East Timor Revisited

Also in the Boston Review:

Declassified government documents, many of them cited in the CAVR report [East Timor’s final report of the country’s Commission on Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation], reveal that Jakarta was sufficiently worried about how Western countries would react to its aggression that Suharto, Indonesia’s dictator, vetoed earlier plans to invade East Timor and launched the invasion only after consulting Australia, Britain, and the United States.

But the documents show that Washington—as well as London—had decided to effectively sacrifice East Timor well before the invasion. In March 1975, the U.S. ambassador in Jakarta recommended to his superiors a “general policy of silence” on the Suharto regime’s planned forceful takeover of what was then Portuguese Timor. He explained that Washington had “considerable interests” in Indonesia—what Richard Nixon once described as “by far the greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area”—but had “none” in East Timor.

President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, well aware of the pending invasion, met with Suharto in Jakarta on December 6, 1975. Ford assured his Indonesian counterpart that with regard to East Timor, “We . . . will not press you on the issue. We understand . . . the intentions you have,” while Kissinger worried that “the use of U.S.-made arms could create problems.” The United States had supplied about 90 percent of Indonesia’s military equipment on the condition that it not be used for offensive purposes. Kissinger promised Suharto that the United States would not regard the invasion as an aggression, while expressing understanding for Indonesia’s “need to move quickly” and advising “that it would be better if it were done after we [he and Ford] returned [to the United States].” Some 14 hours after their departure, Indonesian forces invaded.

Such understanding—and the associated material support—continued, with few interruptions, until September 1999. The reason was largely economic: as a State Department spokesman explained in 1976, “We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation—a nation we do a lot of business with.”