The ravaged people of East Timor have been largely forgotten by a world with weightier problems. But this does not lessen the horror of their plight -- or the shame of the U.S. role in their anguish.
It was five years ago this month that the inhabitants of East Timor awoke to a full-scale invasion by troops from neighboring Indonesia. The tiny nation, about the size of Connecticut, had only recently emerged from centuries of Portuguese colonial rule and was struggling to maintain its independence.
It was East Timor's misfortune to be undergoing this struggle at precisely the moment in history when the United States had been humiliated in Vietnam and was desperately seeking allies in Southeast Asia. To the global strategists in Washington, Indonesia seemed to be the ideal choice. For one thing, its anticommunism was incontestable: the slaughtered 300,000 native communists a decade earlier. And Indonesia also had oil to sell.
Thus it was that the weapons used by the Indonesian troops in East Timor had been supplied by the United States, and the attack itself came a matter of hours after President Ford, on a visit to Indonesia, had given his tacit approval to what Indonesian leaders led him to believe was a police action to put down a rebellion.
The population of East Timor was massacred and systematically starved. The Indonesians threw an iron curtain around the conquered nation, declaring that East Timor was now a province of Indonesia and none of the outside world's business.
The United Nations condemned the Indonesian aggression -- in a vote from which the United States abstained. U.N. factfinders got no more than rigged, Potemkin Village tour of East Timor. Outsiders were either excluded entirely or rigorously supervised and restricted. Relief agencies had to surmount bureaucratic obstacles before they could deliver food and medical care to the starving East Timorese.
Documents have come to light that reveal that Henry Kissinger was the architect of the Ford administration's support of indonesia. The material is contained in an Australian publication, "Documents on Australian Defense and Foreign Policy, 1968-1975." The book is so explosive that the courts in Australia have forbidden the media to do more than paraphrase parts of it. The Australian press is challenging the censorship. Meanwhile, my associate Jack Mitchell has seen a copy.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence is a secret cable from a highranking Australian diplomat to his superiors just a few months before the Indonesian invasion. "The United States might have some influence on Indonesia . . . as Indonesia really wants and needs United States assistance in its military re-equipment programme," the diplomat wired. "But [U.S] Ambassador [Daivd] Newsom told me last night he is under instructions from [Secretary of State] Kissinger not to involve himself in discussion on Timor with the Indonesians, on the grounds that the United States is involved in enough problems of greater important overseas at present . . . The State Department has, we understand, instructed the Embassy [in Jakarta] to cut down its reporting on Timor."
In other words, Kissinger was too busy with gobal grand strategy to be bothered with the imminent extinction of a small, independent nation of 600,000.
There is, of course, dishonor enough for more than one administration. When Jimmy Carter, the self-proclaimed champion of human rights, moved into the White House in 1977, the Indonesians were still ruthlessly exterminating the east Timorese by bloody repression and the more time-consuming but equally effective method of starvation.
Yet Carter administraion officials continued the disgraceful U.S. support for the Indonesians -- and misled Congress about the military assistance we were sending them. American weapons were being supplied even while State Department spokesmen insisted that the arms sales had been suspended.
Five years after the first bloody attack, the dimished population of East Timor -- some estimates any there are only 300,000 left -- is considered to have survived the worst of its ordeal. Even if this is true, though, there is the chilling prospect that half a generation of Timorese children may be permanently retarded or crippled from the effects of war and malnutrition.
This, of course, should make it easier for the Indonesians to control the increasingly docile populace. In this cynical sense, the U.S. support of its ally has been at least a strategic success.