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'A global failure on human rights in East Timor'

east timor in transition, sovereignty. self-determination and human rights
conference speech by carmel budiardjo, nottingham university, may 1999
15 May 1999
East Timor in Transition, Sovereignty. Self-Determination and Human Rights
Conference speech by Carmel Budiardjo, Nottingham University, May 1999

At a time when the world’s press is awash with information about the tragic plight of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars who have been forced to leave their country, while NATO forces, claiming to act for the international community, pound Serbian military and non-military installations, it is worth reflecting on what the international community, for want of a better term, has done over the past 23 years to stay the hand of one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, since Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975.

Our own Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has recently coined a new principle for international intervention in the affairs of sovereign states on the grounds of humanitarianism. If this were implemented towards East Timor where massive human rights violations and atrocities have been perpetrated in the past few months on a par with some of the worst atrocities in the early years of the occupation, the British Government would be doing far more than sending a small contingent of police officers to advise the Indonesian police about maintaining security during the forthcoming UN consultation on the future statue of East Timor and providing relief to help the victims of the recent abuses. It might, for instance, cut off its extensive ties with the Indonesian armed forces (ABRI) and immediately freeze the delivery of all military equipment to Indonesia.

It is a bitter fact of history that the under-ending sufferings of the people of East Timor which have resulted in the deaths of more than 250,000 people, a third of the population, were totally ignored by western governments as they fostered business ties, promoted investments and sold military equipment to a government with an appalling human rights record, which has defied ten UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions calling on it to withdraw from East Timor. The response of the western powers now allied in NATO, to the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo is in stark contrast to what they did (in the case of Britain, under both Labour and Tory governments) during the first ten years of the Indonesian occupation when killings and atrocities reigned supreme and tens of thousands of people were dying from Indonesian bombardments and from war-induced hunger and disease.

East Timor’s fate was basically sealed when the western powers secretly decided in the months before the invasion that, however they might vote on resolutions at the UN, they would not allow the invasion and annexation of East Timor to disrupt their burgeoning relations with Indonesia where power had ten years earlier be seized by Suharto in one of the bloodiest massacres of the twentieth century and the Indonesian communist party had been annihilated with extreme brutality. Having turned their eyes away from that crime against humanity, it was hardly likely that they would lift a finger for the people of East Timor. The mood was fittingly expressed in a confidential message sent by the British ambassador, Sir John Ford, to the Foreign Office on 21 July 1975, five months before the invasion of what was then known as Portuguese East Timor: ‘If it comes to the crunch and there is a row in the UN, we should keep our heads down and avoid siding against Indonesia.’

The destruction of the world’s largest communist party outside the Soviet bloc and the removal of Indonesia’s maverick president, Sukarno, opened up Southeast Asia’s richest country in natural resources to plunder by capitalist forces in the West. Neither the massacre of up to a million communist suspects in 1965/1966, the killing of hundreds of Muslims in Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok in September 1984, the killing of thousands of alleged criminals by army and police death squads at Suharto’s behest, nor murders galore in the most westerly province of Aceh throughout the eighties and nineties could upset the West’s cosy relationship with the Suharto dictatorship.

It was not a question of information about East Timor not being available. True, from the moment of the invasion, the territory was sealed off completely and the Indonesians even managed to prevent an envoy of the UN secretary-general from entering, under a Security Council resolution mandate, without causing a stir at the UN. Two months after the invasion, an East Timorese leader inside the country told The Age that probably 50-60,000 people had already died. By the end of the year, priests in East Timor who were asked about the accuracy of that figure, said that already 100,000 Timorese had died, out of a population of around 700,000.

A year after the invasion, the true horror of what had happened on the day the Indonesian troops invaded was exposed by a former Australian consul in East Timor, James Dunn. He had gone to Lisbon to interview East Timorese refugees and was told that scores of men and women had been shot dead at the Dili wharf while others were forced to watch the executions and count the bodies as they fell into the sea. He testified in Washington and New York and his account was published widely. However, East Timor was not about to become an issue for the western powers.

