Washington Fiddles While East Timor Burns
The violence and crisis in East Timor has raised pointed questions about U.S. foreign policy and what we stand for in the world. It was only months ago that we bombed Serbia for 78 days, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent civilians, supposedly to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.
Now we are witnessing a terrible ethnic cleansing in East Timor: an estimated 200,000 people have been driven from their homes in just the last week and a half. Militias organized by the Indonesian military and police have murdered their opponents, even hacking them to death with machetes in full view of television cameras. The militias have gone on a rampage of arson and looting, attacked refugees and killed UN workers, and deliberately driven out the media and foreign observers.
"We know that tens of thousands of people have been forcibly removed from East Timor and we don't know what their fate is at all," said David Wimhurst, a United Nations spokesman.
Many people want to know: does the Clinton administration really intend to do anything about their plight?
On legal, moral, and political grounds, the case for helping the East Timorese is much stronger than that of the Kosovar Albanians. East Timor has never been part of the same country as Indonesia. The Indonesian military, with the tacit approval of the Ford administration, invaded East Timor in 1975 and has been illegally occupying it ever since. This brutal occupation took the lives of some 200,000 people, or a quarter of the population-- a crime that can only accurately be described as genocide.
During the past twenty-four years of occupation, the United States has armed, trained, and supplied the Indonesian military. And therein lies the real explanation for the difference between East Timor and Kosovo. The ethnic cleansers in the Indonesian military and government are Washington's friends. Very close friends.
Such close friends are these that we continued to train the Indonesian military units responsible for the torture and "disappearance" of Suharto's political opponents, right up to the eve of the dictator's departure last year. And this was in spite of a Congressional mandate to end such assistance.
Even more recently, award-winning journalist Allan Nairn reports that Admiral Dennis Blair, the head of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, met with General Wiranto, Indonesia's top military officer, on April 8 and promised him new assistance. Contrary to official US policy, Admiral Blair did not ask Wiranto to shut down the militias that have terrorized East Timor.
No one should be fooled by the statements that the White House, under increasing pressure, has issued in the last few days. It is amazing that it took so long for the Administration to even cut Pentagon assistance to the Indonesian military, but this is not going to help the situation now. The militias are not going to run out of guns and ammunition, or even the gasoline they have used to burn large parts of Dili to the ground. And incredibly, President Clinton has refused to halt US arms sales to Indonesia, estimated at $16 million over the next year.
Unless and until the Clinton administration is willing to withdraw economic aid to Indonesia, its rulers know that they can kill and destroy with impunity. All other words and gestures are meaningless-- in fact, they are a way of letting the Indonesian government and military know that their friendship is so important to Washington that no crimes against humanity will ever get in the way.
On the other hand, an unambiguous statement from the US government that IMF, World Bank, and other economic assistance will immediately be cut off until the violence is ended could very well stop it, and force Indonesia to accept a UN peacekeeping force that could protect the population of East Timor.
That's because the Indonesian government really wants the tens of billions of dollars that they have been promised, and fears the capital flight that might accompany a cut-off. Since Washington exercises a literal veto power in the IMF, and is the dominant voice in the World Bank, it is very likely that the Indonesian government would cooperate rather than risk paying such an enormous economic price for continued intransigence.
Anything less than an unequivocal decision to cut economic aid will be correctly interpreted by the Indonesian government as not serious. But the Clinton administration refuses to make any such commitment.
If there were ever a time to let Congress and the White House know that you object to their dalliance in the face of a terrible atrocity, this is it. The lives of tens of thousands of people may be at stake.
Mark Weisbrot is Research Director at the Preamble Center, in Washington, D.C.
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