‘On This Day’ 1975: Gerald Ford & Henry Kissinger Green-Light Suharto’s Genocidal East Timor Invasion
Our story begins in 1965, when a US-backed military coup overthrew Sukarno, hero of Indonesia’s independence struggle against Dutch colonialism and the nation’s first president. Sukarno made the fatal mistakes of being an ardent anti-imperialist and of forging a national unity alliance with the communist party. He was duly ousted and replaced in time by General Suharto, a staunch anti-communist who was embraced by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Johnson saw Suharto as a natural Cold War ally, even though he was an authoritarian ruler.
The US, in fact, encouraged and enabled horrific atrocities committed by the Suharto regime. The American Embassy in Jakarta, for example, provided Suharto’s security forces with “shooting lists” of suspected communists; CIA operatives methodically crossed names off these lists as Suharto’s opponents– many of them with no communist ties– were murdered by the thousands. Of this, American diplomat Robert J. Martens said “they probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands. But that’s not all bad.”
As Suharto consolidated his power, more than 500,000 Indonesians were massacred in what the New York Times called “one of the most savage mass slayings of modern political history.” Rivers were “literally clogged with bodies.” But Washington turned a blind eye and lavished the friendly regime in Jakarta with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and weaponry.
That aid continued through the Nixon and into the Ford administration. A decade after Suharto’s bloody coup, East Timor, a tiny enclave of 550,000 people situated at the far eastern tip of the Indonesian archipelago, won its independence from Portugal. Fearing that East Timor would fall under communist rule, Suharto drew up plans for an invasion. These events coincided with a visit to Asia by President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who arrived in Jakarta after a summit with China’s communist dictator Mao Zedong.
On December 4, Kissinger received a State Department cable that told of Indonesia’s plan to invade the newly-independent state. Suharto, who had always been a staunch US ally, brought the subject up himself during the meeting with Ford and Kissinger the next day. “We want your understanding,” Suharto requested, “if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action” against East Timor.
“We will understand and will not press you on the issue,” President Ford responded. “We understand the problem and the intentions you have,” he added. The invasion, which was also supported by regional power Australia, was effectively given a green light by Ford and Kissinger. Kissinger noted that “the use of US-made arms could create problems,” adding that “It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self defense or is a foreign operation.” He urged Suharto to complete his mission quickly. A top Indonesian general assured him that “the whole business will be settled in three weeks.”
What followed was one of the great mass slaughters of the 20th century. The day after Ford and Kissinger blessed Suharto’s plans, Indonesian forces launched a massive, brutal invasion of tiny East Timor. Elite units such as the notorious Kopassus led the way. Mass killings, torture and rapes literally decimated the population within the first few months of the attack; by February 1976, some 60,000 of East Timor’s 670,000 people were dead. That July, Indonesia annexed East Timor with US support. But the United Nations never recognized the move, or the puppet government installed by Jakarta, and passed a resolution calling for “urgent action to protect the territorial integrity of Portuguese Timor and the inalienable right of its people to self-determination.”
In 1977, Jimmy Carter, who trumpeted human rights as “the soul of our foreign policy,” moved into the White House and increased US military aid to the murderous Suharto regime even as the death toll in East Timor approached 100,000. Washington was providing 90 percent of the arms the Indonesian military was using to commit horrific atrocities against the people of East Timor. A massive bombing campaign wiped entire villages off the map. Concentration camps and a deliberate campaign of mass starvation were used in an attempt to subdue East Timorese resistance. All the while, US support for the genocidal Suharto regime continued, with Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke praising the dictator for taking steps “to open East Timor to the West.” East Timor, by the way, is awash in oil and natural gas.
By 1989, a staggering 30 percent of East Timor’s population was wiped out as a result of the US-backed war, ranking the slaughter among the worst of the bloodiest century in human history. Throughout the conflict, the Indonesian military systematically engaged in torture, rape, and murder of innocent men, women and children. The United States finally cut off military aid to the Suharto regime following the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, during which regime troops opened fire on a prayer service for a slain student in a crowded cemetery, killing more than 270 people and crushing wounded survivors’ heads with rocks.
The Suharto regime finally fell in 1998, paving the way for the restoration of democracy in Indonesia. Four years later, East Timor gained its independence. But the Indonesian military continued to brutally repress rebellions throughout the sprawling archipelago of 230 million people, using elite units like the dreaded Kopassus to kidnap, torture, rape and murder countless thousands of civilians in Aceh, West Papua and elsewhere.
Students, trade unionists, human rights activists, independence advocates, even Western journalists have been mercilessly targeted for extermination by the unit’s commanders. Kopassus troops enthusiastically participated in– many witnesses say led– the 1998 mass rape and murder of hundreds of Chinese-Indonesian women and girls, many of whom were burned alive after being sexually assaulted.
Shockingly, President Barack Obama resumed US ties with Kopassus in 2010. While it is true that the unit’s worst atrocities are behind it, Kopassus continues to commit terrible human rights abuses. In November 2010, just as President Obama was arriving in Indonesia where he praised the country as a model of religious tolerance, secret documents leaked from within Kopassus revealed the unit was still engaging in kidnapping and murder and was targeting Christian churches in independence-minded West Papua. The documents also revealed that a Kopassus task force defined unarmed civilians, including Christian leaders, as the main enemies of the state and thus subject to extermination. Victims of Kopassus brutality begged Obama not to resume ties with the murderous unit; their pleas fell upon deaf ears.
Not much has changed, it seems, since President Ford and Henry Kissinger, who like Obama is a Nobel Peace Laureate, gave Suharto the go-ahead to launch his murderous invasion of East Timor in 1975.
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