The Common Good
September-October 1996

Stopping Genocide

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | September-October 1996

The continuing tragedy in East Timor

If no man is an island, as the adage goes, then no nation is either. Even while Indonesia and most of the rest of the world remain in denial, books like Matthew Jardine's East Timor: Genocide in Paradise continue to connect the atrocities committed in that small corner of Southeast Asia to the rest of the world.

The dearth of media coverage in the 21 years since Indonesia invaded and occupied East Timor—during which time more than 200,000 East Timorese died—makes it necessary for activists continually to educate the public about the basics regarding the region. With less than 100 pages and an introduction by well-known intellectual Noam Chomsky, East Timor was written to be widely read and to keep the East Timorese struggle for survival from falling off the screen of peace and justice activists.

Jardine manages, in a few pages, to offer a fairly thorough history of East Timor (though perhaps skipping a little too quickly through the murky period between the end of Portuguese colonization and the Indonesian invasion, when competing political factions in East Timor fought a brief civil war). He stresses that the ongoing genocide of the East Timorese would not be possible without the acquiesence of the United States and, to a lesser extent, Australia, Japan, Canada, and Great Britain.

The United States provided Indonesia with 90 percent of the arms used in the initial invasion in 1975—the same weapons that killed 60,000 East Timorese in the first two months. In 1977, after two years of slaughter threatened to deplete Indonesia's arsenal, Jimmy Carter's "human rights" administration authorized a 2,000 percent increase in commercial U.S. arms sales to the country, allowing the killings to peak in 1978.

In 1991, after more than 200 unarmed protesters were killed—and two American journalists beaten—by Indonesian security forces in Dili, East Timor's capital, grassroots opposition in the United States pressured Congress to cut military aid to Indonesia. Currently, the Clinton administration is working around the congressional ban, negotiating the sale of a fleet of F-16 combat jets to Indonesia. (While the sale of small arms and riot-control equipment that could be used to crush political demonstrations is barred, the transfer of heavier military gear is permissible.)

JARDINE DEMONSTRATES that the role of the United States and other nations in Indonesia's occupation of East Timor is motivated by a strong economic interest. As the president of Coca Cola gushed in 1992, "When I think of Indonesia—a country on the equator with 180 million people, a median age of 18, and a Muslim ban on alcohol—I feel like I know what heaven looks like." In addition to wanting access to Indonesia's huge market and low-paid labor force, countries like Japan, the United States, and Australia have their eyes on the area's tremendous natural resources—in particular one of the world's richest untapped oil reserves just off the coast.

By supporting Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, Western nations made what Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott called a choice between "Wilsonian idealism and Kissingerian realism," opting for "the pragmatic rather than the principled stand." The church, on the other hand, rejected the realpolitik approach, instead consistently siding with the East Timorese, 90 percent of whom are Catholic. Since the period of Portuguese colonization, the church—especially the Jesuit community—has played an integral role in developing a national consciousness and identity. Because of his outspoken defense of human rights, Bishop Carlos Belo, the head of the church in East Timor, has been a close contender to win the Nobel Peace Prize for the past several years.

While the Indonesians continue to wipe out the East Timorese through killings, starvation, forced sterilization, and displacement, churches in the United States and other countries are becoming more aware of the grave human rights abuses. Because it is concise and easy to read, East Timor: Genocide in Paradise is an excellent way to introduce congregations and social justice committees to the situation.

Though Jardine never looks critically at the East Timorese armed resistance movement or questions of nonviolence—concerns that some congregations will want to explore more deeply—the book does include information on how to contact local and international support groups for those who want to get more involved. (One address not mentioned that may be helpful to church people is East Timor Religious Outreach, 1600 Clay St., San Francisco, CA 94109; (415) 474-6219.)

In this era of the World Wide Web and instant global communications, East Timor presents us with a heavy moral challenge. Our generation may witness the death of the East Timorese people. Although they live on a small island that is inaccessible to most of us, books like Jardine's make it hard to say we didn't know. We have to respond by doing what we can—which may be more effective than we expect.

East Timor: Genocide in Paradise. By Matthew Jardine. Odonian Press, 1995.

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