Arms for the Generals [Indonesia]

excerpted from the book

Distant Voices

by John Pilger

Vintage Books, 1993, paper


... Ali Alatas, the Indonesian foreign minister of whom former Ambassador Woolcott had spoken admiringly and who has a reputation as a 'diplomatic intellectual' willing to discuss the 'human rights issue' in East Timor. At the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June 1993, Alatas's 'collected speeches on human rights' were distributed in a glossy white folder, including four pages of 'principles of human rights in Indonesian law'. He quoted Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Mill to show that human rights were largely of Western origin and that the West should understand the 'cultural differences' and seek 'balance' and 'co-operation'. He got away with this; no delegate confronted him with evidence of his regime's well-documented genocide.

It is on this theme that Alatas's skill as a propagandist is amply demonstrated. He constantly implies that Suharto's Indonesia, like the rest of the developing world, is a victim of the Western media's colonial mentality and that any criticism of Jakarta's brutality in East Timor is 'condescending'. For this he is often rewarded, not with derision or even scepticism, but with legitimising headlines such as: 'East Timor groups cause image problem, says Alatas' and 'Alatas scorns Timor death toll claim'.

For years the Suharto regime paid America's largest public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, to promote a respectable image in economic and trade matters, especially on Capitol Hill. This was a Hill and Knowlton specialty, having turned out expensive propaganda for the governments of Kuwait,

China, Turkey, Peru and Israel. However, in the aftermath of the 1991 Dili massacre, the Indonesian regime turned to Burson-Marsteller, which had overtaken Hill and Knowlton as the giant of American public relations. According to officials in Jakarta, Indonesia would now take 'a more aggressive line in defending its East Timor policies' and there would be 'a change from a passive posture to a more forceful, sophisticated approach'. 121 The Far Eastern Economic Review reported that the Burson-Marsteller contract was worth $5 million.'

I telephoned the executive vice-president of Burson-Marsteller, Michael Claes, whose signature appears on the contract with Indonesia. He denied all knowledge of an East Timor account. I asked if he was being secretive because the government retaining his firm's services was responsible for genocide. He laughed. 'Look,' he said, 'if you're going to ask rue a serious question... then why don't we just keep it at that level, okay? I mean, those amateur techniques are not going to work with me, okay?' He asked me for my sources for the genocide. I said, 'The President of Portugal, the Roman Catholic Church...' He interrupted. 'The Roman Catholic Church, eh? You mean, you talked to a building?"

If this was an example of its new 'sophisticated approach', the Suharto regime was in difficulty. Of course, my conversation with Claes merely reflected the nervousness of those who pick up Jakarta's chalice. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Burson-Marsteller must lodge all documents relating to a foreign client with the Justice Department. Copies of these documents show intense lobbying by the public relations firm on behalf of the Suharto regime. In one letter to Congress, Burson-Marsteller's 'vice president, government relations' described the Indonesian response to the Dili massacre, in which more than 400 people were murdered or wounded, as 'that unfortunate incident'.

Foreign Minister Alatas had left the United Nations in New York by the time I arrived. However, Indonesia's Ambassador to the UN, Nugroho Wisnumurti, agreed to see me. In the mould of Alatas and other senior Jakarta diplomats who can claim much success in explaining away the bloody record of the regime, Wisnumurti is an urbane man whose unctuous fluency reminded me, for a brief moment, of Douglas Hurd. Indeed, I began by asking him if the regime valued the support of those like Hurd who had praised Indonesia for its 'recognition of basic freedom' and said that Western countries could not 'export Western values [on human rights] to developing nations'.

'We welcome that kind of approach on human rights,' said the ambassador. 'Britain's position towards Indonesia has been quite consistent. .. Of course, Indonesia does not claim to be the angel of the international community. We have made some mistakes...'

I asked what these mistakes were. 'Oh, it happens everywhere, including Western countries,' he replied. 'You know what I am referring to. There are sometimes abuses of military authority.., some personalities use firearms without authority...'

I said the President of Portugal and numerous others had accused his government of genocide. He denied this, saying that Indonesia had promoted only 'development and human rights'. To prove his point, he said, the East Timorese had actually voted in a referendum to join Indonesia. Moreover it was 'completely untrue' that the survivors of the Santa Cruz cemetery 'incident' had been murdered.

