Burning, looting, killing, kidnapping as it withdrew, the Indonesian military left a devastated East Timor to a UN force, slow to deploy from its beachhead for fear of casualties.
It's time for the question: Who lost East Timor? In greater part the UN, which led the East Timorese down the path to an independence referendum, having every reason to foresee what would follow.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it "an historic moment" when Indonesia signed a document on May 5 agreeing to the referendum. But the Indonesians crossed out provisions for disarming militias and confining soldiers to their barracks. The UN let that go by.
Nor did the UN take any step to create an international force that could intervene in the event of violence. By the time of the Aug. 30 referendum, some 10,000 militia members and large numbers of regular troops were on hand in East Timor, ready to strike if the Timorese, as expected, voted for independence. The UN had on hand 300 civilian police and 50 unarmed liaison officers.
The result we know - in the first days after the referendum, hundreds were killed and 200,000 driven from their homes, many of them to become virtual hostages in Indonesian West Timor. Nobody "in their wildest dreams" could have anticipated this, said Mr. Annan. Nobody but the Timorese, who'd been resisting subjugation for 24 years. Independence leader and Nobel laureate Jos Ramos Horta said, "I don't see how people around the world can trust the UN again."
If the League of Nations collective security system collapsed when Italy's Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, then the UN security system foundered on Somalia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and, climactically, on East Timor. Now a shame-faced international community has Timor as its ward for a long time to come.
The laying waste of East Timor started with a green light from the US. On a visit to Jakarta in December 1975, President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were informed by General Suharto of plans to start next day the invasion of the half of an island that only nine days before won independence from Portugal.
Dr. Kissinger confirmed as much when I asked him about it. He said Suharto brought it up at the airport as he and Mr. Ford were leaving. Kissinger's reaction was that this was a stage of decolonization like India's absorption of the Portuguese enclave of Goa.
But that wasn't the whole story. The Indonesian Army was armed with US-supplied weapons as an anticommunist ally. The use of these weapons against the Timorese may have violated US law.
One declassified secret paper from that era unearthed by Kissinger's biographer, Walter Isaacson, was the summary of a staff meeting Kissinger called on his return to Washington. The assault on East Timor was more brutal than expected, and the Legal Office of the State Department, in a cable to the secretary, had raised the issue of whether tacit permission to use American arms violated US law.
Kissinger seemed less concerned about legality than about a possible leak. He reprimanded legal adviser Monroe Leigh for putting the question in a cable that circulated to other officers.
"The only consequence is to put yourself on record. It's a disgrace to treat the secretary of State this way. What possible explanation is there for it? I told you to stop [arms sales] quietly," he said. Mr. Leigh pointed out that "the Indonesians were violating an agreement with us." Kissinger retorted, "The Israelis, when they go into Lebanon, when is the last time we protested that?"
Arms deliveries to Indonesia were suspended, then quietly resumed, opening the way to 24 years of destruction and slaughter in a tiny piece of island never a part of Indonesia. If Kissinger has had any second thoughts about the green light he gave for the operation, he isn't sharing them.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society