Genocide in East Timor

Made in the USA

by Michael Steinberg

Z magazine, December 1999


The U.S. role in the recent catalog of horrors in East Timor is deep and far reaching, the culmination of over three decades of nurturing the Indonesian fascist regime. Just as the U.S. mainstream media has attempted to suppress the clear connection between the Indonesian military and its militias in carrying out genocide in East Timor, the U.S. government and its corporate sponsors vigorously deny any role in the slaughter and devastation there.

Fortunately alternative sources of information are still available to those who take the trouble to seek them out.

In Jakarta on September 30, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen declared that the Indonesian military "aided and abetted violence in East Timor."

Cohen's belated self-righteous denunciation was a far cry from a visit in 1998, when he spent quality time at the headquarters of the Indonesian army's notorious special forces, Kopassus, in the company of its then commander, General Prabowo Subianto. According to journalist Allan Nairn, who reported this in the April 20, 1998, Nation, Cohen and the general "watched the U.S. trained killers execute maneuvers for their sponsor from Washington" for three hours.

Nairn further reported that "Prabowo is Suharto's son-in-law, the Indonesian business partner (through his wife) of Merrill Lynch, and one of the key sponsors of the U.S.-Indonesian Society, an influential pro-Suharto U.S. front group launched in 1994 and backed by ABRI [the Indonesian military], U.S. corporations, and former Pentagon, State Department and CIA officials."

A 1994 Amnesty International report on Indonesia stated, "Army personnel and members of elite military units, such as the Special Forces Command (Kopassus)...have been responsible for the most grave violations against suspected political opponents." Because of the well-documented record of human rights violations by Kopassus and other elements of the Indonesian military, in the early l990s the U.S. Congress cut off funding for training of Indonesian military personnel by U.S. forces

But the Pentagon did an end run around this prohibition by quietly pushing through Section 2011 of Title 10 of the U.S. code. This law allowed the Pentagon to send U.S. Special Forces to other countries, not as congressionally forbidden trainers, but ostensibly to be trained by foreign military personnel. This time distinction was more fiction that fact. In Pentagon doublespeak, even training foreign soldiers under this program was considered a form of training for the U.S. trainers. The program was dubbed Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET).

Indonesia was one of the prime beneficiaries of this program. In his 1998 Nation article, Allan Nairn reported that "at least thirty-six [JCET] exercises" in Indonesia "with fully armed U.S. combat troops ... including Green Berets, Air Force Commandos, and Marines. "

Nairn further reported that "By far the main recipient of the U.S. special training has been a force legendary for specializing in torture, disappearances and night raids on civilian homes. Of the twenty-eight Army/Air Force exercises known to have been conducted since 1982, Pentagon documents indicate that twenty have involved the dreaded Kopassus Red Berets."

Nairn wrote that U.S. exercises with Kopassus included Sniper Level II, Demolition and Air Operations, Close Quarters Combat, and Advanced Sniper Techniques.

In July 1998, the Washington Post ran a major series on JCETs. In a lead story in its July 12 edition, the Post confirmed Nairn's assertions: "In Indonesia [U.S.] special operations forces have conducted 41 training exercises since 1991.... Most of the exercises involved Indonesia's elite Kopassus troops, whom U.S. officials have accused of involvement in kidnapping and torture of anti-government activists."

The Post article also reported an October 1997 exercise in Jakarta conducted by " 12 U.S. Army Special Forces troops" for "60 troops from... Kopassus and the Jakarta area military command." The mission: "Find the enemy somewhere in a warren of plywood rooms, blow a hole in the wall and kill or capture as many as possible...," "how to plan and conduct close-quarters combat and other time points of urban warfare."

"We just showed them how we do it and they adopted what they want," a U.S. participant in such exercises told the Post.

Less than two years later, just exactly how these lessons were adopted exploded into the world's view in the streets of Dili, East Timor's capital in September 1999. Throughout East Timor thousands were murdered, hundreds of thousands made homeless, entire cities burnt to the ground. There is ample evidence that the U.S. government knew this was coming, and that their trained killers would play a leading role.

Largely due to Nairn's and then the Post's articles, Congress also prohibited JCETs in late 1998. At the end of October, the East Timor Action Network, another major player in bringing about this change, reported that Indonesian military confidential documents it had obtained revealed a troop buildup in East Timor. This included "one Kopassus company and Kopassus intelligence and headquarters units still in the territory. Indonesia claims that all Special Forces have been withdrawn."

The report also stated that "the documents contradict the claim by Indonesia that paramilitary groups are not under ABRI's command," and quoted an Australian group that released the documents as stating that "these forces are perceived by ABRI's administration to be part of their operational structure."

Following attacks by pro-Indonesia militias in Dili in April 1999, Human Rights Watch put out a report on the connections between the militias and the Indonesian military. The report stated that Eurico Gutteres led Aitarak, the militia responsible for the attacks. The report described Gutteres as "a leading figure in Gardapaksi," a pro-independence youth gang whose "members were reported to receive military training and non-lethal equipment from Kopassus. "

The Human Rights Watch report also stated that a letter sent threatening Australian journalists and diplomats in Indonesia "was faxed from a hotel in Jakarta where Gutteres and other militia leaders were meeting with President Habibe."

