Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Sunday, December 04, 2005

December 1975: The 'unobtrusive' murder of East Timor

'It is in Britain's interests that Indonesia absorbs the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible, and that if it should come to the crunch and there is a row in the United Nations, we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides against against the Indonesian Government.' So argued the British ambassador to Indonesia, Sir John Archibald Ford, in a secret cable to the Foreign Office thirty years ago having been tipped off about plans to invade neighbouring East Timor. In December 1975, one thousand Indonesian paratroopers landed in the East Timorese capital of Dili.

East Timor at the time was a Portugese colony, of about half a million people, many of whom demanded independence. The East Timorese independence movement was however seen as a threat by the neighbouring Indonesian dictatorial regime of Suharto, which had been helped into power a decade earlier with help from the West. Now the West gave what John Pilger describes as its 'silent blessing' to a full-scale Indonesian invasion of East Timor, designed to smother the birth of this new nation. Pilger has described this bloody development:

'On December 7, 1975, a lone radio voice rose and fell in the static: "The soldiers are killing indiscriminately. Women and children are being shot in the streets. This is an appeal for international help. This is an SOS - please help us."

No help came, because the western democracies were secret partners in a crime as great and enduring as any this century; proportionally, not even Pol Pot matched Suharto's spree. Air Force One, carrying President Ford and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger, climbed out of Indonesian airspace the day the bloodbath began. "They came and gave Suharto the green light," Philip Liechty, the CIA desk officer in Jakarta at the time, told me. "The invasion was delayed two days so they could get the hell out. We were ordered to give the Indonesian military everything they wanted. I saw all the hard intelligence; the place was a free-fire zone. Women and children were herded into school buildings that were set alight...we didn't want some little country being neutral or leftist at the United Nations." And all because western capital regarded Indonesia as a "prize".'

Mark Curtis in his book Web of Deceit notes that 'Britain, along with the US, also helped prevent UN action against Indonesia consistent with the view outlined in the secret cable above. London abstained on the first UN resolution condemning the invasion, supported two others (though these were widely acknowledged to be weakly worded and watered down) and abstained on all subsequent ones.' Britain, it should be remembered, was under a Labour Government at the time.

After the invasion, 'the US dramatically increased arms supplies to Jakarta following the invasion, providing counter-insurgency and transport aircraft as well as an array of rifles, mortars, machine guns and communications equipment...Britain later followed suit.' James Callaghan had now replaced Harold Wilson as Prime Minister, and in 1978, at the height of the genocide now unfolding, Labour's Foreign Secretary, David Owen, licensed the sale of the first British Aerospace Hawk fighter jets to Indonesia in 1978. Owen dismissed reports of the East Timorese death toll, then well over 60,000 or 10% of the population, as 'exaggerated'. Indeed, 'we believe that such fighting as still continues is on a very small scale.'

In fact, the death toll under Indonesia's occupation of East Timor was to rise to 200,000 people, or 30% of the population in total. Konis Santana, leader of East Timor's resistance army experienced the bombing raids of the Hawk jets at the time and has stated that 'the war in East Timor would have taken another course if the Indonesians had not recieved military support from abroad, including the Hawks that Great Britain offered during the crucial period after the invasion'. Western complicity in the genocidal terror was a constant.

Throughout, Pilger notes that 'the British establishment played court to President Suharto by selling him more Hawks, missiles, helicopters, frigates, armoured vehicles, military communications and a fully equiped institution of technology for the Indonesian army.' New Labour continued this tradition of 'playing court to President Suharto', as Robin Cook following in the footsteps of David Owen, authorised the selling of Hawk jets to Indonesia. In a 1997 interview, Santana noted the continuities. The 'Hawks killed so many people in bombing attacks in 1978 and 1979 that today, whenever people hear the noise of the Hawks flying, they are scared and the authorities know they will not dare leave their homes'. In 1999, after a revolution had removed the Wester backed dictator Suharto from power, the new President Habibie announced that a referendum on independence would take place in East Timor. However, in the run up to it, a few more thousand people were killed by Indonesian militias in an attempt to terrorise the population into voting against independence. The Blair Government, according to Curtis, 'did little to stop the violence and de facto aided it'.

While Saddam Hussein and Milosovic are paraded in court for their crimes against humanity, there is no such support from the Blair Government for a similar investigation of Indonesian dictator Suharto. Nor does the British Government support the call made by East Timoresian NGOs for an international tribunal to prosecute crimes against humanity after the bloody 1975 invasion thirty years ago. It should not be too hard to see why.

For more on East Timor see here.

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