AMPP front page - The Architecture of Modern Political Power
source url:


East Timor: Acceptable Slaughters

Written by Joe Nunes

U.S. arms were used in all that and continue to be used today. There is a degree of complicity here by the U.S. that I really find to be quite disturbing.
-- Rep. Donald Fraser, March, 1977

In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor and began one of the largest slaughters in recent history. As of 1979, an estimated 200,000 out of a pre-invasion population of 700,000 had been killed [TAPOL91]. Relief officials reporting in 1979 described the situation in East Timor as comparable to that of Cambodia [Chomsky8e].

According to the Canadian Catholic Church:

The invasion, which could have served as the model for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait a decade-and-a-half later, has claimed the lives of 250,000 Timorese -- more than a third of the population -- through war, famine, and an aggressive forced birth control programme said to include forced abortions, involuntary sterilization of women, and murder by injection of newborns in hospitals [Webster90].

The U.S. shares a great deal of responsibility for this tragedy. It supported the Indonesian invasion, provided military assistance through the massacre and blocked all United Nation efforts to stop the Indonesian aggression.

1 --- Background

Until 1974, East Timor was a Portuguese colony while the western part of the island of Timor was under Indonesian control. In April, 1974, the Portuguese announced that independence would be granted to East Timor. Consequently, three parties were formed to contest leadership of the new nation: UDT, FRETILIN, APODETI. According to the _Australian_ magazine (February 26, 1975), the UDT had the support of 10% of the population, FRETILIN had 60% support and APODETI (which was pro-Indonesian) had 5% support. In January 1975, the UDT and FRETILIN formed a coalition. The UDT withdrew on May 2 and staged a coup in August which ended a few weeks later in a complete FRETILIN victory. According to the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (AFCOA), which visited East Timor in October, between 2,000 and 3,000 died during the bloody civil war [ChomskyHerman79]. On November 28, 1975, the Democratic Republic of East Timor was proclaimed in Dili [TAPOL91].

2 --- American Support for Indonesia's Invasion

On December 7, 1975, a few hours after President Ford and Henry Kissinger had departed from a visit to Jakarta, Indonesia invaded East Timor.

U.S. officials have falsely claimed that the U.S. was unaware of Indonesia's intentions. Jack Anderson quoted classified U.S. intelligence reports to the contrary. One dated September 19, 1975, described an Indonesian attack that met ``stiff resistance from Fretilin fighters.'' Another stated that Indonesian generals were ``losing patience with President Suharto's [Indonesia`s leader] go-slow approach to the Portuguese Timor problem and ... pressing him to authorize direct military intervention.'' Yet another dated December 3 stated that ``ranking Indonesian civilian government leaders have decided that the only solution in the Portuguese Timor situation is for Indonesia to launch an open offensive against Fretilin'' [Chomsky82].

Shortly after his return from Indonesia, President Ford was interviewed by Jack Anderson [_San Francisco Chronicle_, November 9, 1979; Blum86]. In his article, Jack Anderson, wrote:

President Ford was on his way to Indonesia for a state visit. An intelligence report forewarned that Suharto would bring up the Timor issue and would ``try to elicit a sympathetic attitude!''

That Suharto succeeded is confirmed by Ford himself. The U.S. national interest, Ford concluded, ``had to be on the side of Indonesia''.

Ford gave his tacit approval on December 6, 1975 ... Five days after the invasion, the United Nations voted to condemn the attack as an arrant act of international aggression. The United States abstained. Thereafter, the U.S. delegate maneuvered behind the scenes to resist U.N. moves aimed at forcing Indonesia to give up its conquest

As Air Force General Brent Scowcroft, President Ford's National Security Adviser, explained:

I guess it was fundamentally a matter of recognizing reality. We really had no reasonable options ... It made no sense to antagonize the Indonesians ... East Timor was not a viable entity [_Christian Science Monitor_, March 6, 1980; Chomsky82].
The same argument, however, was not used when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991. At that time, the U.S. was very emphatic about its opposition to international aggression.

Kuwait turned out to be a ``viable entity'' because the United States wished it to exist. The opposite was true with regards to East Timor.

In a secret cable sent to his government on August 17, 1975, Australian Ambassador Woolcott reported that:

The United States might have some influence on Indonesia at present, as Indonesia really wants and needs United States assistance in its military re-equipment programme. But [U.S.] Ambassador [David] Newsom told me last night that he is under instructions from Kissinger personally not to involve himself in discussions on Timor with the Indonesians on the ground that the United States is involved in enough problems of greater importance overseas at present. The State Department, we understand, instructed the embassy to cut down its reporting on Timor ... [Newsom's] present attitude is that the U.S. should keep out of the Portuguese Timor situation and allow events to take their course. His somewhat cynical comment to me was that if Indonesia was to intervene the United States would hope they would do so ``effectively, quickly and not use our equipment'' [WalshMunster80; Chomsky82].

