for the East Timor policy failure is frequently put on the UN, but this is misplaced. The UN worked within the limits fixed by the United States and its allies, who use the UN for sanctioning forcible responses only when convenient, as in the case of the Persian Gulf war.) But even after Indonesia organized the militias to disrupt the referendum, and failed to quell their violence, the United States and its allies did not press for changes. Even more sinister, as early as March 1999, Western intelligence not only knew from intercepted messages that the Indonesian military was arming the militias, it knew that "the militias would implement a scorched earth policy if the vote went against them."
Despite this knowledge, the United States and other Great Powers still failed to take serious steps to make Indonesia alter its plans, much less lobby the Security Council for enhanced security arrangements in East Timor. We believe that the West, having close ties to the Indonesian military and enormous financial power to discipline Indonesia, could have forced that country to behave reasonably, if it gave this high priority. But its "interests" outweighed its willingness to apply serious pressure. Last April, the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Dennis Blair, visited with Indonesian Defense Minister General Wiranto, but instead of pressing him to behave he reassured him of continued U.S. friendly support, which reporter Allan Nairn says "delighted Wiranto, who considered it a U.S. "green light" to proceed as he did.
Given Western knowledge of Indonesia's plans, the West's failure to take preventive action goes beyond mere appeasement to tacit collusion. In fact, the situation bears comparison with the events of 1975 and after, when Indonesia invaded and occupied East Timor immediately following a visit to Jakarta by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford. They gave at least tacit consent to the invasion, and then and during the years of massive Indonesian killings in East Timor (1977-1978), with Jimmy Carter as president, U.S. arms sales to Indonesia quadrupled. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN in 1976, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, brags in his autobiography of how when given the task of rendering the UN "utterly ineffective" in whatever measures it might take to interfere with Indonesian aggression, "I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success." Much the same U.S.-induced paralysis afflicted the UN this year, both in the weakness of the UN mission to East Timor and in the Security Council's footdragging as the killing mounted after the referendum.
In short, our "friends"--and the dictator Suharto was our friend for 32 years--can kill without any threat of interference from us, and even with our support. That point was made clear once again during the current East Timor crisis. The difference between the earlier and later years is that with the UN-sponsored referendum the publicity level has been high, so that continued Western support of Indonesia has been more exposed and it has been obliged to make gestures of concern. It has even been pushed to gently induce Indonesia to lay off, although perhaps not soon enough for the second Western-supported genocide in East Timor to have been largely completed.
(This ZNet Commentary is based on an article entitled "From Humanitarian Intervention to Inhumane Appeasement" forthcoming in the November issue of CovertAction Quarterly.)