'Why are you asking these questions?' he admonished me. 'I only appreciate those who really want to get some information in order to promote a better understanding of the situation...'

It seemed that the ambassador had never been really challenged about East Timor. As! left he handed me a dossier of papers entitled East Timor: Building for the Future. These claimed that 'the East Timorese people had rightly assumed their inherent right to decolonise themselves.., by choosing independence through integration with Indonesia', and that this had been achieved within 'the letter and spirit of the United Nations'. 121' I showed the documents to Professor Roger Clark, a world authority in international law at Rutgers University in New Jersey. 'A total distortion,' he said. 'The Indonesian invasion and occupation were and are illegal, brutal and can be compared to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Only the world's reaction was different.'

However, in the United States, where East Timor is little known, Indonesian propaganda has entered the canon of mainstream reporting. The New York Times has referred to 'the former Portuguese colony' that is 'now Indonesia's 27th province'. It has used the dateline, 'Diii, Indonesia' - which is comparable to 'Kuwait City, Iraq'. In 1988 the long New York Times report, headlined 'Jakarta's Human Rights Record Is Said to improve', made no mention of the genocide in East Timor. However, these distortions are in contrast with New York Times editorials on East Timor that have appeared since 1979, many of them reasonably good responses to Indonesian propaganda.

In January 1992 the Washington Post published an article by C. Philip Liechty, a former senior CIA operations officer based in Jakarta at the time of the invasion. Liechty accused the Indonesians of lying to the world and getting away with it. 'There is not a shred of truth in the Indonesian version of events,' he wrote. 'East Timor was an undefended sitting duck for the expansionist Indonesian generals. A slaughter of tens of thousands followed, but little factual reporting on the bloodiest atrocities left the island; the Indonesians made sure of that, effectively blockading East Timor, cutting off communications, turning back journalists and Western observers, terrorising the population and lying to the world about it, as now.""

When I met Philip Liechty in Washington, he reminded me of other former CIA officers I have known, who joined during the early 1960s with a sense of idealism, based on 'service to my country', and subsequently spent much of their careers disenchanted. He told me, 'Suharto was given the green light [by the US] to do what he did. There was discussion in the Embassy and in traffic with the State Department about the problems that would be created for us if the public and Congress became aware of the level and type of military assistance that was going to Indonesia at that time. It was covered under the justification that it was "for training purposes"; but there was concern that this might wear thin after a while, so the decision was taken to get the stuff flowing from San Francisco as fast as possible, to get it on the high seas before someone pulled the chain. As long as the Indonesians continued to certify that they were only using the equipment "for training", then we could get it through the bureaucracy."

I asked him what kind of equipment was sent. 'Everything', he replied, 'that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn't have any guns.. . M16 rifles, ammunition, mortars, grenades, food, helicopters. You name it; they got it. And they got it direct. The normal course would have been for the stuff to be distributed through the Indonesian supply system in Java. But most of the equipment was now going straight into Timor.

'Without continued heavy US logistical military support the Indonesians might not have been able to pull it off. [Instead] they were able to stay there at no real cost to them; it didn't put any pressure on their economy and on their military forces because American taxpayers were footing the bill for the killing of all those people and for the acquisition of that territory to which they had no right whatsoever. It is something that I will be forever ashamed of ... The only interest that I ever saw expressed, the only justification I ever heard for what we were doing there was concern that East Timor was on the verge of being accepted as a new member of the United Nations and that there was an excellent chance that the country was going to be either leftist or neutralist and not likely to vote [with the United States] at the United Nations.

'For extinguishing that one vote, maybe 200,000 people, almost all of them non-combatants, died. President Ford was very much aware of what was happening; it was brought to his attention in official reports. He can never make the case that he was misled.'

I asked Liechty how he felt as he saw the evidence of genocide and its cover-up unfold before him in Jakarta. 'When the atrocity stories began to appear in the CIA reporting', he said, 'the way they dealt with these was to cover them up as long as possible; and when they couldn't be covered up any longer, they were reported in a watered down, very generalised way, so that even their own sourcing was sabotaged. In intelligence, sourcing is the most important thing. At that time my disillusion was already low. I continued to do what I was supposed to do on my tour. I certainly didn't feel like being the Lone Ranger. There certainly were others who felt as badly as I did.' I asked him what would have happened had anyone spoken out. 'Your career would end,' he replied.

