The Western Betrayal of East Timor

Edward Herman 

and David Peterson


by Australia, U.N.-sponsored peacekeepers continue to arrive in East Timor,

where they are finding a staggering level of destruction. Reconnaissance flights

over the half-island territory report scenes of Biblical dimensions, where the

"Lord rained down fire and brimstone from the skies." The departing

Indonesian forces have burned virtually every city to the ground, killed

thousands, and driven the rest of the population from their homes. "It’s

quite evident that it’s very systematic," one aid worker observed.

"They burned the towns and cities first, and now they are burning the

villages." And the threat and terror grows. Amnesty International reported

on September 24 a pattern of continued mass killing with pro-independence

activists being "hunted down at checkpoints, on boats and in house-to-house

searches. Militias and members of the Indonesian army (TNI) continue to

intimidate, threaten and attack the displaced East Timorese with total



what a breathtaking difference in the West’s handling of this crisis from their

treatment of Yugoslavia just a few months earlier! At that time bombing was

allegedly necessary because of the West’s "moral perspective and

conscience," its newfound readiness "to right wrongs and prosecute

just causes" (Tony Blair), and the "dangers of not acting" when a

"defenceless people" were under assault (Clinton). Evidence of Serbian

crimes was aggressively assembled and placed before a war crimes tribunal, that

quickly indicted Milosevic even as NATO bombs fell on Serbia. NATO didn’t let

any niceties of international law or state sovereignty impede its actions.

Milosevic was given an ultimatum. Capitulate to NATO’s demands–one of which was

NATO’s occupation of all of Yugoslavia–or be bombed. The rest is history.


in East Timor, even though Indonesia’s deadly occupation has never been

recognized by the UN, the West has insisted that Indonesia’s permission be

obtained before any (belated) entry of peacekeepers, whose small forces have

been obliged to work with many of the same Indonesian troops that had

participated in the killing. Crucially, no troops are contemplated for West

Timor to rescue the thousands essentially kidnapped and removed out of East

Timor. And no further pressure is being exerted on Indonesia to rein in its

death squads on the island. No U.S. or British leaders have called for a war

crimes tribunal for East Timor, and there has been no suggestion that Indonesia

should have to pay massive reparations for its devastation of East Timor.


the East Timor case "moral values" have had to take a back seat to

"interests," and to a newly discovered U.S. inability to "do

everything everywhere." But if "interests" can override moral

values their use anywhere is compromised, and questions must be raised

concerning the possible role of interests whenever these admittedly second order

considerations are proclaimed to be the basis of action, as in Kosovo. The

West’s timid and tardy response to the crisis in East Timor makes it crystal

clear that its professed values are but instruments of policy, and are in no way

universals establishing a new moral order.


West bombed Yugoslavia allegedly in order to establish its

"credibility" as an instrument able to contest ethnic cleansing.

Somehow, neither its credibility nor its honor required that it protect the East

Timorese against serious Indonesia-sponsored terror. What this shows is that the

credibility argument is mustered only as a rationalization for doing what the

West wants to do. The UN-negotiated arrangement with Indonesia that gave the

East Timorese the right to vote on whether to exit from Indonesian authority was

given verbal support by the United States and other Great Powers, and the right

of the East Timorese to freedom from external rule is part of the proclaimed

values of the West. Thus, when Indonesia showed its unwillingness to support the

referendum by arming several dozen anti-independence militias who engaged in

serious pre-election violence, and then carried out the mass slaughter after the

August 30 vote for independence, the absence of a strong response from the West

was not only a betrayal of the East Timorese, but of Western credibility and

honor as well.


the West’s dishonorable behavior and betrayal runs much deeper. When the

referendum was organized, Indonesia was given the responsibility for security,

which was like putting Saddam Hussein in charge of security for Iraq’s Kurds

after the Persian Gulf war. This was surely done because the West, on friendly

terms with Indonesia, would not insult its friend by demanding more reasonable

security arrangements. (The blame for the East Timor policy failure is

frequently put on the UN, but this is misplaced. The UN worked within the limits

fixed by the United States and its allies, who use the UN for sanctioning

forcible responses only when convenient, as in the case of the Persian Gulf

war.) But even after Indonesia organized the militias to disrupt the referendum,

and failed to quell their violence, the United States and its allies did not

press for changes. Even more sinister, as early as March 1999, Western

intelligence not only knew from intercepted messages that the Indonesian

military was arming the militias, it knew that "the militias would

implement a scorched earth policy if the vote went against them."


this knowledge, the United States and other Great Powers still failed to take

serious steps to make Indonesia alter its plans, much less lobby the Security

Council for enhanced security arrangements in East Timor. We believe that the

West, having close ties to the Indonesian military and enormous financial power

to discipline Indonesia, could have forced that country to behave reasonably, if

it gave this high priority. But its "interests" outweighed its

willingness to apply serious pressure. Last April, the chief of the U.S. Pacific

Command, Admiral Dennis Blair, visited with Indonesian Defense Minister General

Wiranto, but instead of pressing him to behave he reassured him of continued

U.S. friendly support, which reporter Allan Nairn says "delighted Wiranto,

who considered it a U.S. "green light" to proceed as he did.


Western knowledge of Indonesia’s plans, the West’s failure to take preventive

action goes beyond mere appeasement to tacit collusion. In fact, the situation

bears comparison with the events of 1975 and after, when Indonesia invaded and

occupied East Timor immediately following a visit to Jakarta by U.S. Secretary

of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford. They gave at least tacit

consent to the invasion, and then and during the years of massive Indonesian

killings in East Timor (1977-1978), with Jimmy Carter as president, U.S. arms

sales to Indonesia quadrupled. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN in 1976, Daniel

Patrick Moynihan, brags in his autobiography of how when given the task of

rendering the UN "utterly ineffective" in whatever measures it might

take to interfere with Indonesian aggression, "I carried it forward with no

inconsiderable success." Much the same U.S.-induced paralysis afflicted the

UN this year, both in the weakness of the UN mission to East Timor and in the

Security Council’s footdragging as the killing mounted after the referendum.


short, our "friends"–and the dictator Suharto was our friend for 32

years–can kill without any threat of interference from us, and even with our

support. That point was made clear once again during the current East Timor

crisis. The difference between the earlier and later years is that with the

UN-sponsored referendum the publicity level has been high, so that continued

Western support of Indonesia has been more exposed and it has been obliged to

make gestures of concern. It has even been pushed to gently induce Indonesia to

lay off, although perhaps not soon enough for the second Western-supported

genocide in East Timor to have been largely completed.


ZNet Commentary is based on an article entitled "From Humanitarian

Intervention to Inhumane Appeasement" forthcoming in the November issue of

CovertAction Quarterly.)

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