Bloody History of the U.S. in Indonesia and East Timor

Revolutionary Worker #1022, September 19, 1999

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During their bombing of Yugoslavia, Clinton and his fellow imperialists claimed that concern for human rights and the protection of ethnic minorities were the motivations for their attack. There are innumerable examples, here and around the world, to expose such expressions of concern as hypocritical lies--and one of the clearest is the U.S. role in the genocide in East Timor. For 25 years, the U.S. has played an active and crucial role in the devastation of East Timor, which has taken the lives of more than one-third of all Timorese people--the largest mass murder relative to a population since the Holocaust.

Invasion and Resistance

East Timor is half of a small island about the size of New Jersey, located just north of Australia. East Timor was a colony of Portugal until 1974. The people of East Timor overwhelmingly wished to be independent. But in December 1975, Indonesia invaded and annexed the territory. Indonesia was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship. This military regime came to power in 1965 through a CIA-backed coup. The fascist military massacred a million people--members and supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party and others--and turned the country into a paradise for imperialist exploiters.

The U.S. explicitly gave the green light to the Indonesian regime to take over East Timor--and advised that the invasion be "quick and effective." The CIA recommended that the Indonesian military--trained and supplied by the U.S.--use "overwhelming force" to destroy any resistance. Dutifully following the advice, the Indonesian military indiscriminately massacred Timorese, mostly civilians. Within months the death toll was 60,000, or almost one-tenth of the population. The U.S. increased weapons sales and military aid to Indonesia immediately following the invasion. The U.S. also blocked the UN from opposing the invasion; the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Daniel Moynihan, later bragged that he had rendered the UN "utterly ineffective."

The Timorese resistance was strong and effective, and the invasion soon became a stalemate. Until late 1977, Fretilin--a nationalist, anti-imperialist group--controlled 80 percent of the country. The 40,000 Indonesian troops were confined to the major towns in the coastal areas and a few heavily guarded corridors between them. The Indonesian troops killed so many Timorese and caused so much destruction that they began running out of ammunition and weapons.

Seeing that the invasion was not going "quickly and effectively," the U.S. (and England and other Western imperialist countries) stepped in to give massive amounts of weaponry and military aid to the Indonesian butchers. Indonesia launched a major offensive in September 1977. Indonesian planes, reportedly aided by U.S. pilots and mercenaries, began daily saturation bombing of the interior using defoliants, napalm and other chemical and biological weapons. This was combined with continuous large-scale ground assaults and a deliberate policy of starvation through a scorched earth campaign and the destruction of the agricultural system.

A letter smuggled out of East Timor described the ferocity of the offensive: "The bombers did not stop all day. Hundreds of human beings died every day. The bodies of the victims become food for carnivorous birds. Villages have been completely destroyed, some tribes decimated. The barbarities, the cruelties, the pillaging, the unqualified destruction of Timor, the executions without reason have spread deep roots in Timor. Genocide will come soon."

By the end of the onslaught 250,000 people, more than a third of the pre-invasion population, had been killed. But resistance has continued--and so has the brutality of the Indonesian military.

Today, human rights abuses of every kind are daily facts of life for the people of East Timor; torture, rape, "disappearances," and massacres of peaceful demonstrators remain routine. Indonesia has around 60,000 soldiers, police and paid informers in East Timor--or one for every ten East Timorese. The military commander in Dili commented in 1990 that "We Indonesian soldiers do not need Timorese. We deal with the Timorese as we deal with pigs--we slaughter them whenever possible."

The Continuing U.S. Backing

U.S. support for the Indonesian rulers has continued as well. The U.S. has sold billions of dollars of weapons and has provided many billions in economic aid through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The U.S. trained the "elite" military unit Kopassus--known in East Timor as the nangalla, or "knife-wielding killers." The Kopassus were modeled after the U.S. Green Berets. The U.S. has done all this knowing full well what has been going on in East Timor. Meanwhile, U.S. corporations have amassed superprofits from cheap labor and stolen natural resources in Indonesia--including the oil off the coast of East Timor said to be worth billions of dollars.

Last year, the U.S.-supported dictator Suharto was brought down in a wave of popular outrage against his corrupt and brutal government. Habibie, his hand-picked successor, announced in January that a referendum would be held in East Timor on whether the territory would remain occupied by the Indonesian military or become independent. Shortly after the announcement, armed gangs of thugs began a systematic rampage against the population. They have carried out horrific massacres of unarmed civilians, including more than 50 in a church in Liquica. Scores of homes, and some entire villages, have been burned to the ground. Many have been killed, and tens of thousands have fled into the mountains.

