IN 1975, with the acquiesence of the US government, Indonesia invaded the tiny island of East Timor, just abandoned by its colonial master Portugal. As the local power, Indonesian President Suharto hoped to quickly absorb Timor and develop its resources and recolonize its people.
When the East Timorese resisted, they were killed in massacres rivaling in proportion the genocide then taking place in Pol Pot's Cambodia. Among those killed were five Western journalists who were lined up and shot. Hence, coverage of a small island about which the West knew little dried up - as killing fields claimed 200,000 Timorese.
The UN Security Council called on Indonesia to withdraw. But the US was mute and continued to supply Indonesia with arms and aid. The State Department bought Mr. Suharto's pitch that a pathetic, destabilized island needed a big brother, and warnings of a Marxist uprising in Timor sealed the case - a threat now known to be fabricated.
It is long past time for an accounting by the US. For 16 years Indonesia has kept East Timor in a state of perpetual repression. There is no self-government, press, unions, student or professional groups. The few reporters daring to venture into Timor tell of police stations and torture chambers spread throughout the capital, Dili.
Last Nov. 12 reporters filmed the killing of an estimated 200 unarmed Timorese demonstrators by Indonesian soldiers. Faced with incriminating footage, Suharto apologized, though privately called the event "a small thing." Some 52 US senators don't think so and want to reconsider this year's $2 million in military aid and $42 million in weapons sales to Indonesia.
But Indonesia is "in place" in East Timor, says a US official. Since when is this a reason for overlooking human rights crimes? Indonesia has improved the material quality of Timorese life, but Suharto runs the place like a prison camp. At the least, the State Department should say what Indonesia's past crimes are and discontinue military aid and sales.