On Dec. 7, 1941, Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. When Americans were commemorating this date 20 years ago, Indonesia invaded the newly independent country of East Timor--with U.S. weaponry and approval. Dec. 7 is a day of double infamy.
Since the invasion of the former Portuguese colony, Indonesia has used every instrument of oppression--from torture and censorship to starvation and military assault--to destroy East Timorese society and wipe out all resistance to the occupation.
Whether by coincidence or design, President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were visiting Indonesian dictator Suharto in Jakarta two days before the 1975 invasion. There is little doubt that the U.S. gave Suharto the green light to invade. Speaking on the question of East Timor at a Jakarta press conference, Kissinger stated that “the United States understands Indonesia’s position.” According to the State Department, about 90% of the weapons used during the invasion were U.S.-supplied.
The U.S. also ensured that the United Nations did not take any meaningful steps against Indonesia. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ford’s U.N. ambassador, bragged: “The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”
Such success translated into increased human suffering in East Timor. At the height of the assault, Indonesian forces engaged in “indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history,” according to an Australian government report. By the early 1980s, more than 200,000 East Timorese--about one-third of the pre-invasion population--had died as a result of Indonesia’s aggression. Today, the occupation and the repression continue.
While Indonesia remains largely unknown to most Americans, U.S. foreign policy and corpora for Suharto’s crimes. As a State Department official explained in 1976 in “more or less condoning” the invasion, “We regard Indonesia as a friendly, nonaligned nation--a nation we do a lot of business with.”
Despite 10 U.N. resolutions condemning the invasion and calling for Indonesia’s immediate withdrawal, the United States has never seriously contested Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. On the contrary, successive U.S. administrations have provided Jakarta with hundreds of millions of dollars in military and economic assistance since 1975.
As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton called U.S. policy on East Timor “unconscionable.” And his administration has taken some noteworthy steps to challenge traditional U.S. complicity, such as banning small-arms sales to Indonesia. But Indonesia’s economic and strategic importance has exposed the limits of Clinton’s concern for human rights and international law. His administration has provided almost $300 million in economic assistance and has sold and licensed the sales of tens of millions of dollars in weaponry to Indonesia over the past three years. The administration is now about to sell Jakarta 20 F-16 fighter jets.
Given the importance of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most-populous country and a major center of multinational corporate activity, powerful interests will ensure that changing U.S. policy will be difficult. Such a situation only makes strong and principled leadership on the part of President Clinton all the more vital.
An immediate suspension of all U.S. economic and military aid and arms sales to Indonesia would send a strong signal to Jakarta that the U.S. will no longer be its partner in crime. Jakarta would be under intense pressure to withdraw from East Timor in the face of such clear U.S. resolve.
Barring radical change in Indonesia or East Timor, only decisive action by Washington and its Western allies can pressure Jakarta to allow East Timorese self-determination. Dec. 7 should serve as a reminder of the tragedy of war and as a catalyst to end U.S. complicity in one of modern history’s uglier chapters.