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East Timor And The British Press


The emergence of an independent East Timor on May 20 this year provided a good example of how the British ‘free press’ cover up Western crimes. Many reports, though not all, mentioned that around 200,000 East Timorese – a quarter of the population – were massacred and starved to death following Indonesia’s invasion of the territory in 1975. Completely missing from the reports, however, was the true extent – and ruthless motives behind – the US/UK support of Indonesia’s assault.

The Guardian’s John Aglionby, for example, observed merely that Suharto invaded “with the blessing of the US, Australia and Britain.” (The Guardian, 20 May, 2002; http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4416858,00.html)

Does this give a true picture of the role of these countries in East Timor? Compare Aglionby’s version with that of Philip Liechty, CIA desk officer in Jakarta at the time of the invasion:

“We sent the Indonesian generals everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn’t have any guns. We sent them rifles, ammunition, mortars, grenades, food, helicopters. You name it; they got it. And they got it direct. Without continued, heavy US logistical military support, the Indonesians might not have been able to pull it off… No one cared. No one gave a damn. It is something that I will be forever ashamed of. The only justification I ever heard for what we were doing was there was concern that East Timor was on the verge of being accepted as a new member of the United Nations and there was a chance that the country was going to be either leftist or neutralist and not likely to vote [with the United States] at the UN.” (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, pp.285-6).

A month after Indonesia invaded, as tens of thousands of people were being massacred, a US State Department official told a major Australian newspaper that “in terms of the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East Timor… The United States wants to keep its relations with Indonesia close and friendly. We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation – a nation we do a lot of business with.” (The Australian, January 22, 1976. Quoted FAIR, Action Alert, September 2, 1999)

US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, UN ambassador at the time of the East Timor invasion in December 1975, explained:

“The United States wished things to turn out as they did and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success”. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, Pluto Press, 1996, p. 209)

In December 1975, the British ambassador in Jakarta informed the Foreign Office: “it is in Britain’s interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible, and that if it should come to the crunch and there is a row in the United Nations, we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides against the Indonesian government.” (Quoted in Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1996, pp.219-220)

There was no possibility of the Western public coming to the aid of East Timor, for reasons explained by American journalist Amy Goodman:

“In 1979, when the killing was at its worst, there wasn’t one mainstream press article in the New York Times and the Washington Post – not one. ABC, NBC and CBS ‘Evening News’ never mentioned the words East Timor and neither did ‘Nightline’ or ‘MacNeil Lehrer’ between 1975, the day of the invasion, except for one comment by Walter Cronkite the day after, saying Indonesia had invaded East Timor – it was a 40 second report – until November 12, 1991″ (Amy Goodman, Exception to the Rulers, Part II, Z Magazine, December 1997).

A study of the New York Times Index 1975-79 shows that East Timor received 70 column inches of entries over this period, as compared to 1,175 column inches afforded to contemporaneous horrors in Cambodia.

So why the silence? What interests were the media protecting?

Successive US administrations, The New York Times noted, “made the calculation that the United States must put its relationship with Indonesia, a mineral-rich nation of more than 200 million people, ahead of its concern [sic] over the political fate of East Timor, a tiny impoverished territory of 800,000 people that is seeking independence” (Elizabeth Becker and Philip Shenon, The New York Times, 9 September, 1999).

Becker and Shenon forgot to mention the role of The New York Times in putting minerals ahead of concern for impoverished people by blanketing the horror in silence.

Western motives for supplying 90% of the weapons used against East Timor are further clarified by a secret cable sent by Richard Woolcott, the Australian Ambassador to Jakarta, in August 1975. In the cable, Woolcott advised that Australia approve the likely invasion because favourable arrangements to gain a share of East Timor’s oil “could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia … than with Portugal or an independent East Timor” (Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, p.216).

Tipped off by the Indonesians that the invasion was about to take place, Woolcott secretly cabled the Department of Foreign Affairs proposing that “[we] leave events to take their course and act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show private understanding to Indonesia of their problems”.

This “private understanding” clearly assisted in Australia’s subsequent carving up of the considerable oil and gas reserves covered by the Timor Gap Treaty, signed with Indonesia in 1989.

Indonesia under Suharto was a significant market for Western arms sales. By providing ‘political stability’, Suharto also offered Western business interests the opportunity to benefit from the country’s extensive natural resources. A few months before the invasion of East Timor, a Confederation of British Industry report noted that Indonesia presented “enormous potential for the foreign investor” and that, according to one press report, the country enjoyed a “favourable political climate” and the “encouragement of foreign investment by the country’s authorities”. (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, p. 225).

Curtis notes that “RTZ, BP, British Gas and Britoil are some of the companies that have since taken advantage of Indonesia’s ‘favourable political climate’”.

All of this lies hidden behind Aglionby’s description of Indonesia invading “with the blessing” of the US, Australia and Britain.

Likewise, The Independent’s Richard Lloyd Parry referred to Indonesia’s devastating occupation as “straightforward international thuggery, colluded in by the United States, Britain and Australia” (The Independent 20 May, 2002; http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=296894)

Recall that Lloyd Parry was here describing one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century by proportion of population. We can imagine the reaction if Lloyd Parry had described the Holocaust as “international thuggery”. At the time of the invasion, a lone radio voice in East Timor was picked up sending a desperate a call for help:

“The soldiers are killing indiscriminately. Women and children are being shot in the streets. We are all going to be killed. I repeat, we are all going to be killed.” (Quoted, The Age, Melbourne, December 8, 1975).

