The picture is of Ali Alata, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, flipping the bird. His target, protesters for the freedom of the East Timor resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao. The caption reads, ‘Is this the man who wants to be the next general secretary of the UN?’ This picture is part of a war, and something that is a part of any war: propaganda. It runs rampant on both sides, Hitler used it, so did Churchill, so did Truman, and so do the many sides of East Timor’s struggle for freedom against Indonesia. Propaganda takes the form of books, newspaper articles, speeches, television exposes, and the form which Mr. Alata’s unflattering picture did, as part of Internet home pages.
Many have not heard about the war, it has received relatively little media coverage, though it is over 20 years old now. The combatants: East Timor and Indonesia. This war started when Indonesia invaded East Timor, a small island to its Southwest, on December 7, 1975. East Timor belonged to the Portuguese until April 1974, when that government was overthrown in a military coup. What has happened since, like so many things, depends on who you ask.
Enter two new combatants, the propagandists for the East Timorese, or the ‘pinkos’, and the propagandists for the Indonesians, or the ‘murderers’. Each side has painted a startlingly different picture of the war, leaving those of us who have not seen East Timor close up either ignorant, confused, or biased. It’s difficult to say who is which, but everyone in the West is at least one of these things, when it comes to East Timor.
The ‘pinkos’ consist of a small group of reporters, journalists, writers of various sorts, and some citizens concerned enough to form a hodgepodge of associations, designed to inform the public. This task, due to an apparent lack of interest by the press, has proved monumentally unachievable by these under-manned groups. The reason for the press’s lack of interest, once again, depends on who you ask. If you ask Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most respected left-wing thinkers, he might say that, in 1975, “as another boiling blood-bath proceeded, [press] coverage declined, keeping largely to the lies and apologetics of the State Department and Indonesian general. By 1978, as the slaughter reached genocidal levels, coverage reached flat zero. The same was true in Canada, another leading supporter of Indonesia.” According to ‘pinkos’ like Chomsky and Matthew Jardine (author of ‘East Timor: Genocide in Paradise’), 60,000 East Timorese were massacred during the first two months of this occupational war. It is now estimated that over 200,000 East Timorese have been killed, or almost 1/3 of the original population of the island.
It is the argument of such sources, that the East Timorese have no desire to be part of Indonesia, and are desperately fighting for independence. Furthermore, the rest of the world, including UN members such as France, Canada, the US and Australia, are aiding in this ‘genocide’ by providing the weapons and ammunition necessary to Indonesia. The reason? Money. There is gold in East Timor, and a communist independent East Timorese government would not be as cooperative in “sharing the wealth”, as Indonesia, which wants desperately to establish and maintain foreign aid, investment and development. So unlike in Kuwait, where Western profit was on the line, and therefore a war was waged against the oppressor to protect our profit, er, that is, the oppressed, East Timor was left to hang. And, according to Chomsky, “Meanwhile [Australian] Prime Minister Hawke declared that ‘big countries cannot invade small countries and get away with it.'” Yet Australia continued to provide arms and aid to Indonesia as it massacred the smaller and defenseless East Timor, according to Jardine.
In November 1991, 250 East Timorese were killed when a demonstration was fired upon by Indonesian soldiers. According to Jardine, the only distinction between this and other slaughters by Indonesia, was that there happened to be press there to witness this one. After international outcry, Indonesia suspended two high-ranking officials, sending them abroad to study, and fired some soldiers. The surviving protesters were punished with prison sentences ranging from five years to life. Jardine writes, “General Try Sutrisno, the commander of the Indonesian military at the time of the massacre and now the country’s vice-president, said that the East Timorese who’d gathered at the cemetery were ‘disrupters’ who ‘must be crushed…delinquents like these have to be shot, and we will shoot them.'”
Accounts of visitors to the island recall a land of fearful residents, who are afraid to talk much to foreigners. Priests fear spies in their congregations. Residents report that “we are slaves of the Indonesians,” and that the island is “a prison.” Foreigners are tailed and spied upon by the Indonesians. Visitors speak of a land where no one has escaped the wrath of the occupation, and everyone has lost at least one loved one. But a resilience, a feeling of defiance toward the Indonesians, is also spoken of.
