This article was last modified on February 16, 2009.

Empire Strikes First: East Timor

The following is scheduled to appear in the March 2009 issue of The Scene.

In the December 2008 column of “The Empire Strikes First”, I suggested that “we will see little military change in the region [of Pakistan] for years to come” and that President Obama was going to call for more strikes. Only four days into the job, he unfortunately confirmed my suspicions. As of this writing, scores of Pakistanis — many of them civilians — have been the victim of American missile attacks, with no sign of an Obama apology or change of plan. While his domestic and economic policies may differ radically from his predecessor, the foreign policy looks to be the same old brew in shiny new bottles. Professor of Middle East Studies Juan Cole calls these attacks a “war crime” based on their defiance of “US treaty obligations and international law”, and former State Department employee William Blum agrees. Sadly, the Obama Administration is full of people with plenty of experience in maximizing human suffering. This month, we’ll more closely examine the past deeds of United States Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, leaving aside whatever role he may have in the current attacks already mentioned.

On December 7, 1975, the Indonesian military invaded the Southeast Asian island of East Timor, a former colony of Portugal, under Operation Lotus and began an occupation that would last over twenty years. Allegedly, the invasion was given an advance affirmation by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford under the pretense that Indonesian control would prevent the spread of communism. The military went on to carry out extrajudicial killings, torture and caused mass starvation. Women would suffer rape, sexual abuse and sterilization. One woman was arrested, burned with cigarettes, tortured with electricity, and forced naked into a tank filled with urine and feces. Many of the killings were carried out by paramilitaries in order to claim the official military was “clean”. Journalist Roger East, the only foreign reporter present in 1975, was handcuffed, shot in the face, and thrown into the sea alongside fifty Timorese. During the invasion alone, 50,000-80,000 casualties were estimated Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik. Body counts from the invading country tend to be low.

In August 1977, then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke traveled to Indonesia to meet with President Suharto, while one of the Indonesian military’s bloody counterinsurgency campaigns raged on, at this point slaughtering tens of thousands of East Timorese. Officially, Holbrooke visited to advocate new human rights reforms; however, once Suharto met Holbrooke, the dictator was praised for Indonesia’s alleged human rights improvements and Holbrooke told him that the steps that Indonesia had taken to open East Timor to the West were welcomed. Suharto allowed a delegation of American congressmen to enter the island under strict military guard, where they were greeted by staged celebrations, and welcomed the Indonesian armed forces. Vice President Walter Mondale met Suharto in May 1978, for a meeting where Mondale agreed to increase arms sales to Indonesia.

Holbrooke and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski were clandestinely trying to frustrate the efforts of congressional human rights activists to stop United States military assistance to Indonesia. The American leaders then actually increased the flow of weapons to Indonesia at the peak of the genocide. The United States sent in low-flying OV-10 Bronco airplanes, which were used to bomb and strafe the Timorese out of the hills. Brzezinski actively tried to stop American congressmen, particularly Minnesota Democrat Donald Fraser, from obtaining records related to American-Indonesian meetings. He also sent a memo to President Carter, asking him to “ease up on the human rights pressures directed at Indonesia.” Brzezinski went on to be a foreign policy adviser for Barack Obama, though, ironically, his son Ian was employed by the John McCain campaign. While Ford and Kissinger could claim a defense of not knowing the outcome of invasion, Holbrooke had two years’ worth of evidence to prove to him what Indonesian aid was being used for.

Testimony from Catholic Church sources and reports from Amnesty International indicated that at least 200,000 East Timorese were killed between 1975 and 1978. Estimates today tend to range somewhat lower, but even the lowest numbers suggest one-tenth or more of the population was exterminated. That would be the equivalent of 30,000,000 Americans executed today. During this period, not only was the United States sending in the weapons used to kill the Timorese — ninety percent of Indonesian guns were American-made — but it was also stopping the United Nations Security Council from enforcing on two resolutions calling on Indonesia to withdraw its troops immediately. In all fairness, one should point out that America did not act alone in providing aid to the Indonesian butchers. Japan was a leading obstructionist, trying to keep human rights groups from testifying at the United Nations. Other weapons suppliers included France, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, most of Asia and the notoriously “neutral” country of Sweden. After 1978 and up through 1999, the leading arms supplier was no longer the United States, but actually Great Britain.

What may strike those ignorant of true history as strange is that American and British assistance for genocide was not occurring during pro-war, right-wing administrations. The leader of the United States? Liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter, best known for his brokering of a peace deal between Israel and Egypt. The United Kingdom had Labour party leader James Callaghan, another liberal.

East Timor became an independent nation and member of the United Nations in 2002. The move was celebrated by many other countries, including the very same nations that helped eradicate the Timorese people. Of course, no apologies were offered for mistakes in the past, many of which could not even be confessed.

During a question and answer session at Brown University in 1997, Holbrooke was grilled by journalist Allan Nairn on his involvement in the Timorese massacre. Holbrooke was evasive, declaring the situation far more complicated than policy critics were willing to accept. He did, however, make some concessions. For one, he claimed to favor “the full declassification of documents regarding what the Carter administration … did in East Timor”. Holbrooke also claimed to be in favor of a war crimes tribunal and said, “If you want to accuse me of genocide, you’re welcome to do so.” Should Holbrooke be held to his words? Of course he should, as should anyone else implicated in these events. Subsequent release of documents, blocked by President Bush but leaked by the National Archives, has not painted a positive picture of American involvement.

As serial killer Richard Ramirez aptly asserted, “Killing is killing whether done for duty, profit or fun”. And so long as a government — ours, Indonesia’s or anyone’s — continues to see the deaths of innocent people as an acceptable method to reach an objective, they need to be called out on their actions. Be it Holbrooke, Brzezinski or President Jimmy Carter himself. Any child knows that hurting another child is wrong. How can well-educated adults in leadership positions fail to be smarter than a fifth grader?

Curious where last month’s column went? Don’t worry, it didn’t disappear down the memory hole. Last month’s column on Somali pirates, and all past “Empire Strikes First” articles, are available online unabridged for free at

Gavin Schmitt ( is a Kaukauna resident, a student of foreign policy, and a connoisseur of nachos. Praise mail is welcomed, hate mail is preferred.

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