forced us all out of the house and one of them held a gun to my head. `I am
going to kill you. You are a child of FALINTIL.’ `No,’ I told the soldier, `I
am a child.’"
an 11-year old East Timorese girl
East Timor after the August 30 vote for independence and the torrent of violence
and destruction that followed, Pamela Sexton, of East Timor Action Network (ETAN)
and Grassroots International, had the opportunity to talk with this young girl.
She told the story of witnessing her aunt’s rape and murder, and of having the
same soldiers threaten to kill her. Her reply speaks volumes about the courage
of even the very young in East Timor.
24 years of brutal repression at the hands of the Indonesian military, the East
Timorese never gave up hope. Despite the daily fear and brutality, and knowing
the high price they would mostly likely pay, 78% of the voters in the August 30
balloting chose independence. In the violence that followed, when pro-Indonesia
soldiers and paramilitairies burned 80 percent of the country’s buildings to the
ground and forcibly exiled or killed a large portion of the population, the East
Timorese decorated their gutted towns and villages with grafitti that cursed the
Indonesian military and celebrated their newly won independence.
East Timor has received critical support from solidarity groups, a small but
stable independent media presence, and concerned individuals. In the United
States, activists fashioned the East Timor Action Network out of meetings and
demonstrations held after the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in which the Indonesian
military killed 271 unarmed and peaceful demonstrators. Journalists Amy Goodman
and Allan Nairn witnessed and survived that massacre, and helped bring the word
back to the United States. Nairn’s testimony before Congress and their combined
effort to speak to grassroots organizations helped raise public awareness about
the long history of U.S.-backed repression in East Timor.
the ETAN web site reports, "At first without knowledge of each other,
people from New York to Providence to San Francisco to Los Angeles began to
organize in their communities to get the word out about the most recent and most
blatant massacre in East Timor. . . When we held our first demonstration on
Human Rights Day (December 10, 1991) at the Indonesian Mission to the United
Nations in New York City, we had no intention of starting an ongoing movement.
But when we found each other through the internet and existing networks, and
began to pressure our representatives in Congress, we realized that we were not
dozen people formed the East Timor Action Network at the end of 1991, defining
their mission as pressuring the U.S. government to end its complicity with the
Indonesian annexation of East Timor and pressing for genuine self-determination
for the East Timorese.
that end, ETAN nurtured a grassroots movement that led to the cancellation of
several weapons deals with Indonesia, including sales of F-5 and F-16 warplanes,
small arms, riot control equipment, armored vehicles and helicopter-mounted
equipment, as well as a Congressional cutoff of International Military and
Education Training (IMET). Since November 1997, ETAN succeeded in getting
Congress to enact laws that effectively prohibited the use of U.S.-supplied
weapons in East Timor. Most recently, in November 1999, ETAN spearheaded an
effort to codify Clinton’s cutoff of military aid by pressing for passage of a
bill with provisions that military aid to Indonesia could not be resumed unless
certain conditions are met.
to Allan Nairn, who is currently working on a book about the Indonesian and U.S.
militaries, U.S. weapons sales cancellations had a "chilling" effect
on the Indonesian military, forcing them to tone down their violent tactics.
Meanwhile, grassroots protests in Indonesia forced long-time dictator Suharto to
resign in 1998 (in part, because of the Asian economic crisis). The burgeoning
democracy movement throughout Indonesia had room to express itself, and quickly
moved in to fill the spaces left by a fallen dictator, a slightly subdued
military, and an economic crisis that rocked the region.
was this constellation of forces that led to the August 30 referendum, which
gave the East Timorese the opportunity to speak definitively in favor of
road to East Timor’s independence is a long and complicated one. It features a
people’s courage, international solidarity, grassroots pressure for democracy,
and evolving economic and political forces. In the U.S., most of us (with some
notable exceptions) do not put our lives at risk when we choose to fight for
social change. We do take other risks, however, such as isolation and a lifetime
of uphill battles. The few dozen people who started ETAN (and the dedicated
activists that worked on the issue before then) were courageous. They were
taking on a struggle against Goliath (U.S. foreign policy and the Indonesian
military) in support of David (a tiny country of not even a million people that
rarely made it into U.S. newspapers, and which most Americans had never heard
David won – though he has been made to pay a terrible price. East Timor faces
many challenges as it attempts to rebuild a country reduced to rubble by the
U.S.-backed Indonesian military, and to free more than 100,000 East Timorese who
are being held against their will in Indonesia. It’s time for U.S. activists to
rethink their work. Certainly, there is much that remains to be done to support
East Timor. But there is also the ongoing work of stanching the U.S. pipeline of
weapons, training and support to the Indonesian military, uncovering U.S. and
other corporate interests in the region, exposing the workings of international
monetary institutions, and supporting regional democracy movements. With the
energy produced by anti-WTO demonstrations, the growing anti-sweatshop movement,
and the strength of ETAN and other peace and justice groups, we are at an
important juncture. The other "Davids" – the indigenous people of
Irian Jaya, the Acehnese secessionist movement, the Indonesian workers in Nike
factories guarded by the military – would benefit from a strong solidarity
movement in the United States that not only lobbied Congress on weapons sales,
but built ties to U.S. unions and other community organizations.
may retain its single-issue focus on East Timor – perhaps properly so.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of room for other activists to step forward in
solidarity with the many Indonesians whose land and lives are being stolen in
the name of corporate interests while U.S.-made weapons are leveled at them.
founders, and the thousands who have worked on East Timor over the years, knew
the difficulty of their mission, but they forged on anyway, educating hundreds
of thousands on the topic, lobbying Congress, helping to create the political
space for books, articles, and videos to be made that chronicle East Timor’s
story and expose big power complicity, and creating an infrastructure of
knowledgeable activists with a deeper understanding of U.S. foreign policy and
the mainstream media’s role in reinforcing the status quo.
activists did not have to display the same courage that the 11-year old girl did
when she responded to the soldier pointing a gun to her head. But U.S. activists
displayed courage nonetheless. They did what was right despite the long odds of
success and the seemingly insurmountable forces arrayed against them. They
patiently built their movement not knowing how it would turn out.
paraphrase Eduardo Galeano in the December Z, we need not think of ourselves as
heroes for fighting for justice, but nor are we fools.