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For Fear Of A Showdown


new internationalist
issue 253 - March 1994

For fear of a showdown
No-one questions that the Indonesian occupation of
East Timor is illegal and violates the UN Charter.
But what the UN says and what it does is not always the
same thing. Carmel Budiardjo tells a shameful tale.

‘...the United States wished things to turn out as they did... The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective. That task was given to me and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.’
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, US Ambassador to the UN in 1975.

East Timor is one of a diminishing number of non-self-governing territories still on the UN agenda for decolonization. From 1975 to 1982 two Security Council resolutions and eight General Assembly resolutions were adopted on the ‘Question of East Timor’, re-affirming its right to self-determination and calling on Indonesia to withdraw. The UN still recognizes Portugal, East Timor’s former colonial ruler, as the Administering Power and rejects Indonesia’s seizure of East Timor as its ‘twenty-seventh province’.

So why, more than 18 years on – with a third of the population, more than 200,000 people, dead – has the UN been so ineffective?

Basically because, as Ambassador Moynihan has said of the US, Indonesia’s allies have wanted it to be. Five months before the invasion ambassadors in Jakarta were privately condoning Indonesia’s plans to take over East Timor. In a cable to the Foreign Office in July 1975, Britain’s ambassador said it was ‘in Britain’s interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon as and as unobtrusively as possible and that if... there is a row in the UN, we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides against the Indonesian government’. The US ambassador told his Australian counterpart he was ‘under instructions from [Secretary of State] Kissinger personally not to involve himself in discussions on Timor with the Indonesians’. If Indonesia were to intervene the US would hope they would do so ‘effectively, quickly and not use our equipment’. As for Australia, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam agreed, in talks with the Indonesian dictator Suharto in September 1974, that the eventual integration of East Timor into Indonesia was ‘inevitable’.

The enormity of the UN’s failure to help East Timor was thrown into stark relief when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. To counter this invasion the UN Security Council remained in continuous session; it adopted more than a dozen resolutions to dislodge the aggressor, at whatever cost in human lives. A negotiated settlement was spurned as the West, using the UN as a shield, careered headlong into war.

In December 1975 the UN response was very different. A week before the Indonesian invasion the Portuguese Government drew the UN’s attention to the Indonesian military build-up inside East Timor, already warning of the tragedy that was to befall East Timor. Five days after the invasion the General Assembly ‘strongly deplore[d]’ Indonesia’s military intervention and called on it to withdraw its troops ‘without delay’. The sponsor of the resolution, Algeria, avoided the stronger word ‘condemn’ to win wider support for East Timor. Even so, many Western powers could not bring themselves to vote against Jakarta and abstained. What worried them was not whether the UN Charter had been violated – as it clearly had – but how to avoid offending Indonesia. The 43 abstentions included the US, the UK, Australia, Germany and France. Japan, the leading investor in Indonesia’s economy, voted against.

Ten days later, as the situation in East Timor rapidly deteriorated, Security Council Resolution 384 unanimously called on ‘all States to respect the territorial integrity of East Timor’ and for Indonesian troops to be withdrawn ‘without delay’. This time the US, Britain and France voted in favour, not wanting to side so publicly with the aggressor at the more high-profile Security Council. The resolution also asked the Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, to send an envoy to East Timor for an on-the-spot assessment of the situation.

Had this investigation been pursued with vigour the UN might have acted decisively, but the mission was doomed from the start. Waldheim had little interest in what was for him a minor issue, nor was he prevailed upon by the Permanent Five to treat it otherwise.

In East Timor six weeks after the invasion the Indonesian army allowed only the UN envoy, Winspeare Guicciardi, to visit Dili, Manatuto and Baucau. Everywhere else Fretilin was in control or fighting was intense. Yet the UN accepted the lie that he could not travel further ‘on technical and/or security grounds’ or because the roads were ‘impassable’.

