UN referendum in East Timor in 1999 leads to massacres


ONCE AGAIN this small little area of the world has been front-page news as the horror of mass murder and genocide of the Timorese people is being witnessed. What was supposed to be a safe referendum carried out under the auspices of the United Nations has led to thousands of East Timor people being gunned down in cold blood and hundreds of thousands of these brave people are now displaced and being held in West Timor. This part of the island remains a media black hole - and the Indonesian forces are allowing no one in or out of the area so we can only fear for the lives of the people there.

When we witness this scene, and it is brought to the front room of every home in the West, the first thing that decent people ask themselves is "What can I do?" There was a huge wave of public revulsion at what we saw being carried out leading to demonstrations and incidents such as Australian dock workers refusing to handle Indonesian goods. In Canada postal workers refused to deliver any mail to the Indonesian embassy and in Lisbon thousands took to the streets in demonstrations.

Unfortunately the answer to this question is, you can do very little as the only real option being presented is that the UN can stay in or get out. In effect this choice means that you're almost as powerless in this situation as the people of East Timor are when facing the guns of the Indonesian army/militia's.

Many people are called for the intervention of a UN peacekeeping force - but to understand what might work in the future you have to be aware of what's happened in the past. The UN has been complicit in the genocide that's been carried out in Indonesia's name on the people of East Timor. The pot has boiled over but the very countries that stoked the fire sit on the UN Security Council.

In order to understand the butchery and murder that has been the recent tragic history of East Timor you must first look at the history of the occupying force, Indonesia. It is a country, which consists of 13,677 islands (3,000 inhabited), it is the fifth most populous country in the world, has a range of 360 different tribes and linguistic groups and more than 250 different languages and dialects.

In 1962 an attempted coup on the old founding father of the state Sukarno(1) failed after it was counter-attacked by a commander in the army called Suharto. Effectively from this point in time Suharto was in power and he kept Sukarno in the paternal presidential role until a decree in 1966 evaporated any legal authority.

Suharto was backed by the United States and it was with the help of the CIA2 that there began one of the widest suppressions of the 20th century where 500,000 people were killed and over 200,000 were imprisoned. Eight years later the US continued with their foreign policy of extending their sphere of influence when Gerald Ford granted Suharto permission to send his troops into East Timor.

Arms trade

Since that day a wholesale genocidal program has been in operation in East Timor. It is believed that more than a quarter (over 200,000 people have been killed(3)) or closer to a third of the population has been wiped out. For the last twenty years the military men have been busy setting up exploitative business schemes to reap profits from those Timorese people they let live.

The five countries that sit on the UN Security Council were kept busy during this time. The Unites States, France, and Britain are the three major exporters of arms and weapons to Indonesia. Does it comes as any surprise to learn that the UN Security Council said, "the UN must be invited in by the Indonesian government". They've been busy for the last 25 years closing business deals with the same governments for major arms shipments.

Britain has the government trade organisation called the Defense Export Services Organisation (DESO) to encourage arms exports to all countries including Indonesia. The British taxpayer funds this organistation to the tune of an estimated £17 million sterling a year(4). The DESO hold arms fairs (for want of a better word), which Generals attend from all over the world.

In 1997 General Tanjung (Commander in Chief of the armed forces of Indonesia) was confirmed as attending one of these fairs. This man is on record as saying that the Indonesian troops would 'cut to pieces' any oppositional forces to his government. The British Government has funded companies to go to arms fairs in Asia to the tune of over £6 Million(5). In 1996 the world's arms trade was running at $636million(6).

The United States lead the way but Britain has overtaken France - obviously all the marketing and promotion must have been paying off. The £260 million deal struck with British Aerospace for the export of Hawk fighters to Indonesia must have helped those figures. Even during the recent escalation in the atrocities British Aerospace was busy flying over Hawk Fighters in order to fulfill an order

Training the oppressors

The Indonesian militias are directed by the Kopassus units - which are described by David Jenkins (veteran Asian correspondent), as "the crack special force units". Many of these crack Indonesian army units have been trained regularly with US and Australian troops. Indeed as the UN sends in the troops there may be a bit of a re-union in Dilli. Benedict Anderson - a leading Indonesian Scholar has gone on record as saying "Kopassus became the pioneer and exemplar for every kind of atrocity including systematic rapes, tortures, and executions, and organisations of hooded gangsters".(7)

In the couple of month's build up to the referendum on the 30th of August Australian journalists reported a huge increase in the arsenal of weapons being stockpiled by the pro-Indonesian forces. This fact appeared to escape the UN observers - or if it was noticed it was definitely not acted upon.