In January, 1976, a State Department official admitted that:

In terms of the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East Timor [Australian, January 22, 1976; ChomskyHerman79].

The U.S. was not merely condoning the invasion, it was providing diplomatic support as well. On August 3, 1976, the _Melbourne Age_ reported that ``the U.S. has warned Australia not to allow further deterioration with Indonesia over Timor''. On August 4, it reported that ``U.S. officials in South-East Asia confirmed the warning followed two high-powered academic assessments of the importance of Indonesian waterways in current U.S. nuclear strategy'' [ChomskyHerman79].

The United States has been steadfast in its support.

From 1976 till 1982, the General Assembly adopted annual resolutions on East Timor sponsored by the five former Portuguese colonies in Africa and Portugal. An attempt to send a UN envoy to East Timor in February 1976 was sabotaged by Australia; this was the only effort at positive UN intervention. The US abstained in 1975 and has consistently voted against East Timor since 1976. Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was US ambassador at the UN during the crucial early years, said later in his memoirs:

The US wished things to turn out as they did in East Timor and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the UN prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me and I carried it out with no inconsiderable success [TAPOL91].

Mr. Moynihan must be very proud of his handiwork.

3 --- American Awareness of the Massacre

Information about the massacre was certainly available to anyone who was interested. On February 15, 1976, the _New York Times_ reported that 60,000 people had been killed since the invasion [ChomskyHerman79].

On April 1, 1977, the _Melbourne Age_ quoted Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik, as saying:

50,000 people or perhaps 80,000 might have been killed during the war in Timor, but we saved 600,000 of them [ChomskyHerman79].

In March, 1977, Congressional hearings were held on ``allegations of genocide committed by the Indonesian forces against the population of East Timor.'' The best informed person to testify was James Dunn. He had been the Australian consul to East Timor between 1962 and 1964 and had led an aid mission in October and November of 1975. He reported:

According to accounts from Timorese refugees in Portugal ..., information from Chinese refugees in Taiwan and Australia, and reports from within Indonesia itself, the move to annex this territory has been a brutal operation, marked by the wanton slaughter of possibly between 50,000 and 100,000 Timorese [ChomskyHerman79].

In his final statement, Chairman Donald Fraser observed:

U.S. arms were used in all that and continue to be used today. There is a degree of complicity here by the U.S. that I really find to be quite disturbing [ChomskyHerman79].

Of course, this was not sufficiently disturbing to actually stop the flow of arms.

4 --- American Military Assistance

The invading Indonesian army was 90% supplied with U.S. arms. Afterward, U.S. government representatives claimed that the United States had imposed a six-month arms ban in response to the invasion. They were lying.

As the U.S. Congress was told in its February, 1978, hearings, at least four separate offers of military equipment were made to the Indonesian government during the January-June 1976 ``administrative suspension''. This equipment consisted mainly of supplies and parts for OV-10 Broncos. These were planes specially designed for counterinsurgency operations against forces without effective anti-aircraft weapons. They were totally useless for defending Indonesia from a foreign enemy. The U.S. government, in fact, never informed Indonesia that it had ``suspended'' military aid [ChomskyHerman79].

No constraints were placed on the use of this equipment. Administration witness David Kenney stated in congressional hearings that ``as long as we are giving military assistance of any sort to Indonesia we are not telling where they will or will not use it. We have not done so far'' [Chomsky82]. From 1975 through 1979, the United States furnished over 250 million dollars of military assistance to Indonesia, mostly after the Carter Administration accelerated the arms flow [Sidel81; Chomsky82].

By late 1977, Indonesia was running out of military supplies. The Carter Administration increased the flow of military equipment. According to Ann Crittenden, writing in July 1977, ``the Carter Administration has requested a sizable increase in military assistance to Indonesia in the 1978 fiscal year'' [_New York Times_, July 17, 1977; ChomskyHerman79].

Vice President Mondale visited Jakarta in May 1977 to discuss ``Indonesia's requests for additional military and economic assistance.'' While there he discovered that the A-4 ground-attack bombers requested by Indonesia

... were indeed important to the Indonesians ... Some hurried phone calls back to Washington and a few hours later, the Vice President was given the discretionary authority to grant the plane request if he felt adequate progress could be obtained on human rights. More talks with the Indonesians convinced him that this was the case. Shortly before he left, he announced the plane sale [New York Times, May 14, 1978; ChomskyHerman79].