Organizations such as the East Timor Alert Network (ETAN) now publish brochures, heralding the efforts of men such as East Timor’s Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and resistance leader Jose Ramos-Horta, who each won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for their efforts to free East Timor. According to this organization, Horta’s life was spared only because he was away during the invasion by Indonesia, and it describes him as an exiled refugee. This organization urges action and sells products to raise money for the effort of freeing East Timor.
Of course, that is just one side of the story, that of the ‘pinkos’. Now, for that of the ‘murderers’. The Indonesian Foreign Affairs Department paints a completely different picture of the East Timor / Indonesia relationship. According to Indonesian Foreign Aid Minister Alatas, the goals of Indonesia include promoting “universal respect for and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” He claims that many of the claims against Indonesia are lies and exaggerations, and the incidents that are acknowledged, “in a vast land of 200 million people, are bound to happen now and then.” Mr. Alatas condemns the practice of judging other countries based on human rights, and urges international partnerships in human rights reforms, because he believes that all nations have guilt. According to Mr. Alatas, by focusing on the individual, a more peaceful, tolerant and just international society may be created.
An Indonesian government report describes the improvements in human rights that Indonesia has made over the Portuguese oppression. It describes the massive funds allocated in aid to this province, six times higher than the amount in any other province. The number of schools has increased over ten-fold, the number of hospitals has increased by five times, 3,800 kilometres of new roads have been built, paddy production has increased six-fold, crop diversification has been encouraged, a fishing industry has been established, coffee production is up, and new printing, soap manufacturing and electrical equipment assembly industries have been established. In 1989, more than 1,500 East Timorese students obtained university scholarships, and sanitation and rural development programs were installed. Furthermore, the East Timorese are represented by eight provincial and national politicians. Peaceful, political opposition has been encouraged. Yet “the people of East Timor have four times over the past 20 years reaffirmed their desire to live like the rest of the citizens of Indonesia in a peaceful, secure and orderly society.”
The literature goes on to explain that the November 1991 incident was condemned by government officials, and that those responsible were “severely punished.” An Indonesian news release in response to allegations by Congressman Frank Wolf describes the good that Indonesia has done for East Timor. It claims that the 1991 massacre was “without precedence.” It described the five military units in East Timor, only one of which is for combat. Military units are considered essential for a country consisting of more than 17,000 islands. This article also claims that the number of churches in East Timor has increased eight-fold, and the percentage of Catholics has increased from 27 to 92 % since Indonesia took over, proving religious tolerance.
Juwano Sudarsono, vice governor of the National Resilience Institute argues Indonesia’s case from another angle. He states that there are “clear links between human rights activists and businesses affected by growing international interests,” in a paper entitled ‘The Diplomatic Scam Called Human Rights’. According to Sudarsono, “it was no coincidence that advanced industrialized countries’ focus on civil and political rights issues in East Asia grew with increasing competitiveness of those new industrializing economies.” He makes the same criticism of the West that the activists for East Timor make of Indonesian defenders, that money is the real motive for action. According to this argument, the West uses human rights as an excuse to fight the competitive threat of a growing Asian economy. Sudarsono also criticizes the West for its assumption that its definition of human rights is universal, and should be abided by in all nations.
In another Indonesian government paper, the choice of Horta as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is criticized. This paper alleges that Horta continuously refused to discuss the independence of East Timor with UN officials. It portrays him as a ruthless, cold-blooded, mass murderer, and accuses him of taking advantage of young East Timorese with no understanding of war, and corrupting them to fight. This paper accuses Horta of being responsible for the entire war and the deaths it has caused.
As the two sides battle for conflicting goals, it becomes difficult for us to distinguish the truth, among what might once have seemed like obvious facts. Is East Timor as anti-Indonesia as we have been told? Is the death toll as severe as the ‘pinkos’ say it is? Has Indonesia really helped the East Timorese cause? This brief examination of two sides of a tale is just one example of how propaganda can blur the truth and confuse the masses, rather than informing them. In a world of propaganda artists with skilled pens and deadly swords, it becomes increasingly important to seek the truth, and yet believe nothing you read or hear.