In 1977 and 1978, the US and British governments seized on the progress being made in Indonesia to release tens of thousands of political prisoners who had been held without trial since 1965 to justify an upsurge in business ties and arms sales with Indonesia. There had been strong international pressure on Indonesia to scale down its large-scale detention of alleged communists This was at a time when Indonesian troops were bogged down in East Timor, unable to take control of the interior where Fretilin was in control and to which most of the population had fled. In a cynical trade-off between the two issues, the political prisoners and the invasion of East Timor, and with Indonesia desperate to obtain much needed ground-attack aircraft and other weaponry to consolidate its grip on East Timor, the western powers saw progress on one issue as justification to start supplying ABRI with warplanes it needed to murder and uproot hundreds of thousands of East Timorese.

In May 1978, Jimmy Carter’s vice-president, Walter Mondale, paid a visit to Indonesia, at a time when Indonesian troops were conducting a massive encirclement and annihilation campaign against the people of East Timor. In the words of the New York Times: ‘Mr Carter asked Mr Mondale to take soundings on the ground on both the plane request (for a squadron of A-4 ground-attack bombers) and the Suharto government’s attitude on human rights. Once there, the Vice-President found that the planes were indeed important to the Indonesians and with a little gentle prodding, they could be induced to accelerate the release of political detainees…. Shortly before (Mondale) left, he announced the plane sale.’ [NYT, 14 May 1978]

The British government, then still under Labour, made the same kind of trade-off, with Overseas Development Minister Judith Hart justifying an increase in aid to Indonesia on the grounds of progress on human rights. In April 1978, the government announced the issue of a licence to British Aerospace for the sale of eight Hawk ground-attack aircraft (later increased to sixteen). Pressed to explain how such a sale could go ahead in view of the war being waged against the people of East Timor, Foreign Minister David Owen told Liberal MP, Russell Johnson in June of that year that ‘the scale of the skirmishing (sic) in East Timor has greatly reduced’. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Months earlier, a letter from a priest had been smuggled out to Portugal describing how villages were being wiped out and thousands were dying: He wrote: 'The world is ignoring us. We are on the way to genocide.’ At around the same time, a French journalist had smuggled his way across the border from West Timor for a week-long visit, to report later in the Paris daily, Paris Match, that Indonesian troops were systematically wiping out East Timorese villages. This was not the kind of stuff however to find an echo in major world newspapers. East Timor remained a non-issue.

But later in 1978, irrefutable evidence was now being published in widely-read newspapers in Australia and the West, that hundreds of thousands of East Timorese had been forced down from the interior and were living in appalling conditions in concentration camps. Ambassadors from eleven western countries were taken on a guided tour of some of the camps and came away horrified at the conditions, but were told that offers of relief would only be accepted from countries that recognised Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. Apart from a few carefully-arranged trips, East Timor continued to be closed to the prying eyes of diplomats, journalists and independent human rights observers. But even when a series of graphic photos of starving children were smuggled out by an Australian journalist and grabbed media attention, the interest lasted only a few days. Soon everything was forgotten again.

The only country to grant formal recognition of East Timor’s integration was Australia which was eager to enter into negotiations with Indonesia on the joint exploitation of a rich deposit of oil under the sea between East Timor and Australia, which ten years later led to the signing of the Timor Gap Treaty. While European countries could not bring themselves to grant recognition and took the ‘neutral position’ of abstaining on resolutions about East Timor at the United Nations, they had no compunction about dealing with the aggressor state and bolstering its armed forces. This was the policy pursued throughout the eighties and nineties by all the western powers.

By the end of 1979, thanks to western support, Fretilin resistance had been virtually wiped out and the population had been forced down from the hills, into camps along the roads, far removed from their villages, land and gardens, and not permitted to travel more than a short distance to grow or gather food. For years it became virtually impossible to monitor the situation in East Timor. In the early eighties, Catholic activists from Australia were able to interview a number of East Timorese living in Jakarta and built up a picture of the physical and cultural genocide underway.

But in 1980, the resistance re-organised itself under a new leadership after all its earlier leaders had been annihilated and soon posed a new threat to the forces of occupation. Only two years after they thought Fretilin had been soundly defeated, the forces of occupation were compelled to launch a major operation, Operasi Keamanan, during which all men between 16 and 60 were compelled to take part in a ‘fence of legs’ campaign to flush out the guerrillas. Many of those who took part returned home too weak and exhausted to be able to prepare their fields or gardens for cultivation, leading to food shortages in 1981 and 1982.