This, indeed, was the boast of Indonesian general Try Sutrisno who said:

“These ill-bred people have to be shot… and we will shoot them.” (Quoted in Amnesty magazine, British Section, September/October 1994, p.5).

This is “international thuggery” only if a thug is comparable to a mass murderer.

Typically for a mainstream reporter, Lloyd Parry described journalist John Pilger as a “campaigner”. In fact, Pilger was one of a tiny number of honest and courageous Western journalists who brought the fate of East Timor to public attention. This was not appreciated by the rest of the ‘free press’ which had long surrounded Indonesia’s crimes with the same silence it reserves for so many damaging truths. Reviewing Pilger’s documentary, The Timor Conspiracy, detailing the full horror of what happened in East Timor, Charles Jennings of The Observer wrote:

“I guess you have to have John Pilger. With his tan, his Byronic haircut, his trudging priestly delivery and his evident self-love, your main instinct is to flip right over to BBC1…” (Jennings, the Observer, January 24, 1999).

Again, we can imagine the consequences were Jennings to write in similar vein about a journalist presenting a searingly powerful documentary on the horrors of the Holocaust.

The Times in London made no mention at all of Britain’s role in supporting Indonesia’s brutal 24-year long occupation. Instead, reporter Ian Timberlake wrote disingenuously that “British and Australian troops led an intervention force that ushered in a United Nations administration [that] began the task of rebuilding East Timor and preparing it for self-government.” (The Times, 18 May, 2002).

In fact, the intervention was primarily an Australian initiative following enormous public support expressed by concerned Australian citizens for the plight of the East Timorese; but it was too little, too late. As Noam Chomsky observed at the time:

“It would have sufficed for the U.S. and its allies to withdraw their active participation [in arming and supporting Indonesia], and to inform the Indonesian military command that the territory [East Timor] must be granted the right of self-determination that has been upheld by the United Nations and the World Court.” (ZNet Commentary, 4 October, 1999, www.zmag.org).

In the Daily Telegraph’s account of how “bloodied” East Timor attained independence, reporter Chris McCall made no reference to the West’s complicity in “the territory’s bloody recent history” (Daily Telegraph, 20 May, 2002). However, the Telegraph’s report the previous day (no byline) did note correctly that: “Indonesia’s 1975 invasion was carried out with the support of former US president Gerald Ford and then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger – who visited Jakarta on the eve of the attack. Successive US administrations later backed Indonesian dictator Suharto in his bloody crackdown against the rebels.” (Daily Telegraph, 19 May, 2002). However, neither the extent of this ‘support’ and ‘backing’, nor the disastrous impact on the East Timorese, was spelled out by the Telegraph. In August 1999, despite months of murderous intimidation by militia forces organised and armed by the Indonesian military (TNI), the East Timorese bravely came out to vote overwhelmingly for independence: 344,850 (78.5%) voted in favour and 94,388 (21.5%) voted against.

The aftermath was a horrendous bloodbath as militias stepped up their attacks on pro-independence supporters. It took until September 9, 1999 before Washington, under growing public pressure, finally suspended the Pentagon’s formal military ties with the TNI – a step the U.S. government could have taken much earlier. Almost immediately, Jakarta announced that it would allow in a peacekeeping force.

Indonesian historian John Roosa, an official observer of the referendum, reported:

“Given that the pogrom was so predictable, it was easily preventable… But in the weeks before the ballot, the Clinton Administration refused to discuss with Australia and other countries the formation of [an international force]. Even after the violence erupted, the Administration dithered for days.” (Quoted, New York Times, September 15, 1999).

As Amnesty International noted, “If US leverage was ultimately the critical factor in persuading Indonesia to stop the killing and permit peacekeepers, why weren’t these steps taken sooner? Everyday between the vote and President Clinton’s [September] 9th statements meant more corpses, more burned buildings, more refugees.” (Quoted, ZNet Commentary, Stephen Shalom, Humanitarian Intervention, 18 January, 2000).

Remarkably, all of this happened just weeks after the conclusion of the West’s “humanitarian crusade” in Kosovo – the press feigned not to notice the stunning hypocrisy. Instead, Hugo Young of the Guardian explained the sudden indifference of the West’s “moral crusaders” to the humanitarian crisis in East Timor thus:

“British intervention, a la Kosovo, will not happen: too far away, not enough troops. The Blair doctrine of crusading humanitarianism has its practical limits”. (Young, ‘Stop selling UK arms to the cruellest regimes on earth’, The Guardian, September 9, 1999).

Media Lens has found no mention in recent mainstream reports of the above uncontroversial account of the prelude to, and aftermath of, the August 1999 referendum. None of the mainstream reports we saw on East Timor winning independence in May 2002 included such ‘details’.

As ever in the mainstream media, history is deemed ‘irrelevant’ in the fast-moving world of daily news, particularly where such history involves the documented record of mass abuses perpetrated by elite Western interests.


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