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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 forgetor not even knowis 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 Indonesias 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 hosts fears
that Washington would protest the use of American weaponry during the invasion.
(The United States was supplying Indonesias 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 Kissingers
departure, Indonesia launched its invasion.
An unnamed State Department official explained to an Australian newspaper a
few months later why Washington had condoned Jakartas actions: We
regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nationa nation we do a lot
of business with. Washington thus provided billions of dollars in weaponry,
military training, and economic assistanceas well as diplomatic coverto
Jakarta during its more than two decades of occupation. The result was the deaths
of well over 200,000 East Timoreseabout one-third of the pre-invasion
Despite the efforts of the Indonesian military, however, the East Timorese
resistance endured and ultimately prevailed in a U.N.-run referendum on the
territorys 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 territorys buildings and infrastructure, forcibly deporting about
250,000 people to Indonesian West Timor (where tens of thousands remain), and
raping untold numbers of womenin addition to massacring at least 2,000.
They created what many came to call, ironically enough, Ground Zero.
It was not until September 11, 1999one week into the rampagethat
President Clinton finally ended all U.S. support for the Indonesian military.
Washingtons 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 Washingtons partnership in crime with resource-rich Indonesia.
The dilemma is that Indonesia matters and East Timor doesnt,
he said. (Roy now heads Kissinger Associates, the former secretary of states
While Indonesias 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 Jakartas 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 Washingtons
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 Timors 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 backersno matter who they are.
Matthew Jardine is the author of East Timor: Genocide in Paradise and the co-author of East Timors Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance. He is writing a book on East Timors Ground Zero.