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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Imperialism's complicity in the East Timor atrocity

Renowned US scholar, NOAM CHOMSKY traces the background to the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and the ongoing complicity of imperialism in this violent annexation. This article first appeared in the Indian newspaper New Age.

The relevant background begins at the end of World War II, when the United States assumed, out of self-interest, "responsibility for the welfare of the world capitalist system". These are not my words, I am quoting the respected diplomatic historian Gerald Haines, who was also the senior historian at the CIA. The responsibility for the welfare of the rich and the privileged was taken very seriously. US business and political leaders carried out sophisticated global planning in which Indonesia had, in fact, a key role. The main task was to reconstruct the rich societies, crucially those that were called "natural leaders" or the "great workshops", namely Germany and Japan, which had just demonstrated their prowess and therefore had to be rebuilt. but now safely under US control.

In that general context, SouthEast Asia took on major importance, in particular Indonesia, which was the richest prize. Indonesia was called "Japan's empire towards the South". Those words are George Kennan's. He is one of the leading architects of the post-war world, the Head of the State Department Policy Planning staff.

So Japan's empire towards the South had to be reconstructed. In other words, the US undertook to reconstruct Japan's colonial empire, to which, incidentally, the US had no serious objection prior to the war, except that the US was not being given privileged entry into it.

Every part of the world was assigned a specific role by the planners. Africa for example was to be "exploited" as Kennan put it. Africa was to be exploited for the reconstruction of Europe, and the US took over the Western hemisphere for itself, unceremoniously kicking out France and Britain.

As for South East Asia, it was, as the then group of planners put it, to fulfill its main function in providing resources and raw materials for Western Europe and Japan, to help in their reconstruction, and for the US as well. Timor, incidentally, was mentioned in the early planning. Former US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt held at one point that Timor did deserve independence (it was under Portuguese colonial control), but he thought that the Timorese should not he too impatient about it. He suggested that they wait about a thousand years, expressing the usual contempt for the "lower orders".

"A political victory for the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia)", Keenan said in a secret discussion, "would be an infection that could sweep over all South Asia", meaning - others might make the same effort to win a political victory. Specialists on Indonesia in the US considered the expectation of a political victory not unrealistic. One specialist, Harold Crouch, writes that "the PKI had won widespread support, not as a revolutionary party, but as an organisation defending the interests of the poor within the existing system." So you can see with what problems they were posed.

In mid-1958 the Dulles brothers - one of them was Secretary of State, the other the head of the CIA - in a private conversation, were deploring what they called the "communist ability to get control of mass movements, something which we have no capacity to duplicate." "Unlike us, they can appeal directly to the masses", President Eisenhower complained.

Then John Foster Dulles explained the reason for this unfair advantage that "they" had. He said: "the poor people are the ones they appeal to and they have always wanted to plunder the rich. That's the great problem of history, and somehow we find it hard to sell our values, namely that the rich should plunder the poor." That's a kind of public relations problem that no one has yet quite figured out how to overcome. And because we cannot overcome it, we are forced to resort to our comparative advantage in violence and terror.

By the early 1960s, US experts were urging their contacts in the Indonesian military "to strike and sweep their house clean". That is Gary Park of the Rand Corporation Airforce Research Tank. The Indonesian regime understood the message perfectly, and it proceeded to cleanse its society with the 1965-6 massacres, that took perhaps half a million lives, and wiped out the PKI.

The country was quickly turned into what was called "a paradise for investors". US investment shot up with other associates, and the threat of political victory by a party representing the poor was put off for a long, long time. The Indonesian generals had eliminated the threat of democracy by a staggering mass slaughter, and destroyed the political party that had gained popularity by defending the interests of the poor. The generals had, by then, compiled one of the worst human rights records in the world, while offering enormous riches to Western investors.

There were, of course, more particular reasons for the West to lend its hand to the new atrocities, as the Indonesians invaded East Timor. There was, indeed, great concern at that time about the fate of the Portuguese empire. Coverage of East Timor was quite high in the US. If you think of what East Timor is to the US, it is a bit surprising, but coverage was quite high in 1974 and 1975, in the context of the concern over Portugal and the fate of its empire.

It is well remembered that it was not only East Timor that was subjected to a devastating Western-backed assault. The exact same thing was true of Angola and Mozambique, starting at the same time.

There were also some strategic interests in East Timor. Some of them had to do with the deep water passage for nuclear submarines. My own suspicion is that when the record is released - if it ever is, and I would not count on that - we may well find that one major factor was the one that was, indeed, emphasised by Australian ambassador to Jakarta (capital of Indonesia), Richard Woolcott. In a famous (and later leaked) cable in August 1975, just before the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, Woolcott advised that Australia go along with the impending invasion. The reason he gave was that Australia could make a better deal on the oil reserves in the Timor Gap with Indonesia than with Portugal or and independent East Timor.

And what is good for the energy companies is always in the national interest. That is true, virtually by definition. Australia's recognition of the Indonesian annexation of East Timor occurred more or less simultaneously, it seems, with the beginnings of negotiations on the oil reserves.

The actual Indonesian-Australian treaty on oil was finally signed in 1989, and it went to effect immediately after the infamous Dili massacre. It was in the immediate after-math of the massacre, as it happens, that the Indonesian and Australian joint authority began signing exploration contracts with major oil companies. These were contracts designed to rob the oil of what the treaty calles "the Indonesian province of East Timor". One of the deep ironies of this plundering of oil wealth is that the Indonesian regime has argued that East Timor does not deserve the inalienable right of self-determination because it is "not viable economically".

This horror story can he brought to an end if the rest of the world shows even a fraction of the integrity and courage shown by ordinary Indonesians, who are protesting at what their government is doing in East Timor, under conditions that are vastly more onerous than any of us face or can imagine. And I do not even speak of the incredible courage of the Timorese, which shames all of us, perhaps Australiansin particular, because of the debt of blood which remains from World War II, (the Timorese assisted Australian soldiers fighting the Japanese, and helped to prevent a Japanese invasion of Australia).

We are, I think, at an important turning point in this case. With enough energy and commitment to change Western policies, which we should be doing, there is good reason to believe that one of the world's major atrocity stories can be brought to an end. The people of East Timor must enjoy their inalienable right of self-determination...and in less than a thousand years.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.