This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  March 31, 2006

By Joseph Nevins
Cornell University Press, 273 pages, $18.95
An instructive look at the U.S. role in East Timor


There are certainly many places more “important” than East Timor, a half-island nation of 800,000 people about 400 miles northeast of Darwin, Australia. But few of them have anything more important to tell Americans about our country’s foreign policy.

The 1974 overthrow of Portugal’s dictatorship brought an end to East Timor’s three-and-a-half centuries as a Portuguese colony, a status that had prevented its incorporation into Indonesia along with West Timor and the region’s other former Dutch colonies. On Nov. 28, 1975, independence was declared. On Dec. 6, U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met in Jakarta with Indonesian President Suharto, who informed them of his plans to invade East Timor. The rationale was typical of the day -- to depose a left-wing government that might succumb to Vietnamese or Chinese influence. Mr. Kissinger responded, “It would be better if it were done after we returned.” President Suharto complied and invaded the next day.

During the subsequent war and famine that killed an estimated third of the nation’s population, 90 percent of Indonesian weaponry came from the United States. The United Nations passed numerous resolutions against the illegal takeover, with the United States generally voting against or abstaining. Daniel Moynihan, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote, “The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

Meanwhile, the dominant American news media took their lead from political figures such as New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, who said, “I do not believe that keeping alive the issue of independence will do anything to help the East Timorese people,” and U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Stapleton Roy, who explained, “The dilemma is that Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn’t.” For years The New York Times ran nothing on the occupation.

But the little country refused to give up. Readers of this publication may be interested to know that during the resistance years the number of Catholics grew from 30 to 90 percent of the population, prompting President Suharto’s son-in-law, also the territory’s regional military commander, to say, “The church, the priests and the religious are the three factors which threaten East Timor’s integration with Indonesia.” Many people’s first knowledge of the place came when its Catholic bishop, Carlos Belo, shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with Jose Ramos Horta, head of the diplomatic wing of the resistance.

In A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor, Joseph Nevins (previously writing under the pseudonym Matthew Jardine to avoid detection by Indonesian authorities) covers all of this accurately and efficiently -- although perhaps a bit too theoretically in the first chapter. He also tells the little-known story of the U.N. Mission to East Timor that conducted the Aug. 30, 1999, plebiscite that followed President Suharto’s sudden 1998 ouster and his successor B.J. Habibie’s even more surprising offer to let the country decide its future. In the election, 78.5 percent voted for independence and so it would be -- but not before Indonesian-armed militias killed upwards of another thousand Timorese.

And what now? While independent, East Timor remains an extremely poor nation. Mr. Nevins points out, “Iraq under Saddam Hussein was required to provide restitution to Kuwait for Baghdad’s 1990 invasion and brief, but destructive, occupation,” while “Suharto resides comfortably in Jakarta.” No reparations have ever been paid. The Western powers “have responded to East Timor largely through an ethic of charity,” while the U.N. Commission on Human Rights’ September 1999 call for an International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor has gone nowhere.

As for Americans, East Timor’s story exposes the false dichotomy of a foreign policy debate between “realists” who support any country that can advance what they conceive of as America’s interests and “idealists” like neoconservative former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who would deliver democracy to the world via B-52. In fact, Mr. Wolfowitz, one-time ambassador to Indonesia, exposed the sham of the neoconservative democratizing agenda when he told a 1997 Congressional hearing that support for East Timorese independence was “destructive.”

The world’s only superpower need neither coddle dictatorships nor invade them. As Indonesia’s military supplier, the United States had the power to block the invasion of East Timor and when it talked tough to Indonesia in September 1999, support for the militias promptly dried up. Were we only to demand the same standards of our military allies that we insist our enemies adopt, we could go a long way toward democratizing the world -- without firing a shot.

Tom Gallagher was a United Nations election officer in Lospalos, East Timor, during the 1999 plebiscite.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: