|East Timor on the Brink
Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian KGNU, Boulder, September 8, 1999
DB: Noam Chomsky, long-time political activist, writer and professor of
linguistics at MIT, is the author of numerous books and articles on U.S.
foreign policy, international affairs and human rights. Among his many
books are Year 501, Keeping the Rabble in Line, World Orders Old and New,
Class Warfare and The Common Good. His new book is The New Military Humanism.
This special edition of Alternative Radio will focus on East Timor, which
is once again a killing field with mass murders, expulsionsaand ethnic
cleansing. According to a story in this today's New York Times, East
Timorese are being rounded up and forcibly moved across the border to
Indonesian West Timor. Joining us from his home in Massachusetts is MIT
professor Noam Chomsky, who was, along with his colleague Ed Herman,
probably the first to write about East Timor in their book Washington
Connection and Third World Fascism.
Noam, the situation in East Timor has gone from bad to worse. You have
written an article for the MoJo Wire on why Americans should care about
NC: The primary reason is that there's a lot that we can do about it. The
second reason is it's a huge catastrophe. Actually, it's considerably worse
than when I wrote a couple of weeks ago. And there is a bit of history
involved. The U.S. has been directly and crucially involved in supporting
the Indonesian invasion, arming it, carrying it through the worst
atrocities, which were in the late 1970s under the Carter Administration
and pretty much right up till today. But putting aside history, we can do a
lot. This is a place where the U.S. has plenty of leverage, can act to stop
something which, if the U.S. doesn't act, might turn into a Rwanda, and
that's not an exaggeration.
DB: In your essay you say that "President Clinton needs no instructions on
how to proceed." Then you go on to describe some events that happened in
late 1997 and in the spring of 1998. What exactly went on?
NC: What went on is that General Suharto, who had been the darling of the
U.S. and the West generally ever since he took power in 1965, carrying out
a huge mass murder, the CIA compared it to the slaughters of Hitler and
Stalin and Mao, described it as one of the great mass murders of the
twentieth century, it was very much applauded here. He wiped out the main,
the only popular-based political movement, a party of the left, killed
hundreds of thousands of peasants, opened the place up to Western
investment, virtual robbery, and that was greeted very warmly. And so it
remained, through atrocity after atrocity, including the invasion of East
Timor, which was supported very decisively by the U.S. and up until 1997.
In 1997 he made his first mistake. One thing was he was beginning to lose
control. If your friendly dictator loses control, he's not much use. The
other was, he developed an unsuspected soft spot. The International
Monetary Fund (IMF), meaning the U.S., was imposing quite harsh economic
programs which were punishing the general population for the robbery
carried out by a tiny Indonesian elite, and Suharto, for whatever reason,
maybe fearing internal turmoil, was dragging his feet on implementing
these. Then came a series of rather dramatic events. They weren't much
reported here, but they were noticed in Indonesia, widely, in fact. In
February 1998, the head of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, flew into Jakarta and
effectively ordered Suharto to sign onto the IMF rules. There was a picture
taken which was widely circulated in Jakarta and Australia showing a kind
of humble Suharto sitting at a table with a pen and an imperious-looking
Camdessus standing over him with his arms folded and some kind of caption
saying, Typical colonial stance. Shortly after that, in May 1998, Madeleine
Albright telephoned Suharto and told him that Washington had decided that
the time had come for what she called a "democratic transition," meaning,
Step down. Four hours later, he stepped down. This isn't just cause and
effect. There are many other factors. It's not just pushing buttons. But it
does symbolize the nature of the relationship.
There's very good reason to believe that if the Clinton Administration took
a strong stand, made it very clear to the Indonesian generals that this
particular game is over, it would be over. I doubt very much, though there
is talk about an intervention force, which the U.S. is refusing to make any
commitment to, and about sanctions, which the U.S. is also dragging its
feet on, and there are other, even weaker measures that could be considered
that could be very effective, such as, for example, threatening the
Indonesian generals with war crimes trials, which is a serious threat for
them. It means they're locked up in their own countries for a long time.
One of the Indonesian generals, the architect of the massacre in Dili, it's
already happened to him. He was driven out of the U.S. by a court case
which he lost and had to flee. But those are things that the generals care
about. They're easy. But I frankly don't think that any of these things are
necessary. We don't know that they're necessary, and we won't know until
the Clinton Administration does something simpler, namely, take a strong
stand, saying approximately what they said to Suharto in May 1998. I rather
suspect that that would work. Although by now it may be too late. The time
to do this was February or March, certainly not later than April, when the
killings were already picking up substantially, serious massacres, like
killing sixty people hiding in a church in Liquica, for example.
