East Timor: U.S. Gave Green Light to Invasion

If Americans needed any reminding how, during the cold war, U.S. policymakers subordinated Wilsonian principles of self-determination to the larger anticommunist struggle, they should read several secret U.S. documents surrounding Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor obtained and released this week by the independent National Security Archive (NSA). The documents confirm that visiting U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave a green light to President Suharto for the invasion.

“For senior officials, the fate of a post-colonial East Timor paled in comparison to the strategic relationship with the anticommunist Suharto regime, especially in the wake of the communist victory in Vietnam, when Ford and Kissinger wanted to strengthen relations with anticommunists and check left-wing movements in the region,” according to William Burr and Michael Evans, authors of the NSA’s Electronic Briefing Book on the documents (available online at http://gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB62/).”The callous disregard for the human rights and political aspirations of the East Timorese are rather breathtakingly exposed in these newly released documents,” according to Robert J. McMahon, a professor of history at the University of Florida and author of The Limits of Empire: the United States and Southeast Asia Since 1945.

On the 26th anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, the release of previously classified U.S. documents make it clear that former President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave President Suharto a green light for the operation during a face-to-face meeting in Jakarta the day before. According to documents released by the NSA, Suharto told Ford during their talks on December 6, “We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action (in East Timor).” Ford replied, according to a secret memorandum, “We will understand and not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have.”

Kissinger, who has previously denied that the issue of East Timor came up during their discussions with Suharto, seconded Ford’s statement with one reservation, according to the document, which was an embassy record of the meeting. He stressed that the use of U.S.-made arms in the invasion “could create problems” given existing legislation that outlawed the use of U.S. military equipment in offensive actions. “It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation,” he added, suggesting that the invasion might be framed in a way that was acceptable under U.S. law. “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly,” he told Suharto, adding that the U.S. administration “would be able to influence the reaction in America if whatever happens after we return (to the United States). … If you have made plans, we will do our best to keep everyone quiet until the president returns home.”

The dialogue, which was part of a batch of documents on U.S. policy affecting East Timor from July, 1975 through June, 1976, obtained by the NSA, adds significantly to what was known about the U.S. role in condoning the Indonesian invasion which, according to some estimates, cost as many as 230,000 East Timorese lives over the following several years. They are also likely to add to recent controversies surrounding Kissinger’s role in supporting several notoriously brutal military regimes during his tenure as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. Kissinger, who currently serves on the influential President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), hurriedly left France earlier this year after learning that judges sought to compel his testimony about the deaths of several people after the military coup d’etat that brought Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973. In addition, a recent book by noted leftist author Christopher Hitchens has argued that the diplomat-celebrity should be tried for war crimes for his policies in Indochina, Chile, Indonesia, and Cyprus.

In all, as much as one-third of the former Portuguese colony’s population may have died as a result of starvation, disease, and counterinsurgency operations carried out by the Indonesian Army in the late 1970s, making East Timor one of the worst genocides in the 20th century, according to Amnesty International.

Jakarta formally annexed East Timor as its 27th province in 1976 and occupied it for the next 23 years. In August 1999,however, East Timorese turned out in massive numbers to vote for independence in a plebiscite made possible by Suharto’s resignation the previous year. After the vote, Jakarta-backed militias rampaged across the territory, abducting tens of thousands of East Timorese to West Timor until the UN Security Council authorized an Australian-led international force to restore order there. With the help of the UN, which has administered the territory since then, East Timor’s independence from Indonesia has now been guaranteed.

As Jakarta’s closest Western ally and main source of military equipment since Suharto took power in the mid-1960s, Washington always enjoyed considerable influence with the former general during his reign. Indeed, in the late 1960s, it played a critical role in facilitating Indonesia’s absorption of West Papua, renamed Irian Jaya after Jakarta annexed it. It appears from the documents that Suharto was looking for similar backing for his moves on East Timor.

The territory had divided into various factions after the Portuguese revolution in 1974. The more popular group, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), eventually gained the upper hand and pushed for rapid independence.

In Indonesia, however, military hard-liners feared that independence for East Timor might encourage other secessionist movements in the archipelago. They then pursued a three-track policy: negotiating with Lisbon for an agreement that would lead to East Timor’s absorption; financing and supporting factions which were opposed to Fretelin, and preparing an invasion of the territory.

As Fretelin gained control of most of the territory, Jakarta began infiltrating troops. On November 28, Fretelin declared East Timor’s independence, apparently in the hope that it could persuade the United Nations to demand the withdrawal of Indonesia’s forces. It was in that context that Ford and Kissinger, who had just completed talks with China’s leadership in Beijing, landed in Jakarta.

As made clear by the newly disclosed documents, the overriding concern of U.S. policy in the region at the time was to reassure pro-Western countries like Indonesia that Washington would remain engaged in the region despite the defeat of its allies in Indochina in April.

“Ford and Kissinger plainly viewed the maintenance of warm ties with the Suharto regime as a foreign policy priority that far outweighed any secondary concerns about the possible Indonesian use of force in East Timor–even though the use of such force would constitute a clear violation of American laws,” said Robert McMahon, an expert on U.S. policy in Southeast Asia at the University of Florida.

The documents disclose that Suharto, in a July 1975 meeting with Ford at the presidential retreat at Camp David, had argued that independence for East Timor was not viable and that “the only way is to integrate (it) into Indonesia.” He also accused those Timorese who favored independence as being “Communist-influenced.” Similarly, memoranda dating from August 1975 quote Kissinger as stating that Indonesia would take over East Timor “sooner or later.”

After the invasion, Washington delayed new arms shipments to Indonesia pending an administrative review, supposedly to determine whether Jakarta had violated the ban on using U.S. weapons for offensive purposes. During the same period, however, military equipment already in the pipeline continued to be shipped to Jakarta, and new offers of military equipment, including spare parts for aircraft specifically needed for counterinsurgency operations, were made by Washington.