Moving Slowly on East Timor


The Clinton administration’s shamefully slow response to the savagery unleashed by the Indonesian military and militia on the people of East Timor allowed a vicious slaughter to take place. East Timor’s capital, Dili, now lies in ruins, hundreds or quite likely thousands of Timorese have been killed since they voted overwhelmingly for independence on August 30, and tens or hundreds of thousands of Timorese are now hiding in the mountains facing starvation and fearing possible attacks by Indonesian armed forces.

Under pressure from grassroots activists, Congress and foreign governments and aroused by the sheer savagery of the Indonesian attack on the Timorese, the administration has now ratcheted up its rhetoric of condemnation, announced meaningful cuts in military aid, and watched approvingly as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank suspended new loans. And as a result of international pressure, Indonesia has agreed to allow a peacekeeping force into East Timor.

For all this slow progress, until the Australian-led peacekeeping operation lands in East Timor, there remains the substantial possibility of a new round of bloodletting. Even stronger pressure from the United States, as well as other international powers, will be needed to assure that calamity does not occur.

Leaving aside the ghastly history of U.S. military and diplomatic support for the brutal and illegal Indonesian occupation of East Timor — a 24-year occupation in which an estimated 200,000 Timorese were killed — why has the U.S. response to the unfolding butchery in East Timor been so laggardly?

The New York Times went a long way to answering this crucial question in a September 9 front-page story titled, “With Other Goals in Indonesia, U.S. Moves Gently on East Timor.”

“We have myriad interests” in Indonesia, explained State Department spokesperson Jaime Rubin in one of his daily briefings, “and what our job is is to try to balance those various interests.”

Others in the government and chattering class, such as Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, echoed this basic sentiment. The United States should be “realistic” in setting its policy on East Timor, they urged, noting the multiple U.S. “interests” in Indonesia and the importance of promoting “stability.”

Since the prescription was to balance these “interests” in “stability” against the lives of the Timorese, it is worth identifying what they are.

“We have a business interest,” said Rubin in identifying competing U.S. interests in Indonesia. That is, the U.S. government wants to protect U.S. investments in Indonesia — Nike’s subcontractor factories, the mines of Freeport McMoRan, the oil drilling of Texaco, Chevron and Mobil. Strong diplomatic pressure on Indonesia might conceivably have led to the revocation of concessions and privileges for U.S. corporations, worried the practitioners of realpolitik.

Worse, from this point of view, was the possibility that support for the Timorese will somehow flare up Indonesian separatist movements in Aceh (where Mobil is heavily invested) and Irian Jaya (where Freeport McMoRan runs the world’s largest gold mine).

A broader U.S. business interest was in maintaining the flow of IMF and World Bank money to Indonesia, so the country maintains its commitment to the “structural adjustment” policies which require it to remove restrictions on foreign investment, further orient its economy to exports, privatize government enterprises and cut subsidies to the poor.

Additionally, given the precarious state of the Indonesian economy, and the success of the IMF in deepening Indonesian dependence on foreign money flows, a sudden cut off of IMF and Bank monies might in fact send a harmful shock to the economy (whatever the long-run benefits of severing ties with the international financial institutions). The announced cut off of funds is actually a suspension of future monies not yet allocated, and is only temporary, so the feared effect on the international markets has been muted.

Of course, it would be misleading to say the U.S. government was slow to act in Indonesia/East Timor only because it wanted to protect Nike and other U.S. multinationals. In addition to the commercial and broader economic stability issues, the U.S. foreign policy and military establishments attach great geopolitical importance to maintaining good ties with the Indonesian government and especially the Indonesian military (viewed as a counterweight to China and a dependable regional ally).

Still, there is no doubt that the U.S. “business interest” played a significant role in the decision to “move gently” on East Timor in the early days of the post-election slaughter. Even the New York Times acknowledged a U.S. government concern that a threatened IMF and aid cut off “could also harm American corporations that have large investments in Indonesia.”

In time, we’ll know how many Timorese died in the weeks following their vote for independence, in part because of U.S. government concern about “our business interest” in Indonesia.

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter and Robert Weissman is the editor of Washington, D.C. -based Multinational Monitor. Their column appears weekly on the MoJo Wire.