With the inauguration of President Clinton, American policy on East Timor seemed to change. During his election campaign, Clinton had referred to the Indonesian occupation as 'unconscionable'. In March 1993 the United States supported a resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Commission expressing 'deep concern' over Indonesia's behaviour in East Timor. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, the United States had helped to block similar resolutions. In July, in Tokyo, Clinton handed Suharto a letter signed by 43 Senators protesting at the Indonesian occupation. (In response, Suharto told Clinton that it was 'out of respect for the human rights of East Timor's people' that Indonesia had invaded.

Clinton also supported an amendment to the Foreign Aid Bill which, in its original wording, demanded 'immediate and unrestricted access' for humanitarian groups to East Timor and 'withdrawal of Indonesian armed forces' and 'the right of self-determination' for the East Timorese. Unless Indonesia complied, all American arms sales would cease.

As a result of vigorous lobbying of Congress by the Suharto regime, its American advisers and front organisations, and with the State and Defence departments reportedly 'working together to neutralise the amendment', 133 the wording was diluted so that the President would be required only to 'consider' the human rights situation in East Timor before approving major weapons sales. By the end of 1993 the Foreign Aid Bill still had not reached the floor of Congress. At the time of writing it seems likely to be postponed for up to a year, or indefinitely. The sound and fury of the American system had promised much and delivered little. Even a modest ruling by Congress in the aftermath of the Santa Cruz massacre - that Indonesian military officers were no longer to receive training in the United States - was ignored. 'Congress's action', said a State Department official, 'did not ban Indonesia's purchase of training with its own funds... "'

It is ironic that one of the obstacles to bringing pressure on a Western-backed tyranny like Indonesia is the very concept of 'human rights', which has become part of the language of post-Cold War politics. Clinton's expressions of concern for 'human rights' are reminiscent of those of President Carte; who described 'human rights' as 'the soul of [American] foreign policy"' while increasing American arms supplies to Indonesia at the height of the slaughter in East Timor. Under Clinton a change in policy seems possible. But the rhetoric goes on, while American military and economic support for Suharto goes on (as it does, of course, for other acceptable dictatorships).

In other words, while the impression is given that 'human rights' are integral to American and all of Western policymaking, the opposite is the functional truth; 'human rights' are a useful cosmetic but otherwise irrelevant. As the historian Mark Curtis has pointed out, 'The justification for supporting bloodthirsty dictatorships and mass murderers can no longer be made by referring to the evils of the other side [in the Cold War]. The excuse that still worse atrocities would be committed if favoured states fell into the Soviet bloc is no longer available... Another formulation is currently popular: that Third World states conducting mass repression and who happen to pursue economic policies favourable to Western business interests are somehow unable, because of cultural reasons, to safeguard human rights. Western attempts to impose our high standards might be viewed as interference in their internal affairs (something which surely we could not contemplate) and therefore business should continue as normal...

'In the extremely unlikely event that Indonesia adopted economic policies preferential to its poor - thus threatening the right of international capitalism to exploit the nation's resources - the historical record suggests that Western leaders would suddenly discover human rights as a relevant issue in their relations with Jakarta and start condemning Indonesia's brutal aggression as an outrageous act intolerable by any civilised standards.

In the meantime, the US Department of Commerce says that Indonesia offers 'excellent trade and investment opportunities for US companies [that are] too good to be ignored'.

Amnesty International has said of the Indonesian regime: 'If those who violate human rights can do so with impunity, they come to believe they are beyond the reach of the law."" Western politicians who speak of a 'pragmatism' and 'realism' in relation to East Timor not only give support to a lawless bully, but condemn an entire nation to a slow cultural and physical death. They may not yet have their way.

The United States has, as ever, pivotal power. Even if the proposed congressional action to ban arms sales is not quite 'historic', as its supporters claim, it represents a perceptible change in American outlook and understanding, and the emergence of the East Timorese, and the great crime committed against them, from the shadows of imperial geo-politics. In 1993 the UN Human Rights Commission called on Indonesia to allow international experts on torture, executions and disappearances to investigate freely in East Timor. At the time of writing, the UN Commission has again summoned Indonesia into its dock. In 1994, in an action brought by Portugal against Australia, the World Court will decide whether the Timor Gap Treaty is legal or not. (Indonesia does not recognise the World Court.) According to Roger Clark, the Australian government will probably comply with the decision. In a parallel case brought by the Timorese themselves, the Australian High Court will also decide on the treaty's legality. There is every likelihood that both courts will find against it.