DB: That happened in April.
NC: There were a lot more. This is one particularly awful one. The Clinton
Administration again dragged its feet on even allowing unarmed U.N.
observers. They finally let in a couple of hundred observers, the UNAMET
observer team that was there. I should say that the remnants of that team
is now, as of a couple hours ago, locked up in a compound being attacked by
Indonesian troops and Indonesian militia and running out of food and water.
One of the people holed up in there apparently is Allan Nairn, a friend of
ours, who escaped. Dili, the capital city, is apparently wiped out,
according to the few people who are left. A lot of it is burned down. The
population is driven out. Allan was trying to keep looking in to see what
was going on in the city and was finally trapped by Indonesian soldiers. He
somehow made it to the U.N. compound and is at least alive. That's what's
happening right now.
After the referendum, which of course was an overwhelming victory for
independence and a remarkably courageous act on the part of the Timorese,
to vote for independence in the midst of terrible terror with an occupying
army organizing it, that takes a lot of guts.
DB: Almost 99% of eligible voters turned out, and close to 80% voted for
NC: There were tens of thousands of people who came out of hiding to vote
and fled back into hiding. Right after that started, the rampage which is
devastating the country. This morning the U.N. reported 200,000 refugees.
Church courses in Dili, very reliable ones, I presume this goes back to the
Bishop, who's now in exile, driven out of the country, have reported about
3,000-5,000 people killed in the last few months, mostly in the last couple
of days. Those numbers are going up. Those numbers alone are approximately
twice as bad as Kosovo in the entire year before the bombing. That was at a
time when there was a big guerilla movement going on which had occupied
forty percent of the country. Here it's just plain massacre in a country of
less than half the size of Kosovo. So the scale is huge, and it's going up.
We don't know how bad it is because the first thing that the Indonesians
did was to drive all observers out of the country. So virtually all the
journalists were forced to flee. Some, like Allan and a couple of
Australians, stayed. The U.N. has been compelled to withdraw virtually
everyone. If they can get those people out of the compound in Dili, I
presume they'll get them out, too. That means that terror can go on
unobserved. In the countryside nobody has any idea what's going on.
Telephone service has been cut off. The university has been burned down.
The Bishop's residence has been burned down. He had to flee. He was taken
out by the Australian military. What's going on there nobody knows. The
descriptions that are coming through, mainly from Australia by Australian
reporters and diplomats, are pretty horrendous. Dili, the one place anybody
knows anything about, has been virtually cleansed, apparently. That's the
term used by a few U.N. officials. Also tremendous looting, robbery,
apparently they're trying to destroy the place.
DB: The Indonesian apologetic for what they're doing in East Timor is that
if East Timor becomes independent it will set a precedent for Ambon, Irian
Jaya and Aceh.
NC: Let's remember that East Timor is not part of Indonesia. East Timor was
invaded and conquered by Indonesia. That has never been recognized by the
U.N., never even been recognized by the U.S. It's been recognized by the
U.S. press for a long time. Up until very recently, the reports used to be
"Dili, Indonesia." But it's no more a part of Indonesia than occupied
France was part of Germany during the Second World War.
DB: So when Seth Mydans, who writes for the New York Times, describes
pro-independence advocates as "separatists," is he off the mark?
NC: That's like saying the French resistance were separatists under the
Nazis. Indonesia has been ordered to withdraw instantly, back in 1975, by
the Security Council. The U.S. didn't even veto it, though it undermined
it. The World Court has declared that the population retains the right of
self-determination. Australia did grant de jure recognition, but they've
essentially withdrawn it. That's it. The Indonesians have no right
whatsoever to be there except for the right of force and the fact that the
U.S. has supported their presence. Otherwise they'd be out.
What happened has been very graphically and lucidly described by the U.S.
U.N. Ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He was the U.N. Ambassador at the
time of the Indonesian invasion. He wrote his memoirs a couple of years
later and was very frank about it. He said, The State Department wanted
things to turn out as they did. It was my responsibility to render the U.N.
