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Perhaps no people have suffered so tragically in as much obscurity as the people of East Timor. For more than 20 years since the tiny former Portugese colony was brutally annexed by its neighbor Indonesia, the genocide and error that the East Timorese have endured has been completely ignored by the West. Only recently has the terrible story of this former nation been acknowledged, most notably when two Timorese activists were awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1975, East Timor was seized by Indonesia in an act of blatant aggression. About 200,000 East Timorese were killed because of the invasion, either in military conflict or as a result of the starvation and disease caused by Indonesia's savage policies. The occupation was greeted not by vociferous protest by the United States, but with tacit assent at the highest levels of the American government. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger '50 assured our ally, Indonesia, that the U.S. would not contest nor attempt to rollback its illegal annexation.
The U.S. did not just look the other way when East Timor was overrun: Military equipment needed to subdue and slaughter Timorese resisters and civilians was readily sold to Indonesia. Diplomatic support for the invasion was also forthcoming. Kissinger, fresh from needlessly prolonging the Vietnam War and encouraging the murderous Christmas bombing of Hanoi, helpfully suggested that the Indonesian cruelty could be construed as containment of communism in East Timor if dissent was raised.
If Indonesia had been a Marxist state, America undoubtedly would have opposed the invasion and transformed it into a pressing global issue. But true to the Cold War pattern, the atrocities committed by America's right-wing and reactionary allies were ignored or even encouraged and praised using twisted anti-communist logic. For example, the Reagan administration pretended that the rape, torture and murder of civilians ranging from students to nuns in El Salvador was merely a legitimate attempt to resist Soviet encroachment in the Western hemisphere. These myths were also propagated by the mass media.
However, the efforts of a small number of activists in the U.S. and abroad have finally succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of the people of East Timor, who are still terrorized by a cruel occupying force. The Nobel Peace Prizes further pushed this issue onto the international agenda; the U.S. media has been paying more attention to East Timor lately as well. In the last few weeks, at least two editorials about East Timor have appeared on the oped page of The New York Times, including one yesterday by Carlos Ximenes Belo, the Catholic bishop of East Timor who was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize.
The U.S. government has not yet admitted the extent of its involvement in allowing Indonesia to ravage its neighbor nor issued a coherent policy for moving East Timor back to self-determination. In fact, Indonesia is an even closer ally to the U.S. today because of its thriving economy and open markets than it was under Ford's tenure. The U.S. should be one of the leaders in exerting world pressure on Indonesia, even if only for moral reasons.
East Timor's situation seems so hopeless now that it is difficult to determine what the U.S. could or should do. But Bishop Belo has pointed the way to a sensible beginning. In his editorial, he called for "the release of East Timorese political prisoners, a step that could renew hopes for peace and and help the next round of United Nations-sponsored talks."
Will Clinton's new foreign policy team push the Indonesian regime to accept such concessions? When Cuba shot down two planes last April, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright furiously and stridently decried this aggression. It will be interesting to see if, as secretary of state, she speaks as passionately about the memory of 200,000 East Timorese.
David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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