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Thirty Years After the Indonesian Invasion of East Timor, Will the U.S. Be Held Accountable for its Role in the Slaughter?

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Thirty years ago today, on December 7 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor. Over 200,000 East Timorese lost their lives in one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. A recently-completed East Timorese commission of inquiry into human rights abuses during the occupation makes use of extensive documents that show the US government knew in advance of the invasion and worked behind the scenes to hide it from public scrutiny. The East Timorese government has asked parliament to withhold the report. We speak with East Timor’s ambassador to the UN and the US, and a professor at the National Security Archive. [includes rush transcript]

Thirty years ago today, on December 7 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor. This began a brutal occupation that lasted almost a quarter of a century and led to the deaths of over 200,000 people. Even the C.I.A. has described it as one of the worst mass-murders of the 20th century.

Indonesia invaded East Timor almost entirely with U.S-made weapons and equipment. Newly released documents by the National Security Archive show the U.S government knew this and explicitly approved of the invasion. The formerly classified documents show how multiple U.S administrations concealed information on the invasion in order to continue selling weapons to Indonesia.

The documents show US officials were aware of the invasion plans nearly a year in advance. They reveal that in 1977 the Carter Administration blocked declassification of a cable transcribing President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger’s meeting with Suharto on December 6, 1975 in which they explicitly approved of the invasion.

The National Security Archive handed over the documents to an East Timorese commission of inquiry into human rights abuses that occurred between 1975 and 1999. Last week East Timor President Xanana Gusmao gave the commission’s report to the Timorese Parliament but wanted it withheld from the public. Opposition politicians and human rights activists have called for the documents to be made public.

  • * Massacre: The Story of East Timor*, documentary produced by Amy Goodman and Alan Nairn.
  • Jose Luis Guterres, East Timorese ambassador to the United Nations and United States.
  • Brad Simpson, assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland and a research assistant at the National Security Archive.


* Declassified U.S. documents*
- East Timor Action Network

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn first to a documentary I did in 1992. It was a year after the Santa Cruz massacre, in which the Indonesian military gunned down more than 270 Timorese. I had gone to East Timor with my colleague, journalist Allan Nairn. We produced this document when we came back. It’s called Massacre: The Story of East Timor.

EAST TIMORESE MAN 1: I lost one sister and two brothers.

EAST TIMORESE WOMAN: It was ten days before I was to give birth. The army was shooting people, and they would die at our feet, but you couldn’t stop to help them.

EAST TIMORESE MAN 1: I know families that were totally wiped out.

EAST TIMORESE MAN 2: Two American newsmen badly beaten: Mr. Allan Nairn and Miss Amy Goodman.

AMY GOODMAN: The Indonesian army converged in two places.

ALLAN NAIRN: Hundreds and hundreds of troops coming straight at the Timorese.

AMY GOODMAN: When they came, they opened fire on the people.

PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: We pride ourselves, and I think properly so, in standing up for human rights.

RICHARD BOUCHER: Military assistance programs expose the trainees to democratic ideas and humanitarian standards.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I’m very concerned about what’s happened in East Timor. We have ignored it so far in ways that I think are unconscionable.

AMY GOODMAN: Massacre: The Story of East Timor. I’m Amy Goodman.

JAMES BAKER: Big countries with powerful military machines should not be permitted to invade, occupy and brutalize their peaceful neighbors.

AMY GOODMAN: With these words, former Secretary of State James Baker explained why the United States was going to war against Iraq. Yet, 16 years earlier, another big country, Indonesia, invaded a much smaller one, East Timor, with the support of the United States. What followed was one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century. It is estimated that up to one-third of the Timorese population has been killed through a policy of army massacre and enforced starvation. Many of those who are left have been imprisoned and tortured by a military armed and trained by the United States.

East Timor, a quiet farming nation on a mountainous island about 300 miles north of Australia, had been a Portuguese colony until 1974, when there was a democratic revolution in Portugal and the new government decided to disband its empire. Neighboring Indonesia, a military dictatorship more than 200 times East Timor’s size, began attacking Timor in an effort to prevent the island nation from completing its move toward independence. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia launched a full invasion. Timorese shortwave radio, monitored by reporters in Australia, was heard putting out desperate calls for help.