It was this operation that prompted the head of the Catholic Church of East Timor, Mgr Martinho da Costa Lopes, to start protesting to the military authorities and smuggle out information to church contacts abroad. Setting a precedent that was to be followed by his successor, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the Catholic leader’s protests precipitated a row with the Indonesian authorities which led to his removal from East Timor by the Vatican in 1983. He accepted his dismissal with equanimity, fully believing that he, a senior churchman, would be in a strong position to persuade western governments to take a stand against Indonesia, support the people and demand the withdrawal of Indonesian troops. He travelled the world, giving testimony to members of the US Congress and giving interviews to the media. But the impact of his lobbying quickly wore off and he grew frustrated and embittered at the way western governments were so eager to trade with the dictatorship that his pleas for help were ignored.

Throughout the eighties, the war continued, hundreds of people were detained, disappeared, were tortured and killed while efforts to get western powers interested in exerting pressure on Jakarta made no progress. This was the Thatcher-Reagan era during which these two rightwing radicals pressed on with supporting Suharto and took relations and arms sales to Indonesia to new heights. As someone who has campaigned for East Timor since the very start, I can say that these were the bleakest years, a time when many tried to convince us that East Timor was a lost cause.

It was not until November 1991 when nearly three hundred young East Timorese were shot dead in cold blood outside the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili that the world was forced to start taking the situation in East Timorese seriously. This was by no means the worst massacre in the history of the occupation but for the first time, foreign journalists and a cameraman were present to record the event and their footage and photographs was broadcast on television screens around the world. The Santa Cruz massacre and the sacrifice of these hundreds of young lives, whose graves have never been found, marked a turning point not only for East Timor but for Suharto who, for the first time - after more than 25 years in power - was forced to answer for the crimes of his regime and compelled to allow UN special rapporteurs to undertake investigations into the 1991 atrocity. This placed Suharto on the slippery road to pariah status on the world stage, the target of demonstrations whenever he travelled abroad. The 1991 massacre also gave birth to a worldwide solidarity movement for East Timor, bolstering the efforts of the few organisations, among them my own organisation, TAPOL, that had kept the issue of East Timor alive in a world not willing to listen.

But western governments still cherished their interests in Suharto’s Indonesia too highly to contemplate challenging the aggression and illegal occupation. And for the next six years, it was business as usual in the corridors of power against a background of growing condemnation of arms sales to Indonesia in Britain, and successful congressional moves in the US to halt training programmes for Indonesian officers.

Eventually Suharto was forced to relinquish power by a seismic economic crisis that felled his 7-percent-per-annum-growth economy, turning the country into a veritable basket case within a year, plus mass student protests on the streets of all the main cities. The regime was replaced by a weak administration under Suharto’s vice-president, B.J. Habibie, while ABRI whose position had been impregnable under Suharto was suddenly forced to defend itself against complaints of massive abuses and atrocities during the 32 years of Suharo’s New Order. The issue of East Timor began to haunt the new president as the one human rights issue above all others that was raised on international forums and by state visitors. The decision announced in January 1999 by Habibie to allow East Timor to choose between wide-ranging autonomy within Indonesia and independence was due to a large extent to the powerful international solidarity movement that had grown since Santa Cruz and to the refusal of the East Timorese to accept integration.

For Habibie, East Timor had become a burden, an issue that had to be resolved once and for all. The shift in policy came as a relief to many western countries as well. With Suharto gone and Indonesia still in the grip of economic meltdown, the mood on the international arena with regard to East Timor had changed with most countries accepting that, if the UN-supervised consultation scheduled for 8 August proceeds in free and fair conditions, Habibie’s autonomy offer will be resoundingly rejected and the country will be set on the path of independence, following a UN transitional administration. It was widely acknowledged that inside East Timor, even staunchly pro-Jakarta figures had switched allegiance, exasperated by unending human rights abuses.

Around the world today, there are few governments and few major newspapers that are not convinced of East Timor’s right to independence. The threat to this comes from ABRI which is mounting a rearguard action to sabotage the UN-supervised consultation by arming and supporting para-military death squads to create an atmosphere of terror and intimidation.

Western powers must now respond to this new and extremely dangerous situation by making it clear to ABRI that obstructing the will of the people in East Timor will lead to its isolation on the world scene. If they fail to do so, they will once again betray the people of East Timor in a repeat of the global failure that has cost them so many lives and so much suffering.

Carmel Budiardjo, TAPOL, May 1999