Fifty-one years ago this Aug. 17, Indonesia declared independence from the Netherlands. As the archipelago celebrates this anniversary, it is worth considering one of the more painful ironies of post-World War II geopolitics: Suharto's vicious regime trumpets its "nonaligned" status while it ruthlessly carries out the worst excesses of a colonial power.
Suharto rose to power in a coup that killed more than 500,000 people, and since then his government has continually cracked down on dissent at home.
Three weeks ago, his troops attacked the offices of a legal opposition party and when protests erupted in response, a military commander bluntly laid out his charge that "we have orders to shoot if there are any attempts to disturb order." Several hundred people, including the courageous independent trade union leader Muchtar Pakpahan, were arrested.
Nowhere has the boot of the Indonesian military come down harder than in East Timor, a small island nation north of Australia. The UN has passed 10 resolutions condemning the Suharto regime's illegal invasion and annexation of the island. Suharto's East Timor policy is an example of realpolitik at its most misanthropic.
Portugal began the process of decolonization in 1975, and Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, saw a chance to exercise its military might over a country slightly larger than the state of Maryland. By the late 1980s, 200,000 people - fully one third of the East Timorese population - had been killed.
When first running for the presidency, Bill Clinton said of East Timor, "We have ignored it so far in ways that I think are unconscionable." Once in office, Clinton performed an all too characteristic somersault, promoting the sale of up to 28 F-16s and approving $60 million dollars of other weapons sales to Indonesia. Last fall, a senior administration official even called Suharto "our kind of guy."
The Suharto regime's initial rationalization for invasion was the "Balibo Declaration," which called for "integration." One of the key signatories to this document, Guilherme Goncalves, governor of occupied East Timor from 1976 until January 1980, told reporters last year that the declaration was forced on the people of East Timor.
"The truth is nobody wanted it. It didn't reflect the true feelings of the East Timorese," Mr. Goncalves explained. "Whether we believed it or not, we had no choice. We had to sign."
None of this could have been pulled off without US support. Henry Kissinger explained that "the US understands Indonesia's position"; Pentagon and US government officials insisted that US "security interests" were best served by cultivating Suharto's "goodwill." Accordingly, our government provided 90 percent of the arms used in the invasion and has continued to aid and abet Suharto's troops during the worst periods of massacres and forced starvation.
As the repression in their homeland continues unabated, the Timorese simply ask that they be allowed what they have been denied for 20 years: a chance to vote in a UN-supervised referendum in which they might decide, without guns at their backs, whether to merge with Indonesia or to become independent.
The UN secretary-general has expressed a willingness to support such a referendum. But the crucial factor is support from Washington. Given our complicity in the horrific history of East Timor, we must pressure Mr. Clinton to ban weapon sales to Indonesia and to support such a referendum. He must finally act on the sentiments he expressed during the 1992 campaign.
*Ben Terrall is a researcher with the human rights group Global Exchange in San Francisco.