On October 8, 1977, the _Australian_ reported that ``30,000 Indonesian troops are still roaming East Timor slaying men, women and children in an attempt to end the persistent but hopeless liberation war'' [ChomskyHerman79].

It should be noted that other Western nations, including Britain and France, also took advantage of Indonesia's increased demand for military supplies caused by its massacre in East Timor. These nations shipped arms to Indonesia during the massacre, albeit in much smaller quantities than the U.S.

5 --- The Massacre: 1977-1979

In the last months of 1977, Indonesia intensified its assault. This was made possible by the thoughtful American assistance.

After the invasion in December 1975, armed resistance prevented the Indonesian armed forces from gaining control over the country until 1979. Indonesia's campaign of encirclement and annihilation (1977-1979) achieved its goal due to substantial supplies from the US in 1976 and 1977 of OV10-Broncos, Lockheed C-130 transport planes, 45 Cadillac Cage V-150 commando armoured vehicles equipped with machine-guns, mortar and cannon launchers and a huge quantity of rifles, machine-gun, pistols and communications equipment. This enabled the invaders to devastate areas where the armed resistance and most of the population were holding out. There were huge casualties (an estimated 200,000 deaths in a population of 700,000), cause by heavy bombing and war-related famine and disease. This was followed by the enforced re-settlement of most surviving Timorese in strategic settlements under army control [TAPOL91].

Father Leoneto Vieira do Rego, a Portuguese priest who spent 3 years in the mountains of East Timor, before surrendering to Indonesia in January 1979, estimated that over 200,000 people had been killed during the first 4 years of the war [_Boston Globe_, January 20, 1980; Chomsky82]. He added that:

The second phase of the bombing was late 1977 to early 1979, with modern aircraft. This was the firebombing phase of the bombing. Even up to this time, people could still live. The genocide and starvation was the result of the full-scale incendiary bombing.

To the _Christian Science Monitor_ (Dec. 17, 1979), he said:

The Indonesians attacked relentlessly with infantry and with U.S.-supplied armed reconnaissance planes known as the OV-10 (Bronco) [Chomsky82].

FRETILIN charged that the U.S. did more than just provide material assistance. A _UPI_ report from Sydney (June 19, 1978) quoted a FRETILIN press release:

American military advisers and mercenaries fought alongside Indonesian soldiers against FRETILIN in two battles ... In the meantime, American pilots are flying OV-10 Bronco aircraft for the Indonesian Air Force in bombing raids against the liberated areas under FRETILIN control [ChomskyHerman79].
In May, 1980, Brian Eads reported that
... malnutrition and disease are still more widespread than in ravaged Cambodia, but the people of East Timor are slowly struggling back to life. Perhaps the most telling observation came from an official who had recently visited Cambodia. By the criteria of distended bellies, intestinal disease and brachial parameter ... the East Timorese are in a worse state than the Khmers [Chomsky82].
Father Pat Walsh of Action for World Development, an Australian Catholic agency, estimated in December 1980 that the population of East Timor had declined by some 200,000 since the invasion. The Vatican's permanent observer at the U.N. ``surmised the people were being kept half-starved and confused to lessen their resistance'' [Chomsky82].

6 --- The Massacre: 1980-today

Despite Indonesian repression, the Timorese never gave up:

By skilfully engaging in mobile guerrilla warfare, the resistance army, Falintil, has continued to fight, without any external material support. Army operations in 1981, 1983-1984, 1986-1987 and 1988 failed to defeat the guerrillas ...
In 1990, the Indonesian military stepped up its program to eliminate all Timorese resistance.
In October 1990, the Indonesian army launched a new offensive in an attempt to surround and capture Shanana [the Falintil leader]. Whereas previously, operations were focused on the eastern part of the country, the present offensive is centred on the districts of Ainaro and Same, southeast of Dili. As clashes and repression were reaching a new peak in Dili during October and November, troop reinforcements consisting of marines, aircraft, helicopters and para-commandos, were brought from the north and the south ...

Since November, in addition to the detention in Dili of many students who went into hiding following clashes in October, there have been waves of arrests in other districts east and south of Dili, including government officials and teachers in Liquica, suspected of being in contact with Falintil. Villagers in Suro and Suru Kraik, district of Ainaro, have been rounded up and tortured for celebrating the 15th anniversary of Falintil on 20 August ...