Another militia in East Timor, Besi Mara Rutih, was said to be responsible for massacring dozens of people in a church in Liquica in April. The report stated that the group "claimed by early February [1999] to have a membership of 2890 and was going on joint patrols with Battalion 143 of the Indonesian army." A week after the church massacre, this militia attacked the convoy of Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Belo. The Human Rights Watch report stated that "Eyewitness accounts from both attacks indicate that troops from the Liquica district and Maubara sub district commands were present at the time of the militia attacks and far from trying to prevent violence provided active support to their operations."

The report further stated that yet another militia in East Timor, Suka, "is led by Sgt. Jaonico da Costa of...Kopassus, and most of its members worked as guards or logistical support for the army."

All Hell Breaks Loose

When all hell broke loose in East Timor in early September following the announcement that 78 percent of voters chose independence from Indonesia, the U.S. media by and large reported this as the reaction of militias gone mad. But there was a method not solely of their own in this madness.

On September 11, Melbourne, Australia, newspaper The Age reported that, before the elections were held, Australian "intelligence services have warned that the Indonesian military was orchestrating a violent campaign to hold on to the territory." The Age reported that Australian intelligence had intercepted mobile and satellite phone communications between militia and military leaders and "intercepted 'damning' conversations."

In addition, the newspaper reported that "In July leaked Indonesian Government documents predicted a win for independence supporters "in East Timor," outlined a scorched-earth plan," and "said Jakarta should put the army on alert and consider increasing its support for the militia groups."

The Australian government learned of these documents too, and passed on all this information to the UN-and presumably to the U.S. as well. But despite this, the UN decided to believe the Indonesian government's promises of controlling violence in East Timor. A few examples of the horror that followed should suffice to demonstrate the terror unleashed by the U.S. trained and armed Indonesian forces. All are from reports by The Age. The Melbourne newspaper reported on September 17 the eyewitness testimony of Joao Brito, 15, of Ermera in East Timor: "He told of events on 3 September, the day the result of the 30 August autonomy referendum was announced."

"An hour after the announcement, two trucks of Kopassus special forces arrived in Ermera. The men were dressed in the black T-shirts of the Aitarak militia. Militia members recruited in West Timor accompanied them. Joao and others watched their arrival from a hillside coffee plantation."

"The soldiers, armed with automatic weapons and carrying cans of petrol, were after independence leaders. "

"They called house-to-house and they burned out the political leaders," Joao said. "When the houses burnt, they let the women and children out, but they pushed the men back into the fire where they died."

Then the terrorists marched through the village, burning buildings, shooting, and slashing people with machetes. "After they cut with machete, they shouted and danced because they are happy they kill people," Joao said. "They say 'you dogs. You do not have the right to independence'."

On September 12, The Age reported that on September 5, Inge Lempp, an election observer with the International Federation for East Timor (IFET), intercepted "radio communications between Indonesian arm operatives and militias around the town of Same in East Timor."

"Those blondies from IFET. Take them out of the car and kill them," ordered the army leader, "then throw their bodies in the river."

"'Throw their bodies in the river.' I heard that repeated three times to different militia heads," Lempp reported. Lempp escaped safely, but thousands of East Timorese were not so fortunate. The Age reported that on September 8, the Timorese wife of an Australian aid worker saw stacks of corpses in police headquarters "in a building once used as a torture cell for political prisoners." In Indonesia the police are part of the military.

"My wife told me she saw bodies stacked high, thousands of them," Ira Bainbridge said. "She smelt the bodies.... My wife saw arms and legs and dripping blood."

The U.S. has not been alone in supporting the Indonesian fascist regime. As recently as August 27, The Age reported that Australia's government "will maintain its close links with Indonesian military forces despite evidence that he military has committed atrocities throughout Indonesia during the past nine years."

"The continuing contact will include the controversial practice of joint exercises and training exercises with Kopassus, the Indonesian elite Special Forces most heavily implicated in the atrocities." Following the September atrocities Australia canceled these plans.

The Vancouver Sun reported in 1997 that "Canada is currently considering a series of requests by the Indonesian armed forces to establish closer ties potentially by agreeing to train Indonesian officers in Canada," since this practice had been banned in the U.S. The article went on to note that "From the perspective of Canadian investment and the safety of the 5000 Canadian expatriates living on the islands, that decision might make sense.... Canada's business prospects in Indonesia are extremely bright, with exports exploding from $350 million in 1991 to $825 million in 1996."

Fascism proved to be very good for business until the economic collapse of recent years. Through it all the main sponsor and beneficiary has been the USA. Now that the recent horrors in East Timor have finally pricked the world's conscience, it is the height of hypocrisy for Clinton and Cohen to condemn the bloodbath that was the end result of a policy of protecting U.S. interests and investments in Indonesia at all costs. After all, the Indonesian fascists have only learned their masters' lessons all too well.


Michael Steinberg is an investigative journalist based in Durham, NC. He is the author of Millstone and Me: Sex, Lies and Radiation in Southeastern Connecticut.

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