TIMORESE SHORTWAVE RADIO: A lot of people are being killed — I repeat — indiscriminately. More than a thousand troops have been there.

AMY GOODMAN: The night before the invasion, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Ford were in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, toasting General Suharto, the Indonesian ruler.

PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Our relationship involves a common concern for the right of every nation to pursue its destiny on its own independent and sovereign course. On behalf of Mrs. Ford and myself, I raise my glass and propose a toast.

AMY GOODMAN: Joao Carrascalao, the brother of the former governor of East Timor and himself a political leader now in exile, was working for the Indonesians at the time.

JOAO CARRASCALAO: I arrived at Jakarta one hour before President Ford and Henry Kissinger landed in Jakarta. And on the same night, I was informed by Colonel Suyanto — he was a top officer in the Jakarta administration — that America had given the green light for Indonesia to invade Timor.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States, Suharto’s main backer, supplied 90% of Indonesia’s arms. The story of East Timor is a story few know about, except those who have lived through it. Six foreign journalists who were there as Indonesia attacked were executed by the Indonesian military. Australian TV correspondent, Greg Shackleton sent this report the night before the frontier town where he was visiting was seized by the Indonesian troops.

GREG SHACKLETON: Why, they ask, are the Indonesians invading us? Why, they ask, if the Indonesians believe that Fretilin is communist, do they not send a delegation to Dili to find out? Why, they ask, are the Australians not helping us? When the Japanese invaded, they did help us. Why, they ask, are the Portuguese not helping us? We’re still a Portuguese colony. Who, they ask, will pay for the terrible damage to our homes?

My main answer was that Australia would not send forces here. That’s impossible. However, I said, we could ask that Australia raise this fighting at the United Nations. That was possible. At that, the second in charge rose to his feet, exclaimed, “Camerado journalist!,” shook my hand, the rest shook my hand, and we were applauded, because we are Australians. That’s all they want: for the United Nations to care about what is happening here.

AMY GOODMAN: The following day, Indonesian troops moved in and executed Shackleton and his crew. Though the government of Australia ended up siding with Indonesia, the U.N. Security Council denounced the invasion of East Timor and passed two resolutions like those later passed against Iraq, calling on Indonesia to withdraw its troops without delay, but United States lobbying prevented any U.N. action, and as Indonesia began to execute the Timorese en masse, Washington doubled its military aid.

Journalist Allan Nairn and I returned to East Timor for a historic event. A special delegation from the United Nations and Portugal was due to visit East Timor. The Timorese hoped the visit would finally lead to U.N. action and enforcement of the Security Council resolutions calling on Indonesia to withdraw from East Timor.

ALLAN NAIRN: We were told in place after place that the army had been holding neighborhood and village meetings to warn the Timorese that if they tried to speak to the U.N. Portuguese delegation, they and their families would be killed. And Bishop Belo, the bishop of East Timor, told us that the threat was: 'We will kill your family to the seventh generation.'

AMY GOODMAN: But despite the threats and a dramatic increase in disappearances, torture and deaths, Timorese had prepared to speak out. They had met in secret, making banners and petitions for the delegation. When the army tried to hunt them down, many had gone into hiding and sought refuge inside churches. But under pressure from the United States, the visit of the delegation had been called off. Three days later, with the world’s spotlight removed, the army stormed the Moteal, Dili’s main Catholic church, and killed a young man named Sebastiao Gomes, who had taken refuge there.

And then came the morning of November 12. The two-week commemoration of Sebastiao’s funeral. A memorial mass and procession were planned to lay flowers on Sebastiao’s grave. After the mass was held at the Moteal, people, young and old, came out into the street, and in a land where public speech and assembly had been forbidden over a decade, they started chanting. The Timorese then held up banners drawn on bed sheets. They had been prepared for the delegation that never came. The banners called on Indonesia to leave East Timor and said things like “Why the Indonesian army shoot our church?” The Timorese were facing a gauntlet of troops that stretched the length of Dili. It was the boldest act of public protest occupied Timor had ever seen.