At the very time when the western powers launched all-out war against Kuwait's invader, the Indonesian invader was stepping up the war to crush armed and unarmed resistance in East Timor [TAPOL91].

Although the number of killings is far lower than in the 1975-1979 period, the human rights condition in East Timor remains abysmal. In its report of January 1991, Amnesty International stated that it
remains concerned about a continuing pattern of serious violations described in its August 1990 statement, persistent reports of extrajudicial executions, the systematic use of torture against political detainees by members of the security forces, hundreds of unresolved cases of `disappearances' and the continuing imprisonment of at least 10 alleged supporters of Fretilin sentenced in trials which Amnesty International believes were not fair. Amnesty International is increasingly concerned about a pattern of short-term detention, ill-treatment and torture of alleged political opponents of Indonesian rule in East Timor which has gained additional momentum since August [TAPOL91].
Indonesia has refused to allow Amnesty International or Asia Watch to visit East Timor [TAPOL91].

On November of 1991, East Timor finally made it to the television screens of the West. The Indonesian government made the unfortunate error of performing one of their many slaughters in front of a video camera. Allan Nairn, an American reporter, was able to live to tell the tale:

Last Tuesday in the occupied nation of East Timor, I survived a massacre carried out with American arms.

As a large, peaceful crowd stood outside a walled cemetery, the Indonesian army attacked them with M-16 rifles.

Dozens upon dozens fell to the ground around me, as ranks of soldiers aimed and fired into the terrified, retreating people.

It was a calculated mass murder, the latest of many in East Timor, where 200,000 people (a third of the population) have died from massacre and forced starvation since Indonesia invaded there in 1975 ...

The marching had already ended and people were standing around when the army swept toward us from two directions. A troop truck full of helmeted men sealed off one escape route when a long, formed-up stream of soldiers brandishing their M-16s rounded the corner and opened fire upon the crowd.

There was no provocation, no spontaneous flare-up, no threat to the soldiers or warning to disperse. The soldiers simply advanced upon the gasping Timorese and began firing in a coordinated way.

The Timorese were paying the price for daring to engage in public speech. In the eyes of the Indonesian army, that is the crime of ``politik.'' That is the word the soldiers screamed as they kicked me in the back and gut and beat my head with swinging rifle butts. It is also what they shouted as they put both of us on the pavement and aimed their M-16s straight at our heads.

The answer we shouted back -- and I think it is what saved us -- was the word ``America!'' We were citizens of the country that supplied those M-16s. Killing us might invite somewhat different results from killing the Timorese whom they were just at that moment executing just a few feet away from where we sat.

For 16 years now, the mass killing of Timorese has simply been met by fresh renewals of U.S. military aid. After Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, Washington responded by doubling the weapons flow.

Now, after the cemetery massacre, the people of East Timor are in especially urgent danger ...

The question before Washington is not whether it should restrain Indonesia, but whether it will continue to serve as a sponsor and knowing accomplice in what are unmistakably criminal acts. The United States should end all military aid and sales to Indonesia and, at the same time, let the U.N. enforce the law ...

Gunshot massacres with U.S. weapons by U.S. client states have happened many times in many places. But this is the first time that I am aware that the act was witnessed and survived by U.S. journalists.

The lives of a great many gravely threatened Timorese now hang on how Americans will respond [Nairn91].

The official death toll of what has come to be called the Santa Cruz killings is 19. The bishop of Timor, however, estimated that 160 had died [Dwyer91]. The reaction of the American government was predictable. On November 14, 1991, the _AFP_ published an article titled ``Washington Defends Military Aid to Jakarta'':
The U.S. administration defended its military aid to Indonesia Thursday, which has been threatened by Congress after protesters in East Timor were killed in a confrontation with the army.

``We think that a continued and well focused military assistance program for Indonesia can contribute to the professionalization of the Indonesian military,'' said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

A total of 2.3 million dollars has been budgeted for military aid for the 1991-1992 fiscal year, which began October 1. The money is only for training and education. ``These kinds of programs expose the trainee to democratic ideas and humanitarian standards,'' he said ...

From 1976 to 1986, the U.S. supported Indonesia with grants of two billion dollars and loans of four billion dollars [Beit-Hallahmi87]. In 1991, the United States sent Indonesia $50 million dollars in assistance of all kinds [Dwyer91]. With this help, Indonesia has been spreading ``democratic ideas'' throughout East Timor for the past 16 years.

