End the Atrocity in East Timor
by Noam Chomsky
The Guardian, March 22, 1995
In January of 1995, Noam Chomsky paid a visit to Australia
and gave a number of lectures. This is an abridged version of
what he had to say about East Timor in one of his talks.
His comments have been published by The Guardian newspaper
of the Socialist Party of Australia in its issue dated 22nd March,
1995. At the present time Indonesian Special Strategic Reserve
paratroopers are in Australia, by invitation of the Australian
government, to participate in military exercises with the Australian
The relevant background begins at the end of World War II
when the United States assumed, out of self-interest, responsibility
for the welfare of the world capitalist system. They're not my
words. I'm quoting the respected diplomatic historian Gerald Haines
who was also the senior historian at the CIA.
The responsibility for the welfare of the rich and the privileged
was taken very seriously. US business and political leaders carried
out sophisticated global planning in which Indonesia had, in fact,
a key role. The main task was to reconstruct the rich societies,
crucially those that were called the "natural leaders"
or the "great workshops", namely Germany and Japan,
which had just demonstrated their prowess and therefore had to
be rebuilt, but now safely under US control.
In that general context, South-East Asia took on major importance,
in particular Indonesia, which was the richest prize.
Indonesia was called "Japan's empire towards the South".
Those words are George Kennan's. He's one of the leading architects
of the post-war world, the Head of the State Department Policy
So Japan's empire towards the South had to be reconstructed.
In other words, the US undertook to reconstruct Japan's colonial
empire, to which, incidentally, the United States had no serious
objection prior to the war, except that the US was not being given
privileged entry into it, one of the facts which I'm sure will
be highlighted with the commemoration of the end of the war in
the next couple of months.
In fact, every part of the world was assigned a specific role
by the planners. Africa for example was to be "exploited"
as Kennan put it.
Africa was to be exploited for the reconstruction of Europe,
and the US took over the Western hemisphere for itself, unceremoniously
kicking out France and Britain.
As for South East Asia, it was, as the then group of planners
put it, to fulfill it's main function in providing resources and
raw materials for Western Europe and Japan, to help in their reconstruction
and for the United States as well.
Timor, incidentally was mentioned in the early planning. [Former
US President] Franklin Delano Roosevelt held at one point that
Timor did deserve independence, but he thought they shouldn't
be too impatient about it. He suggested they wait about a thousand
years, expressing the usual contempt for the "power orders".
"A political victory for the PKI [Communist Party of
Indonesia]", Kennan said in a secret discussion "would
be an infection that could sweep over all South Asia"; meaning
others might make the same effort to win a political victory.
Specialists on Indonesia here considered the expectation of
a political victory not unrealistic. [One specialist] Harold Crouch
writes that "the PKI had won widespread support, not as a
revolutionary party, but as an organization defending the interests
of the poor within the existing system." So you can see what
problems they were posed with.
Kennan's terminology, incidentally, about an infection sweeping
over the region, that's pretty standard. For example, Henry Kissinger
[former US Secretary of State] described democratic Chile as "a
virus that might infect others".
For the public that's called the "domino theory".
There's a rational version of the domino theory, namely the virus
of democracy and successful independent development could well
spread, could have a demonstration effect, and that's dangerous.
When there's a virus around you've got to destroy it.
You also have to inoculate others so that they don't get harmed
and that happens typically. A good bit of world history, I should
say, falls under this pattern.
In mid-1958 the Dulles brothers -- one of them was Secretary
of State, the other the head of the CIA -- in a private conversation
were deploring what they called the "communist ability to
get control of mass movements, something we have no capacity to
"Unlike us they can appeal directly to the masses",
President Eisenhower complained.
Then John Foster Dulles explained the reason for this unfair
advantage that they had. He said: "the poor people are the
ones they appeal to and have always wanted to plunder the rich.
That's the great problem of history and somehow we find it hard
to sell our values, namely that the rich should plunder the poor."
That's a kind of public relations problem that no one has
yet quite figured out how to overcome. And because we can't overcome
it we are forced to resort to our comparative advantage in violence
By the early 1960s, US experts were urging their contacts
in the Indonesian military to "strike and sweep their house
clean". That's Gary Parker of the Rand Corporation Airforce
However, the Indonesian allies [of the US]...understood Western
values...thoroughly and they proceeded to cleanse their society
with the 1965-66 massacres that took perhaps half a million lives
and wiped out the PKI.
The country was quickly turned into what was called "a
paradise for investors". US investment shot up with other
associates and the threat of political victory by a party representing
the poor was put off for a long, long time.
The Indonesian generals had eliminated the threat of democracy
by a staggering mass slaughter that destroyed the political party
that had gained popularity by defending the interests of the poor
and they had also, by then, compiled one of the worst human rights
records in the world, while offering enormous riches to Western
There were of course more particular reasons for the West
to lend its hand to the new atrocities as the Indonesians invaded
There was indeed great concern at that time about the fate
of the Portuguese empire. Coverage of East Timor was quite high
in the United States. If you think of what East Timor is to the
United States, it's a bit surprising, but coverage was quite high
in 1974 and 1975, in the context of the concern over Portugal
and the fate of its empire.
It's well remembered that it was not only East Timor that
was subjected to a devastating Western-backed assault. The exact
same thing was true of Angola and Mozambique, starting at the
There were also strategic interests. Some of them had to do
with the deep water passage for nuclear submarines. My own suspicion
is that when the record is released -- if it ever is, and I wouldn't
count on that -- but if it's ever released we may well find that
one major factor was one that was indeed emphasized by Australian
Ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woolcott in August 1975, right
before the invasion started, which Australia knew all about, as
did everyone despite the pretenses.
In August 1975, in a famous cable that was leaked, he [Woolcott]
advised that Australia must go along with the impending invasion
because Australia could make a better deal on the oil reserves
in the Timor Gap with Indonesia than with Portugal or an independent
And what's good for the energy companies is always the national
interest. That's true virtually by definition.
Australia's de jure recognition of the annexation was in that
context, so it seems, simultaneous with the beginnings of the
negotiations on the oil.
That treaty was actually signed in 1989. It really went into
effect immediately after the Dili massacres when the Indonesian
and Australian joint authority began signing exploration contracts
with major oil companies to rob the oil of what the treaty calls
"the Indonesian province of East Timor", which you will
recall, does not deserve the inalienable right of self-determination,
we are told, because it's not viable economically.
That's the message being told by the people who are robbing
[East Timor's] rich resources.
In his treatise on Australian foreign policy, Foreign Minister
Evans offers the Timor Gap Treaty as an example of non-military
solution to a problem -- a model for the world to follow. It's
pretty impressive! Not many people could carry that off!
This horror story can be brought to an end if Westerners can
exhibit even a fraction of the integrity and the courage shown
by the Indonesians who were protesting what their government is
doing under conditions vastly more onerous than any of us face
or can imagine. And I do not even speak of the incredible courage
of the Timorese which shames all of us, perhaps Australians in
particular, because of the debt of blood which remains from World
War II, which I'm sure you know.
We are, I think, at an important turning point in this case.
With enough energy and commitment to change Western policies,
which we should be doing, there is good reason, I think...that
one of the world's major atrocity stories can be brought to an
end: that the people of East Timor can enjoy their inalienable
right of self-determination, perhaps in less than a thousand years.