Between the Guns and the Wall

David Peterson


before noon on April 6, several truckloads of the Red And White Iron militia

rolled up outside a church where hundreds of people had fled seeking sanctuary.

"Get out of the church!" the gun- and machete-wielding gangsters

shouted. Then mayhem. The crackle of automatic weapons firing into the crowd.

Cries of agony and cries of terror. And bodies falling everywhere, some hacked

to pieces, some with their faces unsurgically removed. More than 50 people died

that day on the church grounds. All of them murdered in plain view of military

and police forces that did nothing to prevent the slaughter, but later promised

to "look into it."


Bela Crvka? Racak? No. This particular "crime against humanity" did

not occur in any of the Kosovo towns whose names have been etched in the

official memory because the so-called international community "saw horrors

reminiscent of Nazi Germany being revisited on the continent of Europe at the

end of the 20th century" (Britain’s Tony Blair)–and taking their cue, the

Western media trained everyone’s eyes there.


it occurred in a town few people had ever heard of before, called Liquica, in a

part of the world that’s as far from the U.S. media’s radar screens as any place

has the right to be–East Timor.


torture of East Timor began in 1975, following the Carnation Revolution in

Portugal, a leftist coup that led to the breakup of the Portuguese Empire,

Angola, Mozambique, and East Timor included. Billions of dollars worth of

undeveloped oil and natural gas reserves lie both on- and off-shore the

half-island territory, located some 300 miles north of the Australian city of

Darwin. But whereas an independent East Timor has always possessed the potential

to turn into a "democratic Kuwait" or a "democratic Brunei,"

as the Indonesian scholar George J. Aditjondro observes, a re-conquered East

Timor, subjugated by neighboring Indonesia on behalf of the international energy

sector and the Western powers, gave both Indonesia and Australia the chance to

capture these reserves for themselves.


the beginning, Indonesia’s December 1975 invasion of East Timor was accepted and

even assisted by the United States and its allies, particularly Australia.

Remember: This was shortly after the United States withdrew its forces from

Indochina; Washington was not about to watch another Southeast Asian territory

assert its independence, no matter how small and insignificant it seemed.


arms and economic aid flooded Indonesia in the late 1970s, the period when it

was committing its worst atrocities against the East Timorese. Put simply,

Washington liked what Suharto’s fanatically anti-Communist rule meant both for

Indonesia and for the larger Asian-Pacific region. As one academic treatment of

the story notes, Suharto ran Indonesia more "as if it were a corporation

than a nation"–and Western investors appreciated the fact. In turn, the

contributions that Suharto’s "New Order" made to the region’s

pro-Western alignment also made Suharto’s own bloodshed and dictatorial rule

perfectly acceptable in the West’s eyes. Just as it would later provide the West

with sufficient incentives to allow him to take over East Timor, and lend

support to his regime whenever it floundered.


in May 1998 Suharto suddenly fell from grace, and his regime collapsed. At the

time the Indonesian economy was reeling from a financial crisis that had begun

in the Thai currency markets the previous summer, later spreading to several of

the more "open" Asian-Pacific economies and beyond. By March, 1998,

the Indonesian rupiah had depreciated by 90 percent, as capital fled the country

and its foreign reserves plummeted. With this far deeper and more serious replay

of the 1994-95 Mexican Meltdown sweeping across the region, the I.M.F. offered

Indonesia a $43 billion bailout package. But the I.M.F. made delivery of the

funds conditional on changes that would strike at the vast empire of family,

military, and ruling party corruption sarcastically known as Suharto, Inc.–and

Suharto wasn’t biting. Summing up both Indonesia’s own predicament and the I.M.F.-bloc’s

real fears, Business Week alluded to a "modern ‘domino effect’, the

"possibility that countries such as Indonesia could fall away from the U.S.

fold of free-market capitalism and open trade. That would cost the I.M.F. plenty

in credibility and perhaps lead South Korea and Thailand to renegotiate their

own bailout packages" (March 23, 1998).


