Washington Fiddles While East Timor Burns

Mark Weisbrot


violence and crisis in East Timor has raised pointed questions about U.S.

foreign policy and what we stand for in the world. It was only months ago that

we bombed Serbia for 78 days, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent

civilians, supposedly to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.


we are witnessing a terrible ethnic cleansing in East Timor: an estimated

200,000 people have been driven from their homes in just the last week and a

half. Militias organized by the Indonesian military and police have murdered

their opponents, even hacking them to death with machetes in full view of

television cameras. The militias have gone on a rampage of arson and looting,

attacked refugees and killed UN workers, and deliberately driven out the media

and foreign observers.


know that tens of thousands of people have been forcibly removed from East Timor

and we don’t know what their fate is at all," said David Wimhurst, a United

Nations spokesman.


people want to know: does the Clinton administration really intend to do

anything about their plight?


legal, moral, and political grounds, the case for helping the East Timorese is

much stronger than that of the Kosovar Albanians. East Timor has never been part

of the same country as Indonesia. The Indonesian military, with the tacit

approval of the Ford administration, invaded East Timor in 1975 and has been

illegally occupying it ever since. This brutal occupation took the lives of some

200,000 people, or a quarter of the population– a crime that can only

accurately be described as genocide.


the past twenty-four years of occupation, the United States has armed, trained,

and supplied the Indonesian military. And therein lies the real explanation for

the difference between East Timor and Kosovo. The ethnic cleansers in the

Indonesian military and government are Washington’s friends. Very close friends.


close friends are these that we continued to train the Indonesian military units

responsible for the torture and "disappearance" of Suharto’s political

opponents, right up to the eve of the dictator’s departure last year. And this

was in spite of a Congressional mandate to end such assistance.


more recently, award-winning journalist Allan Nairn reports that Admiral Dennis

Blair, the head of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, met with General Wiranto,

Indonesia’s top military officer, on April 8 and promised him new assistance.

Contrary to official US policy, Admiral Blair did not ask Wiranto to shut down

the militias that have terrorized East Timor.


one should be fooled by the statements that the White House, under increasing

pressure, has issued in the last few days. It is amazing that it took so long

for the Administration to even cut Pentagon assistance to the Indonesian

military, but this is not going to help the situation now. The militias are not

going to run out of guns and ammunition, or even the gasoline they have used to

burn large parts of Dili to the ground. And incredibly, President Clinton has

refused to halt US arms sales to Indonesia, estimated at $16 million over the

next year.


and until the Clinton administration is willing to withdraw economic aid to

Indonesia, its rulers know that they can kill and destroy with impunity. All

other words and gestures are meaningless– in fact, they are a way of letting

the Indonesian government and military know that their friendship is so

important to Washington that no crimes against humanity will ever get in the



the other hand, an unambiguous statement from the US government that IMF, World

Bank, and other economic assistance will immediately be cut off until the

violence is ended could very well stop it, and force Indonesia to accept a UN

peacekeeping force that could protect the population of East Timor.


because the Indonesian government really wants the tens of billions of dollars

that they have been promised, and fears the capital flight that might accompany

a cut-off. Since Washington exercises a literal veto power in the IMF, and is

the dominant voice in the World Bank, it is very likely that the Indonesian

government would cooperate rather than risk paying such an enormous economic

price for continued intransigence.


less than an unequivocal decision to cut economic aid will be correctly

interpreted by the Indonesian government as not serious. But the Clinton

administration refuses to make any such commitment.


there were ever a time to let Congress and the White House know that you object

to their dalliance in the face of a terrible atrocity, this is it. The lives of

tens of thousands of people may be at stake.


Weisbrot is Research Director at the Preamble Center, in Washington, D.C.


Mark Weisbrot

E-mail: <[email protected]>

Preamble Center 1737 21st Street NW Washington DC 20009

(202) 265-3263, ext.279 (offc)

(202) 333-6141 (home)

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