In 1999, after almost a quarter century of Indonesian occupation, the small country of East Timor finally gained its independence. The 1975 Indonesian invasion and the occupation that followed — which has been described as “the clearest and most horrific instance of colonialism by a former colony” — took the lives of more than 200,000 East Timorese, about a third of the pre-invasion population.
Indonesia’s rule over East Timor had received crucial backing over the years from the United States, Australia and other Western powers. But Indonesia would have never succeeded in seizing the island nation in the first place without the diligent support of the United States. As secretary of state, Henry Kissinger helped make the occupation happen.
Portuguese sailors landed in Timor within years after their first passage through the Straits of Malacca in 1511. The Portuguese captured the eastern side of the island’s 32,300-square-kilometer area, the rest eventually falling under Dutch control. Colonialism drew East Timor into a violent history shared with the other subjects of the Portuguese empire, and added one more tradition to the island’s already variegated cultural mix. As independence leader José Ramos-Horta once put it, East Timor drew on influences that included Melanesian, “which binds us to our brothers and sisters of the South Pacific region; Malay-Polynesian, binding us to South-East Asia; and the Latin Catholic influence, a legacy of almost five hundred years of Portuguese colonization.”
When The Hague was forced to recognize Indonesian independence in 1949, the western half of Timor passed over to the administration of the Republic of Indonesia. East Timor, however, remained under control of the Salazar and Caetano dictatorships that would continue to rule Portugal for decades to come. The Portuguese had crushed the last military resistance against colonialism in the early twentieth century. Governor Afonso de Castro, the empire’s chief administrator on the island from 1859 to 1863, once complained that “rebellion in Timor continues successively, leading us to conclude that revolt is a normal state and peace is exceptional.”
East Timorese resistance was rekindled by the preemptive 1941 Australian-Dutch invasion of neutral Portuguese Timor and the successive Japanese occupation of 1942–45. Some 60,000 Timorese were killed in those years. After the war, the United States cooperated with Salazar’s fascist Estado Novo to bring East Timor back under brutal Portuguese control. The colony remained abysmally underdeveloped, primarily producing agricultural products for export.
Acting “Illegally and Beautifully”
On May 5, 1974, in the immediate wake of the Carnation Revolution that overthrew fascism in Portugal, the new Portuguese government allowed for the establishment of political parties in East Timor. The long overdue decolonization process had begun.
The two largest parties to emerge were the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) and the more left-leaning Association of Timorese Social Democrats (ASDT). Timorese students returning from Portugal and its other colonies — many of whom had experience in Portuguese radical movements or communist independence movements, like FRELIMO in Mozambique — pushed ASDT further left. Within a few months, the party was renamed the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or FRETILIN. The following year, FRETILIN won elections organized by the Portuguese Decolonization Commission. In response, UDT mounted an unsuccessful coup, leading to a civil war that cost thousands of lives, and which FRETILIN won.
In 1974, the Indonesian government began to interfere in East Timor’s independence process. Indonesia had been dominated since 1965 by the military dictatorship of General Suharto, whose rule had been initiated by a paroxysm of violence against communists and their suspected allies that claimed at least half a million lives.
The Suharto government broadcast propaganda into East Timor and infiltrated the UDT, trying to provoke a civil war that would give it an excuse to intervene. In September, the defeated UDT “asked” the Indonesian military for support. On October 16, five Australian journalists were killed, sending a clear message to the international media that nobody would be allowed to monitor the actions of Indonesian troops. In December 1975, nine days after the FRETILIN government declared independence, Indonesia invaded the capital of Dili, killing thousands of civilians.
The United States had been well aware of Indonesia’s intentions. In September 1974, the CIA reported the incursion of hundreds of Indonesian troops into East Timor, and daily briefings kept the White House updated on Suharto’s campaign. In early December, Kissinger received news from the State Department that the Indonesians planned to invade.