ALLAN NAIRN: More and more Timorese joined the procession. They came from huts and schools and offices along the way. And there was this building feeling of exhilaration, as well as fear, among the Timorese. And when they reached the cemetery, the crowd had swelled to maybe 5,000 people. Some went inside to lay flowers on Sebastiao’s grave. Most of the crowd was still outside, and then suddenly, someone looked up, and we saw that marching up along the same route that the Timorese had come came a long column of Indonesian troops, dressed in brown, holding M-16s in front of them, marching in a very slow, deliberate fashion; hundreds and hundreds of troops, coming straight at the Timorese.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan suggested we walk to the front of the crowd between the soldiers and the Timorese, because although we knew that the army had committed many massacres, we hoped that we, as a foreign journalists, could serve as a shield for the Timorese. Standing with headphones on and microphone and camera out in full view, we went and stood in the middle of the road, looking straight at the approaching troops. Behind us, the crowd was hushed as some Timorese tried to turn away, but they were hemmed in by cemetery walls.

ALLAN NAIRN: The soldiers marched straight up to us. They never broke their stride. We were enveloped by the troops, and when they got a few yards past us, within a dozen yards of the Timorese, they raised their rifles to their shoulders all at once, and they opened fire. The Timorese, in an instant, were down, just torn apart by the bullets. The street was covered with bodies covered with blood. And the soldiers just kept on coming. They poured in, one rank after another. They leaped over the bodies of those who were down. They were aiming and shooting people in the back. I could see their limbs being torn, their bodies exploding. There was blood spurting out into the air. The pop of the bullets, everywhere. And it was very organized, very systematic. The soldiers did not stop. They just kept on shooting until no one was left standing.

AMY GOODMAN: A group of soldiers grabbed my microphone and threw me to the ground, kicking and punching me. At that point, Allan threw himself on top of me, protecting me from further injury. The soldiers then used their rifle butts like baseball bats, beating Allan until they fractured his skull. As we sat on the ground, Allan, covered in blood, a group of soldiers lined up and pointed their M-16s at our heads. They had stripped us of all of our equipment. We just kept shouting, “We’re from America!” In the end, they decided not to execute us.

ALLAN NAIRN: The soldiers beat us, but we actually had received privileged treatment. We were still alive. They kept on firing into the Timorese. We were able to get onto a passing civilian truck, went into hiding, but the Timorese, who had been with us there on the cemetery road, most of them were dead.

AMY GOODMAN: Inside the cemetery walls, Max Stahl, a filmmaker on assignment with Yorkshire TV, had had his video camera running.

MAX STAHL: The soldiers began at that point to encircle the entire cemetery. I saw the soldiers as they gradually moved towards the middle, picking out people who were wounded or taking refuge between the tombstones, and when they got to them, they beat them and assembled them in the back of the cemetery. People were stripped to their waists. They had their thumbs tied behind their backs, and they were made to look at the ground. And if they looked up, they were immediately beaten, usually with a rifle butt.

AMY GOODMAN: Max Stahl was filming near a crypt in the middle of the cemetery. Some of the wounded and those too scared to run were huddled inside praying. As Stahl filmed, he buried his videocassettes in a fresh grave. Then he was arrested by the troops.

MAX STAHL: Whilst I was being interrogated, I observed these trucks driving by with more people in them. These people were clearly in a kind of paralysis of fear. They were not able to move. Some of them, at least in the cemetery and, indeed, even in the trucks, when I saw them going by, were barely breathing. And people were that terrified. It’s quite often difficult to tell if they’re dead or alive.

AMY GOODMAN: After nine hours in custody, Stahl went back to the cemetery under cover of night, dug up his videocassettes and had them smuggled out of the country. Allan Nairn and I had managed to leave East Timor a few hours after the massacre. From a hospital on Guam, we reported what had happened to dozens of newspapers, radio and television outlets around the world.