Guicciardi’s attempts to visit Fretilin-controlled areas from Darwin came to nothing when Australia refused logistical support for a UN flight to East Timor. A Portuguese offer of a corvette to land the mission in Fretilin strongholds was not taken up because Indonesia insisted on dictating conditions for the landings. Neither Waldheim nor the Western powers denounced Indonesia for refusing to comply with a unanimous resolution of the Security Council.

Shortly before the Security Council met to pass its second resolution on East Timor in April 1976, ‘deputy governor’ Lopez da Cruz, a leading Indonesian puppet, admitted that 60,000 East Timorese had already died.

Although the Secretary-General’s envoy was asked to continue with his assignment, nothing further was done and, as Jose Ramos-Horta, Fretilin’s representative to the UN, says in Funu, the Unfinished Saga of East Timor, ‘that was the last I heard of Mr Winspeare Guicciardi’.

Since then the Security Council has not discussed East Timor, though the General Assembly continued for several years to adopt resolutions along the lines of those adopted in the wake of the invasion. Portugal, which vigorously pressed for action at the UN in 1975 and 1976, seemed to lose interest.

In late 1982 Fretilin drafted a resolution for the General Assembly authorizing the Secretary-General (Waldheim had now been replaced by Perez de Cuellar) to hold consultations with Indonesia, Portugal and Fretilin to achieve a comprehensive settlement. This would give the UN a more active role and perhaps win support from many of Jakarta’s friends who had been voting against or swelling the abstentions. But de Cuellar was unhappy and persuaded Portugal to amend the wording to read: ‘Consulting all parties directly concerned’. He gave an assurance that East Timor would be considered to be ‘one of the parties’, but subsequently interpreted the resolution as referring only to Indonesia and Portugal. This betrayal led to a decade of futile diplomacy, leaving East Timor bereft of any support from the world body.

The situation in East Timor had meanwhile changed dramatically. An all-out offensive by the Indonesians, equipped with US-supplied Bronco planes, transport aircraft, armoured cars and firearms, had all but destroyed Fretilin resistance by 1979. The population was forced down from the interior into strategic villages. By now the death toll had reached 200,000.

Yet within a year of the army capturing Fretilin’s last stronghold on Matebian mountain in 1979 the guerillas were back in strength, forcing Indonesia onto the defensive. As diplomats haggled over drafts in New York, anxious not to upset Indonesia, things were going so badly for the Indonesian army in East Timor that in March 1983 – four months after General Assembly Resolution 37/30 had barely scraped through by 50 votes to 46 and 50 abstentions – army commander Colonel Purwanto held peace talks with resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, which led to a five-month ceasefire. Gusmao asked Indonesia to pass on his demands for a referendum to the UN. This was never done. Instead the Indonesian army launched a massive new offensive in August 1983.

Meanwhile in New York consultations initiated under Resolution 37/30 of 1982 got nowhere as Indonesia refused to discuss self-determination. Pressure for Timorese participation was ignored. Western governments, whose commercial ties and arms deals with Indonesia had soared, deflected calls for UN action by expressing satisfaction that bilateral talks were underway. The talks had become the pretext for doing nothing.

In March 1989 Bishop Belo, head of the Catholic Church in East Timor, injected a new urgency by calling for a referendum in a letter to the UN Secretary-General: ‘Indonesia says that the people of East Timor have already chosen integration but the people of Timor have never said this... And we continue to die as a people and a nation.’ Here was a simple message from a man desperate for a solution. It also put at risk his tenuous links with the Indonesian regime and the Vatican. Yet it was ignored by de Cuellar who never even acknowledged the letter. The Bishop had challenged the UN head-on for behaving as if a solution could evolve from talks between East Timor’s former and present colonizers.

By 1991 the UN talks were bogged down in plans for a visit to East Timor by Portuguese parliamentarians. This might have been a breakthrough for the East Timorese – to meet representatives from a country which, they hoped, would extricate them from the agony of Indonesian occupation. Last-minute hitches in Jakarta forced Lisbon to call the visit off. Thousands of young East Timorese went ahead anyway with the demonstration they had planned for the visit, choosing a day on which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture was visiting Dili. He was in a meeting with the military commander and did not see anything.

