Why the Senate is concerned about East Timor

As President Suharto winds up his visit to the United States, he might recall the role of the United States Senate in helping the infant Indonesian republic's struggle to achieve independence from Dutch rule in the late 1940s. There is a lesson that Suharto should draw from this period: He is making a mistake if he ignores Senate sentiments on the tragedy of East Timor.

The island territory of East Timor was colonized by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century and remained under Lisbon's rule for over four centuries. Three months after the Portuguese withdrew in August 1975, Indonesian forces launched a full-scale invasion, armed primarily with American equipment.

The Indonesian occupation has continued to exact a severe toll from the East Timorese, who by 1979 had already been decimated by warfare, catastrophic famine and related disease. Reports in recent weeks from church sources in this predominantly Roman Catholic territory disclose the potential for starvation on this island.

East Timor is in an upheaval because of continuing military operations and ''resettlement'' policies that deny land to subsistence farmers, but are really an attempt at political coercion. A Sept. 14 report by Amnesty International spoke of the detention of thousands of Timorese political prisoners and a pattern of atrocities dating from the early days of the invasion. While information has been fragmentary owing to stringent Indonesian restrictions on investigation by outsiders, consistent refugee reports indicate cause for alarm.

Though it has been hard to envision a fledgling nation of fewer than 700,000 inhabitants menacing Indonesia (with a population of 130 million in 1975), Jakarta justified its invasion on the grounds that FRETILAN, East Timor's left-leaning independence movement, posed a danger to its security. But while he was foreign minister, the current Indonesian Vice President, Adam Malik, acknowledged that Jakarta had no legitimate claim to the territory. The United Nations consistently has recognized this fact in censuring Indonesia for its occupation in defiance of international law - particularly noteworthy because of the crucial moral UN support of the Indonesian movement more than three decades ago.

At that time, it was the Indonesian guerrillas who suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Dutch. Driven out by the Japanese during World War II, the Dutch attempted after 1945 to regain their former colony by force. Four years of intermittent, bitter armed conflict ensued.

The Truman administration had little desire to pressure the Dutch, subordinating American anticolonial principles to the policy of rebuilding a strong Western Europe to oppose the rising Soviet challenge. But in 1949, after a redoubled and brutal Dutch effort to reassert control, effective Indonesian nationalist representatives in Washington succeeded in winning the active support of a small group of US senators. This soon expanded into a bipartisan effort that ultimately brought about a change in official American policy by calling for a cutoff of Marshall Plan aid to the Netherlands. There is little doubt that timely Senate moves shortened the war, saving many Indonesian lives and hastening formal Indonesian independence.

In the US Senate, where Indonesian nationalists successfully pled their cause a generation ago, Indonesia is increasingly known chiefly for its misdeeds in East Timor. Since last April, 30 senators have signed letters or sponsored a resolution calling on Indonesia to change its policies in East Timor.

The US has had close relations with militarily strategic anticommunist and economically important Indonesia since Suharto's rise to power in 1967. American supply of arms to Suharto has grown steadily over the years, and he now seeks joint manufacture in Indonesia of US-designed weapons. Such action would constitute tacit endorsement of Indonesian repression in East Timor.

It is difficult to fathom what Indonesia has gained or will gain by its occupation of East Timor. President Reagan has impressed upon President Suharto that the US will no longer support even indirectly the Indonesian government's abusive human rights policy. Beyond that, the Suharto visit is an occasion to stress the importance of an equitable settlement of the conflict in East Timor.

President Suharto had a distinguished record in his country's war of independence and should understand the aspirations of the East Timorese better than anyone. As one senator who is anxious to maintain good relations with Indonesia, I can think of nothing that would serve this porpose more than for President Suharto to focus his attention on the human rights concerns in East Timor.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.