PACIFICA REPORT: From Washington, this is the Pacifica report for Tuesday, November 12, 1991. A massacre in East Timor. Among those injured were two journalists, including a news editor of Pacifica station WBAI in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: They beat me and dragged me over and started slamming me with rifle butts, and kicks and punches, and then Allan jumped on top of me, and they beat him very badly. But that was the least of what they did. They opened fire on the people, and these were truly defenseless —

MONTAGE OF WORLD NEWS FOOTAGE: When Indonesian troops opened fire on a crowd — This is CBC Radio — The massacre of a hundred unarmed Timorese by the Indonesian military — Photographs of the bloody massacre during the fight for freedom — This is the CBS Evening News.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary, Massacre: The Story of East Timor, produced with journalist Allan Nairn, as we turn now to the report that has been released by the East Timorese commission of inquiry into human rights abuses that occurred between 1975 and 1999. The Indonesian invasion of Timor 30 years ago today. Last week, the East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao gave the commission’s report to the Timorese parliament, but wanted it withheld from the public. Opposition politicians and human rights activists have called for the documents to be made public. We’re joined from Baltimore by Brad Simpson, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Research Assistant to the National Security Archive. We are also joined in our New York studio by Jose Luis Guterres. He is the East Timorese Ambassador to the United Nations and the United States. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

BRAD SIMPSON: Thank you, Amy.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, this day, very significant, Ambassador. Thirty years ago today, Indonesia invaded Timor. You celebrated your freedom, your independence, three years ago. What are your thoughts on this day? Where were you December 7, 1975?

JOSE LUIS GUTERRES: Well, I was still a student in Lisbon, and it was the saddest day of our life; as Timorese, we have lost over the years one-third of our population. At the same time, looking back, we had a privilege of having many friends. You and Allan did a very important — played a very important role during the 1991 massacre in Santa Cruz in East Timor, and help that we had also in the U.S., many of our friends in Congress, that all over the years, the grassroots movement that were able to maintain alive the struggle for self-determination, independence and freedom in my country.

And today we can say that the country is stable with democratic institutions, and one of the most important days for us also was in 1990 when we had to vote in that referendum where the people chose to be independent. After that, you remember that some Indonesian troops in the militia, they destroyed 85% of the country and killed so many Timorese at that time. And also, it was important also to remember that by the time — it was during the President Clinton administration and it was very, very important for East Timor that President Clinton, Tony Blair and other leaders, they played very important role in sending the U.N. troops to East Timor in order to end the violence and massacring in East Timor.

So, looking back, in history, some struggles are still going on, happily that in East Timor after many years of sacrifice and many people died, we are able today to be free, have an independent country, be a member of the United Nations, and be here and talk to you in a free country. And so, I’m very happy to be here on this program.

AMY GOODMAN: What about, Ambassador, the issue of accountability? The East Timorese commission of inquiry hands in a report, makes recommendations about accountability, and the President, Xanana Gusmao, refuses to make it public.

JOSE LUIS GUTERRES: Well, I think that it is a question of time. Right now, the Parliament is analyzing the documents and the report. And I believe that after that, it will — most probably that they will publicize it, because this is really a history — it’s part of history of the Timorese people, and I don’t think that the President or any other government will not give these documents to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad Simpson, what are your concerns? You have applied under the Freedom of Information Act for a lot of the documents that the commission of inquiry is basing its information on right now. Can you talk about what they say and what you feel needs to be done?

BRAD SIMPSON: Yes. These documents lay out a 25-year pattern of deceit by successive U.S. administrations. Keeping the details of Indonesia’s planned invasion of East Timor from the American public and from the international community, systematically suppressing or discounting credible reports of massacres taking place in East Timor through the mid-1980s, and working to circumvent possible congressional bans on military systems to keep the pipeline of weapons flowing. We gave the East Timorese Truth Commission more than 4,000 pages of documents, and the most important conclusions that they reached so far that we know are that the United States, Britain and other Western powers which supported Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor should be required to pay reparations to the people of East Timor, and that, furthermore, western arms manufacturers, who supplied weapons to Indonesia should also be required to pay reparations to the people of East Timor.

These were extraordinarily damning recommendations — extraordinarily damning conclusions that these documents contributed to, which the East Timorese Truth Commission has put forth. And I think it’s incumbent upon us, not just as Americans, but also as members of the international community, which for so long supported Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor, to really study these conclusions and face up to our own country’s history of support for one of the great massacres of modern history. And I think that President Gusmao’s concern is a real one. East Timor is small. It’s weak; it’s surrounded by larger neighbors who either invaded it or supported the invasion and occupation of their country, and they understand the concern of East Timorese leaders, that calls for genuine justice and accountability might not play well in Washington, might not play well in Jakarta and other world capitals.