dogged resistance to I.M.F. dictates led to his precipitous loss of support

within the I.M.F.-bloc–Washington in particular. Washington’s response was to

step up its training and involvement with the Indonesian military–always the

real power behind the "New Order"–while it ushered Suharto out the

back door of the Merderka Palace.


anything, Suharto’s fall has had greater consequences for East Timor than

Indonesia itself. The sudden collapse of the Suharto regime raised within both

Indonesia and the governments that had most strongly supported it questions

about the cost-effectiveness of allowing his successor to maintain Indonesia’s

grip on East Timor. In short order, the Habibie presidency began to make noises

about the possibility of reviewing the status of East Timor, perhaps even

cutting it loose. Negotiations toward this end between the governments of

Indonesia and Portugal led to the signing of an agreement in New York City on

May 5 of this year–an "historic opportunity to resolve the question of

East Timor," Secretary General Kofi Annan rightly called it.


the terms of May 5 agreement, acceptance of the "special autonomy"

option would compel the U.N. to recognize East Timor as Indonesia’s "27th

province," just as the Indonesians have claimed it to be since 1976. A

"special autonomy" vote would also remove the question of the status

of East Timor from the U.N. agenda, once and for all (Article 5).


promises to be a stickier matter–and a much bloodier one as well. If voters

reject the "special autonomy" option, the New York agreement binds the

Indonesian Government to "take the constitutional steps necessary to

terminate its links with East Timor thus restoring under Indonesian law the

status East Timor held prior to 17 July 1976" (Article 6)–so-called

Integration Day in Indonesia’s version of history, the day on which Indonesia

annexed the territory in a move the U.N. has never recognized.


rejection of "special autonomy" means independence from Indonesia, and

eventual statehood for East Timor. At least that’s what it should mean–after

perhaps a three- or five-year transition period during which time the U.N. would

have to remain actively engaged in the territory.


what the May 5 agreement says, and how the competing powers ultimately will

enforce it, are not necessarily the same thing.


the Habibie Government first seriously broached the possibility of a referendum

in late January, a highly-organized campaign of political terror has been waged

by as many as two dozen "militia" groups against East Timor’s

pro-independence faction–the vast majority of its 800,000 people, in fact. That

the militias have the backing of the Indonesian National Army (TNI) is beyond

doubt. Since they emerged, they have acted with what Amnesty International and

several other international observers call "almost total impunity,"

often in plain view of Indonesian security forces that not only do nothing to

stop their rampages, but sometimes lend their support to them.


course, the May 5 agreement does call on the "appropriate Indonesian

security authorities" to establish an "environment devoid of violence

and other forms of intimidation" prior to the ballot (Annex III). But

Indonesia has observed this responsibility almost strictly in the breach rather

than in actual fact. As U.N. Special Representative for East Timor Ian Martin

said just days before the scheduled referendum, "The security criteria have

clearly not been fulfilled or indeed each of them individually met fully."

Indonesian police repeatedly fail to arrest militia members who carry weapons

"outside the designated cantonment area." And those TNI personnel

"who have been most closely and obviously associated with the militia

activities" have not been removed from their positions.


with "almost total impunity," the militias have murdered several

hundred East Timorese this year alone, often in a spectacularly brutal fashion.

Several different militia groups have also staged a series of attacks on U.N.

convoys and offices operating in the territory. And just days before the

referendum, Indonesian military jets buzzed a church compound in Maliana, a site

where close to 3,000 refugees had fled to seek shelter from the local militia. A

total of 60,000 people (maybe more) have been driven from their homes. No

credible source claims that anything less than a climate of terror and

intimidation reigns in East Timor today. As one farmer who with his family had

fled to the U.N. headquarters in Dili asked a reporter for the Washington Post,

"How can they hold a vote if we are too scared to go to the polling



question is worth pondering, whatever the outcome of the referendum. However

reminiscent of Nazi Germany, the horrors of East Timor have not only failed to

evoke that newfound "humanitarian" conscience which the West now

struts and preens before the world. But they have gone largely unnoticed as

well. Indeed, largely and willfully ignored.




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