It is one of recent history's more melancholy ironies that the Timorese place most hope in the actions of their former colonial masters, the Portuguese, who so ignominiously abandoned them. Public opinion in Portugal feels strongly about East Timor. People constantly write to the government and to newspapers, demanding justice for the Timorese. There is a sense of guilt, as if the nation's honour was sullied in the retreat to Atauro Island in 1975. The politicians are acutely aware of this, especially the President, Mario Soares, who has also been prime minister and foreign secretary since the revolution in 1974. Under the constitution, he has personal responsibility for the remaining overseas territories: Macau and East Timor.

I flew to Lisbon and interviewed President Soares in the magnificent eighteenth-century Palacio Belém (the 'Pink Palace') overlooking the Tagus River. He is an interesting anti-fascist; during the Salazarist years he was an outspoken opponent in exile. For a head of state, he spoke with undiplomatic passion about the Timorese. 'They have never submitted to the power of Indonesia,' he said. 'Even isolated in the mountains, they make sure we never forget; one feels a wind of silence that heroically accuses... There has been a real genocide, a cold destruction of a people, their complete identity, destroying their habits, their traditions, language and religion.., over 200,000.'

I asked him how much blame should lie with Portugal. 'After our own dictator fell on April 25, 1974,' he said, 'there was a revolutionary period in which the state was practically in the street. We had a million Portuguese from the former colonies returned to Portugal without work, without money, with nothing. Perhaps this explains a bit of what happened over East Timor. I don't exclude there was guilt, and incompetence and lies over our role there.'

I said, 'Your EC partner, Britain, is now the biggest arms supplier to Indonesia. What's your view of this, in the light of evidence that British Hawk aircraft are being used in East Timor?'

He replied, 'I was in England recently and spoke to John Major and Douglas Hurd about Timor. The Foreign Secretary said that dictators could usefully provide certain guarantees. He defended what he called the "realistic policy" that England often follows in defending its own interests, while forgetting a bit about international law and moral values. I replied that the English had thought like this at the end of the Second World War in relation to the dictators of Portugal and Spain. And because of this so-called "realistic policy" we Portuguese were held back for more than thirty years. I said, "We can never forgive you for this. It's also possible the Timorese will never forgive you, either."'

I asked Soares if he could give an unambiguous assurance that Portugal would stand by the Timorese until they won independence. 'I give it', he said, 'without a doubt. We are very proud of them.'

By all accounts the Timorese resistance should have been wiped out years ago; but it lives on, as I found, in the hearts and eyes of almost everyone: eyes that reflect a defiance and courage of a kind I have not experienced anywhere else.

Recent opposition has come most vociferously from the young generation, raised during Indonesian rule. This has particularly angered the generals, who had anticipated that the second generation would have been 'resocialised', to use a favourite word of the regime. It is the young who keep alive the nationalism minted in the early 1970s and its union with a spiritual, traditional love of country and language, in spite of the ban on all Tunorese languages; it is they who bury the flags and maps and draw the subtle graffiti of a sleeping face resembling the tranquil figure in Matisse's The Dream, reminding the Indonesians that, whatever they do, t e must one day reckon with a Timorese reawakening.

When Amelia Gusmao, wife of the resistance leader, Xanana, was forced into exile, young people materialised along her route to the airport and stood in tribute to her, then slipped away. And when Xanana himself was brought before a kangaroo court in 1993, he gave the regime a glimpse of its 'problem'.

Although he was prevented from speaking from the dock, his statement of defiance was released all over the world. 'The Indonesian generals', he wrote, 'should be made to realise that they have been defeated politically in East Timor. I acknowledge military defeat on the ground. I am not ashamed to say so. On the contrary, I am proud of the fact that a small guerrilla army was able to resist a large nation like Indonesia, a regional power which in a cowardly fashion invaded us and sought to dominate us by the law of terror and crime. As a political prisoner in the hands of the occupiers of my country, it is of no consequence at all to me if they pass a death sentence here today. They are killing my people and I am not worth more than their heroic struggle.

