Moving Gently on East Timor

Russell Mokhiber 

and Robert Weissman


Clinton administration’s shamefully slow response to the savagery unleashed by

the Indonesian military and militia on the people of East Timor allowed a

vicious slaughter to take place. East Timor’s capital, Dili, now lies in ruins,

hundreds or quite likely thousands of Timorese have been killed since they voted

overwhelmingly for independence on August 30, and tens or hundreds of thousands

of Timorese are now hiding in the mountains facing starvation and fearing

possible attacks by Indonesian armed forces.


pressure from grassroots activists, Congress and foreign governments and aroused

by the sheer savagery of the Indonesian attack on the Timorese, the

administration has now ratcheted up its rhetoric of condemnation, announced

meaningful cuts in military aid, and watched approvingly as the International

Monetary Fund and World Bank suspended new loans. And as a result of

international pressure, Indonesia has agreed to allow a peacekeeping force into

East Timor.


all this slow progress, until the Australian-led peacekeeping operation lands in

East Timor, there remains the substantial possibility of a new round of

bloodletting. Even stronger pressure from the United States, as well as other

international powers, will be needed to assure that calamity does not occur.


aside the ghastly history of U.S. military and diplomatic support for the brutal

and illegal Indonesian occupation of East Timor — a 24-year occupation in which

an estimated 200,000 Timorese were killed — why has the U.S. response to the

unfolding butchery in East Timor been so laggardly?


New York Times went a long way to answering this crucial question in a September

9 front-page story titled, "With Other Goals in Indonesia, U.S. Moves

Gently on East Timor."


have myriad interests" in Indonesia, explained State Department

spokesperson Jaime Rubin in one of his daily briefings, "and what our job

is is to try to balance those various interests."


in the government and chattering class, such as Eleanor Clift of Newsweek,

echoed this basic sentiment. The United States should be "realistic"

in setting its policy on East Timor, they urged, noting the multiple U.S.

"interests" in Indonesia and the importance of promoting



the prescription was to balance these "interests" in

"stability" against the lives of the Timorese, it is worth identifying

what they are.


have a business interest," said Rubin in identifying competing U.S.

interests in Indonesia. That is, the U.S. government wants to protect U.S.

investments in Indonesia — Nike’s subcontractor factories, the mines of

Freeport McMoRan, the oil drilling of Texaco, Chevron and Mobil. Strong

diplomatic pressure on Indonesia might conceivably have led to the revocation of

concessions and privileges for U.S. corporations, worried the practitioners of



from this point of view, was the possibility that support for the Timorese will

somehow flare up Indonesian separatist movements in Aceh (where Mobil is heavily

invested) and Irian Jaya (where Freeport McMoRan runs the world’s largest gold



broader U.S. business interest was in maintaining the flow of IMF and World Bank

money to Indonesia, so the country maintains its commitment to the

"structural adjustment" policies which require it to remove

restrictions on foreign investment, further orient its economy to exports,

privatize government enterprises and cut subsidies to the poor.


given the precarious state of the Indonesian economy, and the success of the IMF

in deepening Indonesian dependence on foreign money flows, a sudden cut off of

IMF and Bank monies might in fact send a harmful shock to the economy (whatever

the long-run benefits of severing ties with the international financial

institutions). The announced cut off of funds is actually a suspension of future

monies not yet allocated, and is only temporary, so the feared effect on the

international markets has been muted.


course, it would be misleading to say the U.S. government was slow to act in

Indonesia/East Timor only because it wanted to protect Nike and other U.S.

multinationals. In addition to the commercial and broader economic stability

issues, the U.S. foreign policy and military establishments attach great

geopolitical importance to maintaining good ties with the Indonesian government

and especially the Indonesian military (viewed as a counterweight to China and a

dependable regional ally).


there is no doubt that the U.S. "business interest" played a

significant role in the decision to "move gently" on East Timor in the

early days of the post-election slaughter. Even the New York Times acknowledged

a U.S. government concern that a threatened IMF and aid cut off "could also

harm American corporations that have large investments in Indonesia."


time, we’ll know how many Timorese died in the weeks following their vote for

independence, in part because of U.S. government concern about "our

business interest" in Indonesia.


Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.


Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They

are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack

on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999; http://www.corporatepredators.org)


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