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December 22, 2001
Days of Infamy and Memory

Like December 7, September 11 is now undoubtedly “a day that will live in infamy” in the collective memory of the United States. What we recall about these dates, however, is perhaps not as important as what we do not remember about them. As Adam Hochschild has observed, “The world we live in ... is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget.” And what Americans tend to forget—or not even know—is that December 7 and September 11 also mark, respectively, the beginning and the end of U.S. complicity in one of the worst atrocities in the post-World War II era, that of East Timor.

On December 7, 1975, Indonesia launched its bloody invasion of East Timor. The day prior, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had met in Jakarta with Indonesia’s dictator, Suharto. The recent release of formerly classified documents by the Washington-based National Security Archive now irrefutably confirms what many have long suspected: Ford and Kissinger gave Suharto the green light for the invasion. (Among major U.S. news outlets, only the Washington Post reported this revelation.)

According to the meeting transcript, Ford assured Suharto at the meeting that with regard to East Timor: “[We] will not press you on the issue. We understand ... the intentions you have.” Kissinger then assuaged his host’s fears that Washington would protest the use of American weaponry during the invasion. (The United States was supplying Indonesia’s military with 90 percent of its arms at the time.) “It depends on how we construe it, whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation,” explained Kissinger, suggesting they should spin the pending invasion of tiny East Timor as something other than aggression. He then opined “that it would be better if it were done after” they returned home. About 14 hours after Ford and Kissinger’s departure, Indonesia launched its invasion.

An unnamed State Department official explained to an Australian newspaper a few months later why Washington had condoned Jakarta’s actions: “We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation—a nation we do a lot of business with.” Washington thus provided billions of dollars in weaponry, military training, and economic assistance—as well as diplomatic cover—to Jakarta during its more than two decades of occupation. The result was the deaths of well over 200,000 East Timorese—about one-third of the pre-invasion population.

Despite the efforts of the Indonesian military, however, the East Timorese resistance endured and ultimately prevailed in a U.N.-run referendum on the territory’s political status in 1999. The result revealed overwhelming support for independence. But immediately thereafter, the military and its “militia” proxies launched a systematic campaign of revenge, destroying 70 percent of the territory’s buildings and infrastructure, forcibly deporting about 250,000 people to Indonesian West Timor (where tens of thousands remain), and raping untold numbers of women—in addition to massacring at least 2,000. They created what many came to call, ironically enough, “Ground Zero.”

It was not until September 11, 1999—one week into the rampage—that President Clinton finally ended all U.S. support for the Indonesian military. Washington’s ambassador to Jakarta at the time, Stapleton Roy, explained why it took a president who had once called U.S. policy toward East Timor “unconscionable” so long to end Washington’s partnership in crime with resource-rich Indonesia. “The dilemma is that Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn’t,” he said. (Roy now heads Kissinger Associates, the former secretary of state’s consulting firm.)

While Indonesia’s brutal occupation is now over, Jakarta and its allies are trying to bury their ugly collective past. Although a U.N. commission recommended the establishment of an international tribunal for East Timor in January 2000, the United States and other members of the Security Council instead deferred to Jakarta’s demand to prosecute its own. Almost two years later, Indonesia has not indicted anyone. But even if Indonesia were to do so, its planned tribunal would cover just a handful of the atrocities committed in 1999 and completely overlook crimes perpetrated from 1975 to 1998.

Meanwhile, although a few voices in the House and Senate continue to raise the issue of an international tribunal, the White House and most in Congress remain silent on the matter, as they do on the question of Washington’s complicity in the crimes.

If forgetting is a perpetuation of the crime, remembering can be a form of redemption. But the redemption must be one of action, not just words. Human rights advocates must pressure Washington to actively support the establishment of an international criminal tribunal for East Timor for all the years of the Indonesian occupation. The United States should also allow full disclosure of and atone for its own roles in East Timor’s suffering. Only in this manner can the United States demonstrate that it is truly committed to what it now preaches: that justice requires accountability from all purveyors of terror and their backers—no matter who they are.

Matthew Jardine is the author of East Timor: Genocide in Paradise and the co-author of East Timor’s Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance. He is writing a book on East Timor’s “Ground Zero.”


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