The mainstream media calls these reactionary armed gangs "militias." But the militias are not even remotely an independent movement--they are clearly part of the Indonesian military's plans to eliminate the power of the resistance. When Suharto fell, the independence movement in East Timor thought this was their big opportunity to break away from Indonesian rule, and expectations were raised. For the first time, there were open meetings of the resistance. In the past, anything even remotely similar would have been viciously attacked by the military. But increased international attention and the expanded network of international solidarity groups made it hard for the military to get away with such blatant attacks.

The new strategy devised by the military was to create "civilian" militia groups. The military claims these are "independent" organizations--but they essentially serve the same role as the death squads formed by the U.S. and their client regimes in Latin America. Bob Lowry, a former major in the Australian army and an expert on the Indonesian military, pointed out: "The pro-Indonesia militia is fundamentally an extension of the military. There's no way in the world these militias could do what they are doing unless they were protected by military."

Though Habibie publicly announced the referendum in January, he told the military about it the previous October. The army began secretly giving guns to its thugs in East Timor, equipping them to wage a proxy war on the army's behalf against the independence forces. The Indonesian plans were known to Australia, which did nothing to stop them. It is highly likely that the U.S. was aware of the plans as well, given the very close ties of the Indonesian military to the U.S.

Whenever the reactionary gangs go on the rampage, the military and the police simply stand around and watch--and often give open assistance. Timorese have also said that some of the militia are actually Indonesian military personnel in disguise. In some towns the military dropped the pretense, and uniformed soldiers searched house to house, arbitrarily killing people and burning houses. The military also took advantage of the lack of media presence in the spring to launch a major assault against the resistance forces.

Throughout all this, the U.S. has continued to back the Indonesian regime and its military. When the plans for the UN-sponsored referendum were drawn up, the U.S. made sure that the UN mission would be unarmed. The U.S. insisted that the Indonesian regime be responsible for "ensuring security" in East Timor. At the same time, the U.S. pressured the armed resistance to turn in their weapons. Since the U.S. knew the militias would not turn in their guns, what the U.S. was working for was a situation in which the people of East Timor would be completely at the mercy of the Indonesian military and their thugs. As Mao said, "without a people's army, the people have nothing." Though the Timorese resistance is not a Maoist army, their fighters have struggled fearlessly for 24 years. Washington's plans were designed to eliminate this force and leave the people defenseless.

The militias stepped up their terror operations in the days before the August 30 referendum. Militia leaders openly called for a bloodbath if the vote did not go their way. Despite the intimidation, virtually every eligible Timorese voted, and the result was 80 percent in favor of independence.

Soon after the result became known, the militias increased their operations again. Most of the attacks by the militias were carefully targeted. The UN said it obtained documents proving that the Indonesian military was orchestrating the campaign, which was aimed at eliminating the independence leaders. Even the Catholic Bishop of East Timor--who won the Nobel Peace Prize and was considered beyond the reach of the military and its thugs--was attacked at his office. He escaped, but the church was burned down. Most journalists, foreign visitors and UN personnel have been evacuated. The resistance reported that Indonesia has amassed 40,000 troops at the border, ready to move in after the departure of foreign observers. It is well known that they have large stockpiles of weapons given to them by the military. One militia leader announced his intention to turn East Timor into a "sea of fire."

Though the media describes the situation in East Timor as one of "chaos" and "anarchy," what is going on is in fact a systematic and planned assault on the people designed to eliminate the main independence leaders, terrorize the population and force the effective cancellation of the referendum result. It is part of a plan drawn up 10 months ago by the Indonesian military so that they can keep control of the territory. Many generals in the Indonesian military have extensive business interests in East Timor and have long used the territory as their private fiefdom.

The U.S. has criticized Indonesia somewhat for the massacres this spring and the recent actions. But this is not out of concern for the East Timorese--the last 25 years of support for genocide proves that. Rather, the U.S. is concerned that the fighting in East Timor could jeopardize their need to maintain a compliant government in Indonesia. The U.S. wants Indonesia to continue to provide cheap labor and massive profits for U.S. corporations and to serve as a base for overall U.S. imperialist interests in the region.

The last 25 years of East Timor's history clearly exposes the brutal and cold-hearted realities of U.S. imperialism. The blood of the people of East Timor is on the hands of the U.S. government. The peoples of the world must condemn the latest viciousness by the Indonesian military and its thugs and their overlords in Washington.

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