"utterly ineffective" in anything it might do, "and I carried it forward
with no inconsiderable success." Then he goes on to say what happened
afterwards. The next couple of weeks about 60,000 people were killed,
roughly the proportion of the population of Russia killed by the Germans.
That's him, not me. Then he turned to some other subject. That's pretty
accurate, and it continued. It got worse under the Carter Administration.
Richard Holbrooke, who just presented his credentials to the U.N. as
Ambassador yesterday. The press, in reporting this, did talk about his
diplomatic successes at Dayton. They didn't look at his diplomatic career
in connection with another item that's on the front pages, namely East
Timor. He was Undersecretary of State for Asian Affairs for the Carter
Administration, and he was the leading apologist for the Indonesian invasion.
DB: Will Seaman (International Federation for East Timor Observer Project),
who has just returned from six weeks in East Timor, wants me to ask you
about the U.S. military ties with Wironto and the Indonesian military.
There is not an overt green light, but there is a yellow light for the
Indonesian military to carry out operations in coordination with the
militias in East Timor. Do you have any information on that?
NC: The Indonesian military was for a long period essentially a U.S.-run
military force. The officers were trained here. They had joint exercises.
They had mostly U.S. arms. That's changed. By now I think Australia is
probably much more involved in training and joint exercises. In fact, they
had joint exercises very recently, including with Kopassus, the commando
forces that have a horrible record and are modeled on the Green Berets.
They have been implicated in most of the current massacres. Britain has
been a major arms supplier. The U.S. government, the White House, has been
blocked by Congress from sending most arms and carrying out direct
training. The Clinton Administration has evaded those restrictions in the
past, found ways around them and continued under another hat. Whether
that's still continuing is very hard to say, because nobody is looking at
it, as far as I know. These things usually come out a couple of years
later. But whatever the arrangements may be, there is no doubt that the
U.S. military has plenty of leverage, and the White House, too, if they
want to use it. The Indonesians care quite a lot about what stand the U.S.
takes with regard to what they do.
I should say that they are not powerless, however. One of the reasons why
the U.S. is maybe hanging back, apart from the fact that Indonesia is a
loyal, rich client and there are plenty of U.S. corporations operating
there and they don't care one way or another about the Timorese, quite
apart from all of those things, which have been operative for quite a long
time, there's another problem looming right now. It doesn't get reported
much. A couple of days ago the Chinese President Ziang Zemin was in
Thailand. He made a very strong speech which got a lot of attention in
Southeast Asia in which he condemned U.S. "gunboat diplomacy" and economic
neocolonialism. He talked, not in detail, but he discussed security
arrangements between China and ASEAN, the Southeast Asian countries.
According to the limited press coverage from Southeast Asia, the Thai
elites welcomed this because they are glad to see a counterforce to the
U.S., which much of the world is very much afraid of now. China is clearly
offering some kind of security arrangement in which it will be the center.
That means also an economic bloc with the Southeast Asian countries or part
of them, maybe Japan ultimately brought in, and North Asia, that would
exclude or at least marginalize the U.S.
You have to remember that the major concern of the U.S. in that region of
the world since the Second World War has been to prevent that from
happening. That has been the driving concern behind the remilitarization of
U.S. allies, including Japan, the Indochina war, the U.S. clandestine
operations in 1958 which tried to break up Indonesia, which at that time
was neutralist and right on to the present. They didn't care much about
Russia. They didn't have a Cold War connection. But it was a concern that
the countries of the region might accommodate to China, as it was put in
internal documents, and create a kind of an Asian bloc in which the U.S.
would not have privileged access and control. I can't imagine that
Washington policymakers aren't aware of this. Indonesian generals may be
thinking of it, too, thinking that it offers them a certain degree of
leverage against even mild U.S. pressures.
DB: What suggestions would you make to ordinary Americans, listeners to
this broadcast or readers of this interview, what can they do?
NC: There is one last chance to save the Timorese from utter disaster. I
stress "utter." They've already suffered enormous disaster. In a very short
time span, in the next couple of days, probably, unless the U.S. government
takes a decisive, open stand, this thing may be past rescue. It's only
going to happen in one way, if there's a lot of public pressure on the
White House. Otherwise it won't happen. This has been a horror story for
twenty-five years. It's now very likely culminating, and there isn't much
time to do anything about it.
DB: Thanks very much.
The number for the White House comment line is (202) 456-1414.