1975 all over again

It is a fable of oppression and betrayal. A Southeast Asian military regime amazes the world by letting an oppressed people vote on their future. Unbowed by past slaughter and recent intimidation, the citizens turn out en masse and vote to get out from under the hated regime. End of story: The watching world sighs in relief, and waits for the regime to hand over power. Nothing like an election to straighten things out, right?

Wrongand were not even talking about the horror in East Timor. Burmas military junta is still in power, eight years after it invalidated the election that it called and conducted, and which Aung San Suu Khys democracy movement won almost as handily as the “independence” option did in Timors recent referendum. She is still the juntas effective prisoner, Burma is still under its heel, and the world is getting quite used to the idea. Bit by bit, the junta is winning legitimacy. Its been admitted to the main regional organization, ASEAN. Newspapers like The Seattle Times publish glowing articles about the joys of tourism in “Myanmar” (as the junta has renamed the country, just as the Khmer Rouge made Cambodia “Kampuchea” for a while). And promoters of Burma-boycott measures modeled on the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s must now contend with the World Trade Organization as well. Seattles City Council didnt even wait to get hauled before the WTO; last year it voted down the mild selective-purchasing ordinance it had already passed out of committee, which would have favored suppliers that dont do business in Burma.

This isnt a cheery precedent for East Timor, whose suffering is even greater and betrayal even starker than Burmas. Already the Clinton Administration is spinning another round of evasions, euphemisms, and excuses for doing nothingjust as four preceding administrations have spun since Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. US officials speak of “encouraging signs” that Indonesias military kleptocracy is beginning to restore “order”when the only order it wants is the peace of the graveyard and the freedom to loot. They say the United States will support an international peace-keeping force, but only if the Indonesian government wants itthus nixing the chances for such a force.

This time the Clintonites cant scuttle the chances of effective action by declaring a priori that US troops wont go in on the ground, as they did in Kosovo. Thats because US troops dont matter this time; Australia is ready to do the heavy lifting, but needs UN (which means US) support to do so. But once again the administration is prematurely limiting its options, and giving the butchers what looks like a green light. In Kosovo, Clinton forswore the possibility of ground intervention, encouraging the Serbs to proceed with ethnic cleansing and setting the stage for a longer, more brutal air war. Now his aides pooh-pooh even the prospect of economic sanctions and a cut-off of aidagain, holding up a green light. Instead they talk of using gentle suasion to get the Indonesian government and military to set things right.

The parallels with Kosovo are strikingexcept that the moral and legal issues are even starker. Kosovo was a recognized, if oppressed, province of Serbia; Indonesias occupation of East Timor has never been recognized by the US or UN. Indonesia has a long record of not just of oppression but genocidal-scale violence in East Timor. And where the United States had clean hands in Kosovo, its complicity in the East Timor occupation runs long and deep.

Sandy Berger, Clintons national security adviser, implicitly recognized the parallels when he crassly declared, “Because we bombed in Kosovo doesnt mean we should bomb Dili [East Timors capital].” So much for any fears that the liberation of Kosovo might have put in the hearts of other tyrants and thugs looking to expel their own unwanted minorities and depopulate their own troublesome provinces. The amended message: Genocide and ethnic cleansing will not be toleratedwhen undertaken against Europeans by weak countries like Serbia. When undertaken by big, important countries like Indonesia, its another. And brown or black genocide doesnt count as much as white genocide; so much for all the “Never agains” the world intoned after standing by while Rwanda exploded.

Could anything short of willful blindness explain the trust thats been placed in the Indonesian authorities? We trusted that President B.J. Habibie would be able to deliver on his offer of independence if the East Timorese voted for it (as everyone knew they would). But hes an unpopular lame-duck holdover from the deposed Sukarno dictatorship with a track record as a starry-eyed, if well-intentioned,. flake; his previous claim to fame was founding a heavily subsidized aerospace industry that Indonesia cant afford and the glutted aircraft market cant support. We trusted, or pretended to trust, the military to restore orderthe same military that has continually oppressed and intermittently starved and slaughtered the East Timorese for 24 years.

The news that the military was arming the militias and fomenting the violence broke well before the referendum. It was 1975 all over again. Then, Portugal suddenly granted East Timor independence, and no one stopped to ask who would protect it. In 1999, the magic wand of “independence” was waved once again, and again no one prepared for the consequences. Sorting out the lies and apportioning this latest round of blame will keep scholars and policy pundits (not to mention Noam Chomsky) busy for years.

Whats important is to stop the self-deception and accept the hard truths: Saving East Timor wont be easy, but it must be done and it will only get harder. Sacrificing East Timor wont “save” Indonesia. It only staves off the democratic and federal reforms that can save this sprawling, multi-ethnic archipelago stitched together with coercion and corruption.

External Links:

East Timor Action Network

Radio Australia World News, via ABC

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