IT has been over a month and a half since the Indonesian military opened fire on a crowd of Timorese demonstrating for independence, killing or wounding more than a hundred people. The massacre on Nov. 12 was widely witnessed by locals and foreigners. A New Zealand aid worker was killed and two American journalists injured.
Yet the American media and public have paid little attention to the incident. The shootings only qualified for a brief mention on CNN Headline News; they were also relatively short news-wire pieces for many newspapers. Public and media outrage, in short, has been sadly lacking. Compared with American reaction to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, response to Indonesia's brutal occupation and oppression of East Timor has been minimal.
Indonesia is an oil-rich OPEC member, while Timor is a dirt-poor island. Could this have clouded American judgment? Countries like East Timor, which have no significant strategic importance, are often ignored by the press. But because of United States military assistance to Indonesia, America has a moral responsibility for the Timor incident.
Ironically, the demonstration was partly held for a visiting United Nations team headed by Pieter Kooymans, who was in Dili, the provincial capital of East Timor, to investigate alleged torture and abuse of Timorese by the Indonesian government. Tiny East Timor, granted independence by Portugal in 1975 after three centuries of colonial rule, was invaded by neighboring Indonesia the same year.
The UN still considers Portugal the administrative power and few Western countries recognize the Indonesian takeover. John Monjo, the US ambassador to Indonesia, was reported by the Indonesian Berita Burana newspaper as saying that despite the incident, relations between the US and Indonesia remain unchanged. He told reporters in Java that the US maintains its position of recognizing East Timor as an integral part of Indonesia.
The Army claims that on Nov. 12, they were provoked by armed demonstrators and started shooting only in self-defense. Numerous independent witnesses, however, contradict this official version. The event began as a memorial procession for Sebastian Gomes, a Timorese youth killed by internal security forces on Oct. 28. It turned into a demonstration with some marchers holding up pro-independence banners intended for the visiting UN team. According to witnesses, the atmosphere was emotional but generally pe aceful until the soldiers started shooting.
"Delinquents like these agitators have to be shot and we will shoot them," said Indonesian armed forces commander Gen. Try Sutrisno, as quoted in the government-controlled press. He spoke for nearly four hours to the Indonesian parliament on Nov. 27, staunchly defending the actions of the military and telling the public to ignore foreign accounts of the incident. Reuters reports that General Sutrisno is replacing two generals deemed responsible for the shootings. In a country where military involvement i n politics runs deep, this is merely bureaucratic shuffling.
ON Dec. 26, a government fact-finding team headed by retired Major-General Djaelani concluded that 50 people were killed in the incident. This figure leaves another 90 people unaccounted for, according to Reuters news service.
Despite forceful integration efforts by the Indonesian government, East Timor remains culturally distinct. Most of the 750,000 inhabitants are Catholics, while the rest of Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim. Portugal, which has had no diplomatic ties with Indonesia since the takeover, has severely condemned repression in East Timor.
The area was closed for 13 years to outsiders after the takeover in 1975 and the government has been fighting a low-profile war against the Fretilin independence movement. Amnesty International, Asia Watch, and other groups have noted that between 100,000 to 300,000 Timorese have died from fighting or mistreatment.
President Bush has just visited Australia and Singapore, immediate neighbors of Indonesia. However, few outside of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have pressured him to raise the issues of human rights and US aid to Indonesia.
Canada is reviewing its aid program to Indonesia, having already given $40.5 million in 1991. The Netherlands, the former colonial ruler of Indonesia, has suspended all new development projects, while Portugal is trying to get the EC to impose a trade embargo. But still the US provides Indonesia with financial and military assistance.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has argued long and unconvincingly that the internal affairs of its members are no one else's business and therefore aid should not be tied to human rights. The East Timor massacre shows that there is a moral decision inherent in military assistance - it is vital not to give guns to thugs.