The result was a massacre of 200 demonstrators on 12 November 1991. Worldwide outrage forced some governments to reconsider their position, if only by at last bringing pressure to bear on Indonesia about atrocities that had been the everyday experience of the East Timorese since 1975. Some made tentative moves towards tying economic aid to Indonesia’s human-rights record in East Timor. This led to a sharp rebuke of Indonesia by the UN Human Rights Commission in February 1993, in a resolution sponsored by the US and several West European countries. It called for special UN rapporteurs on torture, disappearances, extra-judicial killings and arbitrary detentions to visit East Timor. These visits have not yet taken place.

The massacre led to the breakdown of the UN-sponsored talks and it was left to the new Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to pick up the pieces. Talks were resumed in 1992, again involving only Indonesia and Portugal, though now accompanied by parallel consultations with East Timorese representatives. No major power has yet stirred itself to press East Timor’s case at the Security Council or the General Assembly, though Boutros-Ghali’s assistants for East Timor are known to be pressing for new initiatives.

In January 1994 the Secretary-General sent special envoys to Lisbon, Jakarta and East Timor. Consultations with the East Timorese – including Xanana Gusmao, the resistance leader now being held in a Jakarta prison, and Bishop Belo – were on their agenda.

UN involvement is closely tied to shifts and alliances in global politics. It will happen only if the major powers want it to. For nearly two decades neither governments nor the world body’s chief executive have chosen to use the UN to help East Timor, preferring to avoid a showdown with the Suharto regime. The East Timorese have proved that jackboots and terror have not dented their yearning for independence. Now that there are small signs of progress at the UN the East Timorese have more reason to expect the UN to bring an end to their misery.

Carmel Budiardjo is a writer on Indonesia and East Timor, Organizing Secretary of TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, and co-editor of TAPOL Bulletin.


No hope for the world
Lourenco’ relives his experience of the Matebian encirclement in 1978.

Our section in the east was the last to be attacked. In 1978 they started to come against us. At first we didn’t resist, just watched the enemy, let them feel confident. Matebian mountain is a big area and there were 160,000 of us, fighters and civilians, divided into small groups.

On 17 October 1978 some Indonesians got right to the bottom of Matebian mountain and that’s when we started to fight back. For those first two months, October and November, we were very successful and about 3,000 Indonesians died. Then they got angry and scared to come close and started to bomb us from the air. They bombed twice a day, in the morning and afternoon with four black planes. Their name I know now is Broncos, but we called them scorpions because they had a tail that curves up at the back like that insect. Their bombs left a big hole about two metres deep. Then they got new supersonic planes. Our people were very frightened of those because you didn’t even hear they were there until they were gone. Those supersonics would zoom along the valley so fast we couldn’t shoot them.

We knew by radio from the south zone that the Indonesians had dropped four napalm bombs there. Then they dropped two of these on us. I saw all the flames and heard people shouting and screaming. I was on another mountain but I could see well; there was a close view of it, straight across. Some of us set out straight away to help those people. By foot it took half an hour to go down and up again, and by the time we got there everything was completely burnt. We saw a whole area about 50 metres square all burnt, no grass, nothing except ash. On the rocks it was a brown, reddish colour and on the ground ash too; not ordinary grey ash, a sort of yellowish ash, like beach sand. You couldn’t see where bodies had been. There was nothing except ash and burnt rocks on the whole area, but we had heard those people screaming.

We could find no bones or bodies, but people nearby said there were about a hundred people living there who were killed by this. The whole population was very upset – no bodies of those people left to bury. My cousin said: ‘If this is what they can do there is no hope for the world’.

From Michele Turner, Telling - East Timor: Personal Testimonies 1942-1992, New South Wales University Press, 1992.


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