In fact, the Indonesian attack came only a few hours after Kissinger and President Ford left Jakarta, where they had met with Suharto. According to transcripts, Ford had told the general: “[We] will not press on the issue [of East Timor]. We understand… the intentions you have.” Kissinger explained that “the use of US-made arms could create problems.” About 90 percent of Indonesian military equipment at the time came from the United States, under the terms of a 1958 treaty. Indonesia assured the US that these weapons would be used “solely for legitimate national self-defense.”
Kissinger also expressed his understanding of Indonesia’s “need to move quickly.” Thinking along with his hosts regarding the use of US weapons, he suggested, “it depends on how we construe it, whether it is self-defense or as a foreign operation.” Regarding the actual attack, Kissinger remarked “it would be better if it were done after we [Kissinger and Ford] returned,” and concluded: “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.”
After the invasion, the US administration imposed a six-month delay on military aid to Jakarta, ostensibly to determine whether the government had indeed violated the terms under which the United States had delivered arms. Should Congress ask about arms deliveries, Kissinger told the State Department to reply that shipments had been cut off while they studied the situation in East Timor. In fact, deliveries continued as planned, and the Indonesian government was never even aware a “ban” was in place.
After staff members had written a memo exploring the legal issues entailed by further arms deliveries to the Indonesians, Kissinger exploded. “It will go to Congress and then we’ll have hearings on it!” After learning there was another memo, he com- plained, “two cables! That means twenty guys have seen it… That will leak in three months and it will come out that Kissinger overruled his pristine bureaucrats and violated the law.”
But Kissinger’s fear turned out to be misplaced.
In July 1976, Indonesia annexed East Timor, recasting the conflict as an “internal affair” and ending any worries about restrictions on the use of US weapons. Later, during a State Department staff meeting, an assistant to Kissinger declared, “[the Indonesians] are quite happy with the position we’ve taken. We’ve resumed, as you know, all of our normal relations with them.” Kissinger commended his department for acting “illegally and beautifully.”
Suharto now expected only “a small guerrilla war” to follow his invasion. General Ali Murtopo, one of the most influential men in Indonesia’s New Order regime, anticipated “the whole business to be settled in three weeks.” But confronted with their much larger Indonesian opponent, the Timorese put up stiff resistance, using weapons taken from raided Portuguese armories. Thousands of Timorese evaded the invaders by moving into the mountains, where they provided support to the independence fighters.
The Indonesian army, more experienced in slaughtering civilians than fighting armed opponents, was never able to fully crush the East Timorese. By late 1977, the Indonesian army was running out of supplies. New deliveries of US weapons, including Bronco airplanes developed specifically for counter- insurgency operations, allowed the Indonesian army to launch a new offensive.
To deprive the resistance fighters of support, the Indonesian army commenced an intensive bombing campaign, destroying infrastructure and croplands to starve the East Timorese into submission and force them to return to lowland areas under Indonesian control. After another four years of fighting, the East Timorese resistance was put down, but armed struggle would continue throughout the Indonesian occupation.
Sacked, Looted and Emptied
American foreign policy took some sharp hits in 1975. In April, the fall of Saigon cemented the United States’ humiliating defeat in Vietnam. The State Department fared no better in the former Portuguese colonies. The same year, the leftist MPLA defeated its US-backed opponents and took power in Angola, while Mozambique became independent under FRELIMO rule.
After Vietnam, writes historian Greg Grandin, “Kissinger reinforced the White House’s commitment to neighboring dictators, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia.” Preparing Ford for their visit to Jakarta, Kissinger asserted in a secret memorandum that “in the post-Vietnam environment, US Interests in Indonesia are based both on its present position in the region and, especially, on its anticipated future role… It is potentially one of the richest [countries in Southeast Asia]. Its geographic location and resources are of major strategic importance in the region.” An unnamed State Department official explained Washington’s cooperation with Jakarta by saying, “We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation — a nation we do a lot of business with.”