It is believed up to 5,000 people were killed prior to the referendum, more than were killed prior to NATO flying bombing missions over Kosovo, and still no preparations were made to protect the defenseless population. A high ranking western official was quoted in Dilli as saying "Make no mistake - this is being directed from Jakarta. This is not a situation where a few gangs of rag-tag militia are out of control. As everybody here knows this has been a military operation from start to finish."(8)

Indonesia decided a long time ago that the people of East Timor would be taught a very violent and painful lesson if they voted for independence in the referendum. They do not want to lose control of the many disparate and different areas that are now under their control. The East Timorese voted in the most intimidating of circumstances for their freedom and were subsequently slaughtered for it.

The UN didn't rush in, why should it, business is good and it's stood by and already seen over a quarter of the population of this place die and done nothing. The UN officials even asked the Indonesian troops to cordon off their compound in Dili so as to prevent any more East Timor people from seeking refuge there.(9)

The UN saddled the horsemen of the apocalypse long before they came up with the term 'humanitarian relief'. In Somalia the UN went in on another 'peacekeeping mission' and killed ten thousand people. They went into Cyprus over 30 years ago and have just ticked clipboards as the different factions picked off each other.

Suharto - was described by the Clinton administration as "our kind of guy" before he defaulted on a few loans and lost control of the country. But as the death toll mounts a careful program is being run to determine what's in the interests of western investors. Douglas Paal - president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center said "Timor is a speed bump on the road to dealing with Jakarta and we've got to get over it safely. Indonesia is such a big place and so central to the stability of the region."

What Doug is spelling out here is that this stability is for companies like Nike, Texaco, Chevron, and the mines of Freeport McMoRan to continue to function smoothly. Profits must continue to be made and you need a stable power in the region for this to happen. Many of the chattering business classes such as Eleanor Clift of Newsweek advised that the US should be "realistic" and also mentioned the multiple US "interests" in Indonesia and the need for stability.

All these interests are being raised but the rest of us are only concerned for the people of East Timor who they've seen being systematically wiped out because they dared for ask for freedom. Stability will be restored and that is paramount for the western powers. If lives are saved, and that remains an if, as a consequence of the UN going in then that will be a happy coincidence.

The defeat of the controlling powers in Indonesia would lead to some chance for the East Timorese - the UN is not about to let that happen. A Western Diplomat is quoted "The dilemma is that Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn't"(10). This is no real dilemma for the UN and the powers that be as they've always put the commercial 'interests' of their friends in big business before the lives of people.

They've done (US, Britain, France) nothing but trade with the masters of war in Jakarta for the last 24 years. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of lives were terminated on that small island in the Indian Ocean. On September 19th the UN 'peacekeepers' arrived in Dili. According to the Red Cross 800,000 (from a total population of 850,000) had fled.(11) There were very few people left to "protect".

East Timor is another chapter in the long and bloody history book that is this modern world of ours. We often say that the choice you have is one between anarchism or barbarism. The barbarism continues and will do so until we can bring about the destruction of this system which let's them away with murder.

1. Old founding Father of the State of Indonesia; set up in 1945 after WWII on the founding theme of Unity though Diversity.

2. The CIA provided a list of all the people involved in the Anti-Japanese resistance movement of WWII. The PKI - Indonesian Communist Party was effectively destroyed in this surpression.

3. Estimated figure now strongly believed by most - taken from the article 'Moving Gently on East Timor' by Weissman and Mokhiber (Washington DC based Journalists).

4. Source: Hansard 9/7/96 c131 - from report on UK Involvement in small arms sales.

5. Source: Hansard 24/1/96 c253-255 from report on UK Involvement in small arms sales.

6. US,UK lead world arms sales despite claims to "ethical constraints"

By M Shaikh Ahmed writing for Muslim World.

7. Quoted by Noam Chomsky in his 'East Timor Comments' September 10th 1999.

8. ibid. Noam Chomsky article above.

9. Quoted in the G2 Section article in The Guardian 20th September 1999

10. ibid. Noam Chomsky quoted article above.

11. Figure quoted in Maggie O'Kane Article, Guardian 21st September 1999.

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 58 published in Oct 1999