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 Army.


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 Planning staff.

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 duplicate".

"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 and terror.

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 Research Tank.

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 investors.

There were of course more particular reasons for the West to lend its hand to the new atrocities as the Indonesians invaded East Timor.

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 same time.

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 East Timor.

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.

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