Reassessing America's Policy Toward Indonesia

Despite Nobel Peace Prize, US is more concerned with arms sales

The muted reaction of Clinton administration officials on the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two human rights activists from East Timor is not simply due to the seeming obscurity of that small Southeast Asian nation. No choice could have been more embarrassing for the United States government.

The brutal Indonesian occupation of East Timor has cost an estimated 200,000 lives, nearly one-third of the population. And the United States has helped make it all possible.

In December 1975, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. At that time, Indonesian forces had already begun to support a tiny pro-annexationist faction in East Timor, which had just won independence from Portugal. By all accounts, at a meeting with the Indonesian dictator Suharto, Mr. Ford gave the green light for a full-scale invasion, which began within 24 hours. Mr. Kissinger publicly stated that the US "understands Indonesia's position on East Timor" - namely, that it not be allowed its right to self-determination under international law.

While the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously for Indonesia to halt its invasion and withdraw to its internationally recognized borders, the US blocked the United Nations from imposing economic sanctions or any other means of enforcing its mandate. Then-US Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan later bragged how, under State Department instructions, he had made the UN "totally ineffectual" in bringing a halt to the invasion. (Mr. Moynihan, now a Democratic senator from New York, has since spoken out against the Indonesian occupation.)

During his first year in office, President Jimmy Carter ordered a 79 percent increase in military aid to Indonesia, including deliveries of counterinsurgency aircraft that allowed the Indonesians to dramatically expand the air war with devastating consequences. When asked about US law prohibiting arms transfers to such aggressor nations, a Carter State Department official stated that since Indonesia had annexed East Timor, the conflict was no longer an invasion but an internal rebellion.

Since that time, the US has voted repeatedly with a minority of countries in the United Nations General Assembly opposing self-determination for East Timor. Despite close diplomatic contacts, including several summit meetings, the United States has never publicly raised that issue with Indonesian authorities.

Since then, American arms have continued to flow to Indonesia, though, as with many other countries, arms sales have replaced grants. Congress has restricted taxpayer-funded US training of the Indonesian military since 1992, but the Clinton administration is now calling for a resumption of full, unrestricted military instruction.

Indonesia is not the only country to use American weapons to invade and occupy neighboring states, oppress the indigenous population, and violate UN Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of occupation forces. Indeed, Turkey, Morocco, and Israel all share this notorious distinction with Indonesia's military government, though none comes close to the level of brutality that Indonesia has inflicted on East Timor. The Clinton administration insists that US arms should continue to flow to all four of these allies regardless of their violations of human rights and international law.

Public-opinion polls have consistently shown that the American public - by a huge margin - opposes unconditional arms transfers to such governments. Since two American journalists witnessed a 1991 massacre of hundreds of peaceful pro-independence demonstrators in the East Timorese capital of Dili, there have been bipartisan efforts in Congress to stop both the arms sales and military training. However, the Clinton administration, along with the congressional Republican leadership, has vigorously resisted such efforts.

Even with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and Jos Ramos-Horta, the US State Department insists that it will go ahead with the sale of highly sophisticated F-16 fighter-bombers to the Indonesian government. With Republican challenger Bob Dole staking out foreign policy positions even further to the right than President Clinton, the Democrats know that they will lose few votes over this issue.

Indeed, Clinton's position on East Timor may have actually helped him: The Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party have received hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions from Indonesian businessmen with close ties to Suharto.

It may only be grass-roots pressure that can reverse the Clinton administration's position. As with Vietnam, Central America, and South Africa, US policy shifted only after hundreds of thousands of Americans engaged in letter-writing campaigns, public demonstrations, and civil disobedience. Perhaps such actions will need to be repeated before the Clinton administration is convinced that profits or arms manufacturers are not as important as basic human rights.

*Stephen Zunes is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco.

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