American help with the ``professionalization of the Indonesian military'' is certainly bringing dividends. According to the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign:

A reign of terror has eclipsed the occupied island. In particular the role of the hawkish Brig. General Theo Syafei, the new commander in Dili, shows how ``law and order'' is now being implemented in East Timor. Brig. General Theo Syafei has made it a matter of prestige and a personal crusade to maintain ``law and order'' in East Timor. Ever since becoming KOLAKOPS (the special operational command) commander, he has repeatedly made it clear that he will not pursue the soft approach of his predecessor. General Theo, an old Timor hand, has put the clock back to the late seventies and early eighties, when military rule was virtually absolute. The ``opening up'' of the last three years is now on the way out; every measure taken by General Theo reinforces this [TAPOL92].
The new commander is very open about his intentions. On March 14, 1992, he spoke to the _Editor_ about the Santa Cruz killings:
Thus, as I have said, if something similar to the 12 November event were to happen under my leadership, the number of victims would probably be higher [TAPOL92].
Speaking to Suara Pembaruan (March 4, 1992), Theo Syafei was openly critical of his predecessor, Pak Warouw:
The position and policy of ABRI [the Armed Forces] never change. Our mission is to bring stability in East Timor. In a technical sense our approaches are different. Pak Warouw had his love and caring approach. But as I see it, because of a different culture, his approach came to be seen as indecision. Some regard the soft approach as a weakness. I only want to stress the importance of restoring ABRI's credibility and to make sure that softness is by no means weakness. This is the position I want to put across. And indeed, this position has been accepted by many [TAPOL92].
Peter Goodman, an American freelance journalist based in Jakarta, visited East Timor in February and wrote about it in the _Daily Telegraph_ (Feb. 28, 1992):
Dili is dominated by fear, the streets devoid of activity throughout much of the day. On one recent morning, virtually everyone had a quick look about to see who else might be in the area before saying so much as good morning to a foreigner.

At least 10,000 Indonesian troops remain in East Timor and Dili has the air of a city under siege.

On a steamy morning earlier this month, 500 soldiers in 20 lorries stood in formation in a field in central Dili. All carried full packs and M16 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. Their commander addressed them loudly while he stood beneath a flagpole, the red-and-white of Indonesia lifted by a gentle breeze. Most East Timorese walking by did not even dare look. While none of the dozen or so soldiers at ease on the sides of the field cared to say where the men were going, several East Timorese said troops have been entering villages frequently of late.

``They go from house to house, warning people not to make trouble,'' said an elderly East Timorese as he sat beneath an enormous banyan tree on the edge of the crumbling broadwalk that fronts the harbour. ``The soldiers come and beat people up. Many are taken away for questioning and often disappear. The military has killed many in the last few months'' [TAPOL92].

Sidney Jones, the Executive Director of Asia Watch, the U.S.-based human rights organisation also visited East Timor in February as a tourist. On February 27, she told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
I was skeptical of accounts of post-massacre killings before going to East Timor. I am much more inclined to believe them now. In a place where the only checks on the military are a relatively powerless governor and a beleaguered Catholic church, where fear prevented many witnesses from giving testimony to the National Commission of Inquiry and still prevents ordinary conversations on the street, I began to understand why we weren't getting proof [TAPOL92].
These then are the ``humanitarian standards'' which we can expect the Indonesian army to follow for the foreseeable future.


Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, The Israeli Connection -- Who Israel Arms and Why, Pantheon Books, 1987.

William Blum, The CIA: A Forgotten History, Zed Books Ltd., 1986.

Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got Here, Pantheon Books, 1982.

Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume 1 -- The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Black Rose Books, 1979.

Jim Dwyer, ``Indonesia Scoring Big with U.S. $$$,'' New York Newsday, 22 November 1991.

Allan Nairn, ``A Narrow Escape from East Timor,'' U.S.A. Today, November 21, 1991.

Scott Sidel, ``The United States and Genocide in East Timor,'' Journal of Contemporary Asia, no. 1, 1981.

TAPOL (the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign), Backgrounder on East Timor, 1991.

TAPOL (the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign), East Timor in a State of Terror, Bulletin No. 110, April, 1992.

J. R. Walsh, G. J. Munster, Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1968-1975, Sydney, 1980.

David Webster, ``Bishop of East Timor: Campaign of Terror Has Begun,'' Catholic New Times, Canada, November, 17, 1990.

BACK to Grover Furr's Politics and Social Issues Page, or to the Vietnam War and American Culture, Fall 1996 Home Page, or to Professor Furr's Home Page.

Email me with comments, criticisms, discussion. | | last modified 11 Sep 96