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A Tragic Foreign Policy: How the U.S. Ignored and Aided Genocide in East Timor

In foreign policy, sovereignty on April 28, 2010 at 1:44 am

“There is no Western concern for issues of aggression, atrocities, human rights abuses and so on if there’s a profit to be made from them.” — Noam Chomsky talking about the genocide in East Timor.

Sometimes inspiration for a post comes from an unlikely source. Today while wasting valuable study time watching videos on YouTube, I came across the song “Timor” by Colombian singer/songwriter Shakira.

“It’s alright, it’s alright. As long as we can vote. We live in a democracy and that’s what we promote.” 

I had listened to the song many times before but was never really sure of it’s meaning. Obviously, the song was political in nature — but what was Timor? I decided to Google the term.

The nation of East Timor lies just north of Australia and shares a small island with the Indonesian province of West Timor. The CIA’s World Factbook briefly references the small nation’s recent bloody history: 

“East Timor declared itself independent from Portugal on 28 November 1975 and was invaded and occupied by Indonesian forces nine days later. It was incorporated into Indonesia in July 1976 as the province of Timor Timur (East Timor). An unsuccessful campaign of pacification followed over the next two decades, during which an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 individuals lost their lives.” 

What the website fails to mention is the large role the U.S. government played in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Timorese.  

The National Security Archive’s Indonesia and East Timor Documentation Project details U.S. involvement in the invasion, citing previously classified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. According to its website, the Archive reveals a “consistent pattern” by U.S. administrations “of subordinating East Timor’s right to self-determination to its relations with Indonesia.”

One of the supporting documents, a former top secret memo addressed to Henry Kissinger, admits U.S. knowledge of Indonesia’s intent to invade or, “Incorporate Portuguese Timor by force.” It also reports U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia David Newsom’s recommendation for “a policy of silence”: 

“The State Department has been uncertain about the best policy to follow. Ambassador Newsom has recommended a general policy of silence. He has argued that we have considerable interests in Indonesia and none in Timor. If we try to dissuade Indonesia from what Suharto may regard as a necessary use of force, major difficulties in our relationship could result.” 

As the memo forecasted, both the U.S. government and mainstream media were silent on the invasion and resulting genocide for more than 25 years. An Australian parliamentary report described the situation in East Timor as “indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history.”  

But more unsettling than the United States’ pretend ignorance of the genocide, was its active participation in it. Prior to the invasion, the U.S. supplied the Indonesia government with large amounts of military support and weapons — a business that did not cease after the assault on Timor. According to The National Security Archive’s research, “virtually all of the military equipment used in the invasion was U.S. supplied.”

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting writer Matthew Jardine concurs. In his article, East Timor: Media Turned Their Backs on Genocide, he says not only did the U.S. give Indonesia the green light, it also provided millions in aid.  

“Since that time, the U.S. has provided Indonesia with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military assistance, greatly facilitating the colonization of East Timor. On the diplomatic front, the U.S. has helped to block any effective action on the issue. Former U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan openly bragged, in his book A Dangerous Place, about how he carried out with ‘no inconsiderable success U.S. policy to render the U.N. ‘utterly ineffective’ on East Timor.”

I was saddened to learn of the recent tragic history of East Timor and my own government’s responsibility. Unfortunately, the United State’s involvement and interventions in the region are not out of character. Timor is just one of many U.S.-backed tragedies.

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