For the United States, relations with Suharto were more important than East Timor itself. The Suharto government had earned its anti-communist credentials with the pogroms of 1965 and had moved Indonesia firmly into the Western camp, restoring economic ties with capitalist powers and the IMF. For Indonesia, the invasion of East Timor was motivated by the arrogance of its rulers, who saw the half-island as part of the country they governed, and underwritten by pathological fear and hatred of communism. The US government and Suharto agreed they would not tolerate “a Cuba in Southeast Asia.”
Successive US administrations continued to offer support for the Indonesian occupation. Carter’s “human rights administration” doubled military assistance to Indonesia while trying to discredit reports of Indonesian atrocities in its fight “against the Marxist FRETILIN.” In the UN, the United States voted against resolutions of the general assembly that supported East Timor’s right to self-determination. Bill Clinton later recognized Suharto as his “kind of guy.”
In the meantime, the East Timorese resistance evolved into a broad coalition that brought together FRETILIN and the UDT, along with many former collaborators. November 12, 1991, marked a turning point in their efforts. Indonesian troops, used to acting with impunity, opened fire on demonstrators in Dili under the eyes of international reporters. Hundreds were killed on the spot, and hundreds more in executions over the days that followed. General Try Sutrisno, who later became vice president under Suharto, openly declared that “these ill- bred people have to be shot and we will shoot them.”
Indonesian violence in East Timor climaxed in 1999. The year prior, Suharto’s rule had finally collapsed amid the Asian financial crisis and mounting protests. A UN agreement allowed East Timor to hold a referendum on independence, and citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor. The Indonesian army and its paramilitary supporters responded with an outpouring of violence — a final act of revenge on a people they had been unable to defeat, and a preemptive warning to other regions under the control of the Indonesian state that might dream of independence.
An estimated 1,000 people were killed, an unknown number of women and girls raped, and most of the country’s buildings and infrastructure destroyed. Hundreds of thousands were displaced. When UN peacekeepers arrived, the Indonesian army and its accomplices offered no threat to them. As Maggie O’Kane of the Guardian wrote, their work was “already complete. They don’t want any trouble. Why bother? East Timor has been sacked, looted and emptied.”
Kissinger once said the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in East Timor would have occurred no matter what he did. He was too modest. Suharto harbored doubts about earlier plans to invade, worrying about the attitude of the United States, on which his military depended for arms. In a 1975 cable, Australian ambassador Richard Woolcott told Canberra:
the United States might have some influence on Indonesia at present, as Indonesia really wants and needs United State assistance in its military re-equipment program. But [US] Ambassador Newsom told me last night he is under instructions from Kissinger personally not to involve himself on the grounds that the United States is involved in enough problems of greater importance overseas at present. The State Department has, we understand, instructed the embassy to cut down its reporting on Timor.
If the United States had declined to provide the Indonesian army the weapons it needed, Suharto would have been left without allies or suppliers. An August 1975 CIA cable noted that justifying the invasion to the United States was a “major consideration” for the dictator, since he was “acutely aware” of the conditions that governed American military assistance. William Colby, CIA director in 1975, said that a US veto of the invasion would have created “a little diplomatic strain,” but without an alternative, “where would [Suharto] have gone?”
Kissinger and the US government’s choice was clear. Maintaining good ties with Suharto’s Indonesia and preventing the victory of a leftist independence movement was more important for the United States than East Timorese self- determination. Hundreds of thousands of innocent victims paid the price for that assessment.
In 2002, Xanana Gusmão, the resistance leader who served as the first president of independent East Timor, received UNESCO’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize. The committee awarding the prize had been chaired by none other than Henry Kissinger. At the last minute, though, Kissinger cancelled his presence at the award ceremony and his speech was read by the vice president of the jury.
In the speech, Kissinger commended the East Timorese resistance for struggling “amidst nations following imperatives they considered more immediate” than Timorese independence, and succeeding “against all odds—against overwhelming military power, against indifference abroad.” Which nations followed other imperatives, and which had been indifferent, the former secretary of state did not specify.
“Americans,” Kissinger wrote, “can take pride in the role their country has played in the ultimate culmination of these events.”