But not a single high-ranking Indonesian official has been ever been held accountable for more than 25 years of systematic atrocities. Not a single U.S. administration has ever been held accountable, has ever apologized for U.S. support for the invasion and occupation of East Timor. This process of truth and accountability is not just needed in East Timor, it’s also needed in Jakarta, and as an American, I would say it’s also needed here in the United States, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador, your response? Why not release the documents now?

JOSE LUIS GUTERRES: I don’t have an immediate response or answer on this. But from what I know, I firmly believe that the government and the President will release the documents for public knowledge. At the same time, it’s — the report contains public information. There is no secret, and even the recommendation is already known by Timorese public. So I don’t see any reason for not to publicize these documents.

AMY GOODMAN: So is there a rift in your government? Are you, as the ambassador from Timor to the United States, disagreeing with the President and the foreign ministers?

JOSE LUIS GUTERRES: Well, the only problem is — the only question is that I haven’t seen any official directive from the government to inform us that, you know, this paper will not be published. It is a public information. Recommendation also is known, so I really don’t see why it will not — I’m sure that it will be published in the near future. But I would like to say also that we share the idea that crimes cannot go unpunished. Justice is very important for any country having freedom, democracy, institutions and freedom to be sustained, you have really to respect human rights and justice.

And at the same time many Timorese families, as you know, lost at least one of their family, their relatives. Certainly, that — on the diplomatic side in the international relations with neighboring countries, East Timor is small and vulnerable, but at the same time, the state of East Timor cannot deny to their own citizens the possibility for them to defend in our interests and search for justice for the loved ones that died during these years.

Officially, we know that it is true that the government of East Timor is not seeking any compensation. We had the Portuguese occupy East Timor for 400 years, the Japanese during the Second World War, and later, Indonesia for — since 1975 up to 1999. And the official policy is that we prefer to look into the future and try to establish the best relation as possible with our neighbors and with the international community, and we — indeed, we are very happy, including the United States, to have today very good relations. President Xanana was in visit the U.S. many times. He met with President Bush, I believe, three times already, and during that meeting, we feel that there is a strong interest and support from the U.S. present Bush administration to East Timor.

And at the same time, it is a small and vulnerable nation living in a very close to Indonesia. Indonesia that is not yet — we know that the military still have a lot of power in Indonesia. We are all working towards to having a more democratic Indonesia where the military can play their own role without interfering in the political affairs. So these are the main, how do you say, picture that we are looking for.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad Simpson, final comment?

BRAD SIMPSON: This process of accountability is important, not just for East Timor and the United States, but also for the process of democratization in Indonesia itself. The Indonesian military is still an unrepentant, unreformed institution, and I think it’s very important to again recall that not a single Indonesian official has been held accountable for any of these atrocities. While the United States is overseeing the trial of Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity in Baghdad, the Bush administration has just lifted conditions on the provision of military assistance to Indonesia. And I think that this is a real test case of the Bush administration’s commitment to the rule of law, to accountability. If the United States is going to assert that Saddam Hussein should be held accountable for crimes committed 20 years ago in Iraq, I’m hard-pressed to believe why Indonesian officials and American officials should not be held accountable for similar crimes against humanity that have taken place in East Timor over the last 25 years.

And this is a process which is still ongoing, and I think one of the reasons why President Gusmao is reluctant to release this report is that its conclusions largely echo those of the United Nations commission of experts which called for the convening of an international tribunal to hold Indonesian officials accountable for the crimes of 1999 and the crimes that have taken place over the last 24 years. And I think that it’s really important for activists in the United States and elsewhere who have long supported the East Timorese to try and put pressure on the U.S. Congress, to try and put pressure on the Bush administration to guarantee that we will not maintain and improve or provide military assistance to Indonesia, unless they demonstrate the same sort of accountability, which we are now demanding of Saddam Hussein and others who commit these kinds of atrocities in other countries.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll have to leave it there, Brad Simpson of the University of Maryland and the National Security Archive. And we’ll link to the documents that the National Security Archive has on its website, those declassified documents. And Ambassador Jose Luis Guterres, I want to thank you for being with us, ambassador from East Timor to the United States and the United Nations.

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