US role in plight of Timor: an issue that won't go away
Washington — A policy of deliberate indifference to human rights violations by Indonesia in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor is coming back to trouble the US State Department.
Thanks in part to sporadic press reports and the testimony of scholars studying the problem, a small but growing number of congressmen is taking an interest in the plight of the East Timorese.
The congressmen are concerned, to start with, because the Indonesians, in violation of an arms agreement with the United States, used American weapons when they invaded East Timor in December 1975. But their concern also derives from humanitarian considerations: Widespread starvation followed the Indonesian invasion. According to some accounts, it was at one point of a magnitude comparable to the starvation that has occurred in Cambodia.
All of this is of more than academic interest because, for one thing, American aid in the form of food and medicine, now is being sent, through international organizations, to East Timor. The question of adequate monitoring to determine that the aid reaches those in need is a live issue. So is the question of whether increased numbers of Timorese should be allowed to leave the island.
The Indonesian government blamed the famine in East Timor on hardships allegedly cased by Fretilin, the Timorese independence movement. The US has pointed to a combination of factors, including war, drought, erosion, and deforestation. But refugees and a number of other witnesses from the island itself have blamed the Indonesian invasion, which, some of them say, included a deliberate policy of denying food to Fretilin supporters.
At any rate, at one point last year, more than 200,000 people, or two-fifths of the population of East Timor, were said by experts to be suffering from malnutrition.
The Carter administration has proclaimed human rights to be at the center of its foreign policy. To find out about human rights violations in Cambodia, the State Department has intensively interviewed Cambodian refugees. But Francisco Fernandes, a Roman Catholic priest who served for several years as head of the Timorese refugee community, said he knew of no attempt by US officials to seek out and interview any of the more than 2,000 such refugees who have been living in Portugal for the past several years.
Even today, with the magnitude of the East Timor problem better known, refugees going directly to the State Department in Washington with their stories find that most officials there give the benefit of the doubt to the Indonesians.
"He acted like a lawyer for the Indonesians," said one refugee after talking with a State Department official recently.
The State Department some time ago reduced East Timor to the status of an aid problem. Allegations from refugees that American food aid is being diverted for profit by the Indonesian military compel State Department attention. But one official complained that conclusive specifics were lacking in the refugee accounts. In past situations of this type, however, specifics have not been readily available in an atmosphere of military occupation and intimidation.
Based on such experiences, outside observers are led to conclude that what the people in East Timor actually think or feel seems to be of secondary consequence to most State Department officials.
What many Timorese would like, at least as it filters through from a handful of refugees and scholars working on the subject, is the departure of the Indonesians and control over their own affairs. The Timorese identity and languages are distinct from those of the Indonesians.
But in deferring to Indonesia on this issue, the Carter administration, like the Ford administration before it, appears to have placed big-power concerns ahead of human rights: Indonesia is an anticommunist, largely Muslim, oil-producing nation with the fifth-largest population in the world. It commands sea lanes between the Pacific and Indian oceans. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke recently declared it is potentially one of the great nations of the world.
US policy toward East Timor has been made for the most part by the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, headed by Mr. Holbrooke. The bureau most concerned with human rights, which is headed by Assistant Secretary Patricia Derian, was barely getting organized in 1977 when East Timor policy was first set by the Carter administration.
However, it was Ms. Derian, not Mr. Holbrooke, who was in the position of having to answer questions about East Timor, among other subjects, at a recent congressional hearing. Mr. Holbrooke let it be known he was too busy preparing for a trip to appear at the Feb. 6 hearing. He did have the time, however, to play host at a black-tie dinner later the same day.
Recently, Ms. Derian's bureau has begun to take a more active interest in East Timor.
US Rep. Matthew McHugh (D) of New York has proposed holding new hearings on the monitoring of food distribution in East Timor that would bring in more witnesses from outside the State Department.
Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio plans later this week to introduce an amendment to the foreign aid bill which would urge Indonesia to allow the press and international relief agencies freer access to East Timor. The resolution also would call on the Indonesians to permit freer emigration from East Timor.
Rep. Lester Wolff (D) of New York, chairman of the House subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, recently returned from a brief trip to East Timor to report taht while the food situation in the territory had apparently improved, more medical supplies and personnel were needed.
The Indonesian government claims to have created no obstacles to the departure of Timorese who want to join family members living in Australia and Portugal. But Australian and Portuguese diplomats contend t hat the Indonesians are reluctant to let many Timorese leave the island for fear that they might publicize what has happened there.
Access to East Timor by the news media remains limited.
The origins of American policy can be traced to a 1975 visit to Indonesia by President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry a. Kissinger. They happened to be in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, after a trip to China, the day before the invasion of East Timor occurred.
Brent Scowcroft, an Air Force general who was President Ford's national security adviser at the time, said the President and Secretary Kissinger did not encourage the invasion but also did not oppose it.
"I guess it was fundamentally a matter of recognizing reality," said General Scowcroft. "We really had no reasonable options. . . . It made no sense to antagonize the Indonesians. . . . East Timor was not a viable entity."
General Scowcroft and other officials, past and present, contend that the US did suspend military equipment deliveries to Indonesia following the invasion. But, according to Benedict Anderson, a Cornell University expert on Indonesia, the record shows that at least four separate offers of military equipment, needed mainly for American-supplied "counterinsurgency" aircract, were made to Indonesia during the claimed period of suspension. Professor Anderson also argues with the assertion that East Timor was incapable of being self-supporting.
A State Department official, who asked to remain unidentified, said Secretary Kissinger adopted a policy that was supportive of Indonesia on the East Timor question, in part because of uncertainties created in Southeast Asia in 1975 by the fall of Saigon. Indonesia remained a staunch and powerful friend in a sea of turmoil. And, he said, the Carter administration decided it did not want to "get into a contest" with Mr. Kissinger over this. But the official added that both administrations underestimated Timorese resistance to the invasion.
"The Indonesians couldn't handle it, but they didn't want to let people know how much they'd botched things," this official said. "So they just let people starve."
"We decided: Let's focus on the humanitarian problems and try to get people in there to help," he continued. "But this shoves a whole lot of ethical questions under the rug."
"It has not been a policy of benign neglect," said another State Department official. "It's been a policy of malign neglect."