Among the Timorese in exile and their supporters all over the world those who have not allowed the world to forget about East Timor are Constancio Pinto, Abel Guterres, José and Fatima Gusmao, Ines Almeida, José Amorin Dias, Agio Pereira, George Aditjondro, Cannel Budiardjo, Arnold Kohen, Shirley Shackleton, Gil Scrine, Noam Chomsky, Jim Dunn, John Taylor, Pat Walsh, Peter Carey, Michele Turner, Jill Jolliffe, Max Lane, Robert Domm, Mark Aarons, Steve Cox, Margherita Tracanelli, Mark Curtis, Steve Alton, Will McMahon, Jonathan Humphreys and Torn Hyland.

José Ramos Horta's personal struggle stands out. Sometimes without the money to pay his telephone bill in New York, he has helped keep the name of his people alive in the corridors of the United Nations, and of governments in Washington, Brussels, London, Tokyo and Canberra. 'I am their biggest embarrassment,' he told me. 'They are often patronising to me, sometimes hostile; but they are never allowed to forget.' His two brothers and sister were killed by the Indonesians; he is often desperately homesick for a country he has not seen since he escaped in 1975. He once put to me a plan to hire a small aircraft and fly home. I helped to talk him out of it, as 'home' would have been an Indonesian cell.

I asked José if he ever felt defeated. -'Yes,' he replied, 'but then I think about those in the mountains, the women, the old people, the kids as young as seven years old, who have the courage to smuggle information out, to travel from one resistance group to another, to monitor the international radio, to pass on hope and encouragement to the villages. My mother kept going this way; I remember receiving a message from her asking me not to give up. "Your comrades", she wrote, "are still fighting." My mother's name is Natalina.'

José Ramos Horta has met the Indonesians abroad and put forward, with Xanana Gusmao, a three-phased peace plan. In phase one, lasting about two years, the Timorese, Portuguese and Indonesians would work under the auspices of the United Nations to implement a range of 'confidence building measures' that would include 'a drastic reduction in Indonesian troops and weaponry in East Timor and a significant UN presence'. Phase two would last five to ten years, with political autonomy and a democratically elected People's Assembly. Finally, a referendum would determine the sovereign status of the territory. 'Indonesia should seize the olive branch we are now offering,' said José. 'Only withdrawal from East Timor will help it regain its international reputation.'

Perhaps East Timor's greatest hope lies in public opinion around the world. When Death of a Nation went to air in Britain, British Telecom registered 4,000 calls a minute to the number displayed at the end. When I showed the film in the Palais des Nations in Geneva, where the UN Human Rights Commission was sitting, the positive response, I was told by several members of the Commission, was unprecedented and led directly to a majority vote by the Commission authorising a Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions to go to East Timor to investigate the Santa Cruz massacre and others.

There is also hope in the waning power of Suharto and his generals. For all the West's promotion of Indonesia as the 'next Tiger' about to emulate the 'market take-off' of Singapore and Taiwan, Suharto's dictatorship is stagnant. Like Marcos and Somoza, the tentacles of his family, cronies and loyalists reach into almost every corner of economic life.

In a list compiled by an Indonesian business magazine, the richest man in Indonesia is named as the former head of the state oil monopoly. Three of Suharto's six offspring are among the ten wealthiest, in a son with a fortune of more than $220 million; and most of them control monopolies.

For Indonesia, the result is a sapped, indebted economy and disparities of wealth that are quite unacceptable to a society once proud of its political energy and vision. Discontent is growing. 'Since the beginning of the twentieth century', wrote the Indonesia specialist Max Lane, 'a fundamental aspect of Indonesian history has been the struggle for freedom and human rights. At first the struggle was against colonial oppression... Thousands of Indonesians, especially workers, entered colonial prisons as payment for the assertion of their rights. Their movements had visions of what Indonesia might be like after independence, none of which accord with the political system that prevails in Indonesia today."

The Indonesian mass movements fought for and expected political democracy and social justice, regardless of whether they were Islamic or communist. Between 1945 and 1959 Indonesia had one of the freest parliamentary democracies in the world. In 1955 there were general elections with more than thirty parties competing. The oppression at home and in East Timor is unworthy of such a nation; and a great many Indonesians understand this. They are silent out of necessity; but for how long? Who would have imagined, a few years ago, that Eritrea and Namibia would be independent, and that South Africa would have majority rule?

The enduring heroism of the people of East Timor who continue to resist the invaders even as the crosses multiply on the hillsides, is a reminder of the fallibility of brute power and of the cynicism of others.

Distant Voices

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