On Dec. 7, 1975, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor more than 30 years before, Indonesia invaded East Timor. Since then, the people of East Timor have been fighting courageously, and their extreme courage has been matched only by Indonesian extreme brutality. Though underdeveloped during 500 years of Portuguese domination, East Timor was self-sufficient in food and is potentially rich in minerals such as oil, natural gas, and manganese. Its coffee is regarded as the best in the world. Five years of military occupation and "pacification" by Indonesia have turned East Timor, once a bountiful island, into a land of starvation and a mass grave. Of a population of less than one million, as many as 200,000 have died.
Previous "progressive" Portuguese governments turned a blind eye to the tragedy of their former colony. Now a conservative government in Lisbon appears willing to reassume its moral and historical responsibilities over the territory. It is here that the new American administration could play a decisive role in bringing about peace and freedom to the East Timorese people who, during World War II, fought side by side with the allied forces against the Japanese. President Reagan has a chance to redress Mr. Carter's failure in applying his "human rights" principles in Indonesia and East Timor. The role of the United States in East Timor is not clean. The irony is that it was Mr. Carter's human rights" administration that increased military sales to Indonesia from $25 million in fiscal 1977 (under the Republican tenure) to $125 million is fiscal 1978, at a time when the war in East Timor was at its height.
The regime of General Suharto is totally dependent on economic and military assistance from the United States for its survival. Therefore, Washington should encourage Jakarta to accept the Portuguese offer of negotiations with a view to ending the conflict in East Timor. A phased withdrawal of Indonesian troops, and their replacement by an international force to be drawn from Australia, Portugal, Brazil, and possibly others, followed by free elections, under UN supervision is required for a just settlement of the problem.
After five years of a brutal and senseless war, it is time for the government of Indonesia to face up to this tragic reality with moral and political courage. The leadership of Fretilin (the nationalist movement fighting for East Timor's independence) has indicated its willingness for a negotiated settlement on the basis of the various United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions. The government of Indonesia must be persuaded to accept the idea of an independent East Timor, whose leadership would accept certain security arrangements with Indonesia, Australia, and other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members in order to guarantee East Timor's neutrality and nonalignment. With its oil wealth, East Timor would welcome Western capital and technology which would be beneficial to all sides.
Indonesia will have nothing to lose. Quite the contrary. It would regain a lost credibility with the nonaligned movement and the United Nations where, for the past five years, it has been repeatedly condemned for its brutal annexation of East Timor. According to Australian intelligence sources, the East Timor campaign has cost the Indonesian treasury more than $800 million and the lives of 5,000 Indonesian soldiers. Resistance to Indonesia's occupation continues with the Indonesian army suffering an estimated casualty rate of 50 to 100 per week.
Pragmatists at the State Department might alone that, no matter how wrong the Indonesians are, the reality is that Indonesia is too important an economic asset for the United States to antogonize the generals in Jakarta. However, one has to remember that unqualified support of a military dictactorship will only alienate the United States from the people who languish under a ruthless regime. Another argument by the same pragmatists is the Indonesia might turn to other sources for economic and military assistance. This argument is unfounded. third-world countries' needs for technology and capital can be met only in the West. Indonesia, because of its enormous population and geographic conditions, is even more dependent on the West for its economic development. Therefore, the United States and other Western countries are in a good position to encourage the government of Indonesia to get out of a messy war, and to concentrate its attention and energies on solving its own political, social, and economic problems.
East Timor could well be a case -- as in Zimbabwe and, it is to be hoped, in Namibia and South Africa -- where a firm commitment to self-determination on the part of a major Western power could bring peace and freedom. In encouraging a just settlement of the East Timor conflict, Mr. Reagan would not only establish credibility and win the respect of the East Timorese, but also of the Portuguese and the peoples and governments of many third-world countries that have championed East Timor's cause.
The Portuguese, under a strong conservative government and an honest President, deserve the support of the Reagan administration to extricate themselves with honor from a shameful episode.