On Gerald Ford and the Invasion of East Timor (the Struggle January 5, 2007)
Q: President Gerald Ford was buried this week. He was nearly universally praised as “a man of decency,” “a Norman Rockwell painting come to life,” “a healer of the nation.” Outside of Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now!,” no one is talking about the Ford Connection, with one of the great crimes of the 20th century: the invasion of East Timor. I’ll be speaking with Noam Chomsky, a world’s famous fighter for human rights who has written often about East Timor. Good evening.
Chomsky: How are you.
Q: December 7 is a date every school child knows as the infamous date that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor but it’s also the date in 1975 that the Indonesians invaded East Timor. Could you give us a little background?
Chomsky: East Timor had been a Portuguese colony. Indonesia laid claim to the former Dutch Empire but had no claim and expressed no claim to East Timor. As the Portuguese fascist regime collapsed in the mid-70s, its colonies fell into conflict as usually happens with decolonization. Mozambique and Angola were--they had internal wars, they were attacked by South Africa, a complicated story there. And East Timor was one of two, three actually Portuguese colonies in Southeast Asia.
As the Portuguese prepared to withdraw, there was a very brief civil war: it was won by Fretilin, which was a sort of liberation movement of East Timor. Indonesia immediately began plans to invade; the getting up to December 7th, a few days before December 7th, Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford visited Indonesia-- Ford was President, Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State. The American intelligence knew the plans for the invasion. Australian intelligence was reporting to them, they were closely involved and so on. And there had already been preliminary Indonesian incursions.
So they sort of knew it was coming, they were informed by the dictator of Indonesia, Suharto, who had a long and bloody record himself. He came into power in 1965 in the course of a military coup, it was one of the great massacres in the 20th century. In fact, CIA compared it to the crimes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, “one of the great mass murders in the 20th century,” they called it. That he killed maybe a million people, mostly landless peasants, opened the country to western exploitation was greeted by complete euphoria, undisguised euphoria in the United States and most of the West. So Suharto was a great hero of the West; it didn’t matter how hideous his atrocities of crimes were. (Q: So he was a known quantity) He was a known quantity, definitely, and very admired.
He informed Kissinger and Ford of his plans to invade East Timor, it was of course defensive, like every aggression in history is, Hitler’s and everyone’s. They had to prevent Cuba from being established, in the Southeast Asia, Russian satellite, the usual business. And Ford and Kissinger essentially gave him the green light. They said they would have no objection: Kissinger’s line was just get it over with quickly so we don’t get into trouble. Indonesia was armed with American arms provided on condition that they would only be used in self-defense. So Kissinger’s observations was, if this goes on too long, we may get into trouble with the Congress and others because the arms are being used illegally.
Q: And this is, there are all documents about…?
Chomsky: Yes, all pretty well documented by now. And most of it was known very quickly, but congressional testimony by Ben Anderson, who is a leading Southeast Asian specialist in the United States very quickly—I forgot the exact date—and bits and pieces appeared in the press and a fair amount in Australian press, I should say. And Kissinger and Ford only requested that Suharto delay the invasion until after they left, so they didn’t have to be on the day of the invasion.
They left, Indonesia invaded on December 7th as you said, there was a massacre. The Security Council passed a resolution which the United States actually supported calling on Indonesia to withdraw as an outright case of aggression, of no qualifications. However, it had no effect. And the reasons were explained by the United States UN ambassador Daniel Moynihan, a great liberal hero regarded as a courageous lonely ex…advocate of international law. In his memoirs, a couple of years later, he explains that his instructions were from the State Department, were to ensure that he would… his task was to render the United Nations “utterly ineffective” in anything it might do to impede the Indonesian invasion, and also the Moroccan invasion of western Sahara, a simpler case. He said he was very successful in achieving this result, he was very proud of himself for having rendered the UN ineffective, therefore expediting the invasion and subsequent slaughter. He himself points out in the same book that within the first few weeks it seems that Indonesia had killed about 60,000 people. And he goes onto the next topic.
Q: I noticed the name Philip Habib cropping up in the story. I remember him a few years later guaranteeing the safety of Palestinian women and children in Lebanon just before the Sabra/Shatila massacre.
Chomsky: Yes, when the US essentially collaborated—the US supported – this was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, supported by the United States, completely without, utterly no credible pretext. In fact the real reason which was described quite openly in Israel was to undermine the embarrassment of Palestinian, PLO offers of negotiation. It was described as a war for the West Bank: we can get rid of the PLO and their other bases in Lebanon, we will have a free end to the West Bank. And on that basis.. Israel tried to elicit some kind of PLO action that would be a pretext for the invasion. For example, Israel bombed Lebanon and killed a lot of people hoping that the PLO would respond, and give them a pretext, PLO didn’t give them a pretext so they just invaded.
Actually, the first act of invasion June ‘82 was to bomb the Sabra/Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, which later became famous for a huge massacre. This one killed about 200 people, according to the testimony of Middle East specialist Cheryl Rubenberg, who was there at that time. But that was passed unnoticed, and they invaded and maybe killed 15-20,000 people, destroyed a good part of southern Lebanon, much of Beirut.
Q: Now we see these people cropping up again and again in history and may never get punished, never get reprimanded.
Chomsky: (Philip Habib)’s role was not horrible, he tried to negotiate ceasefire, it turned out that as the US…the US sort of finished the Israel’s job of expelling the PLO. And shortly after that came Sabra/Shatila massacre, as mentioned a huge massacre, but yes, the same people show up.
The role of Moynihan and Kissinger was unusually ugly. I mean they facilitated consciously a tremendous massacre. Actually the United States did impose an embargo on the arms to Indonesia right after the invasion. But the embargo was so secret that the Indonesians never knew about it. And in fact what the US did, Kissinger did was an arrange for new arms shipments to Indonesia, not only with using the US arms illegally but he’s providing new ones, including the counter-insurgency equipment –the air craft—used for, designed for counterinsurgency and so on. They were used by 1978, within about two years. It was estimated that deaths in East Timor were in the range of maybe one or two hundred thousand.
Q: A dumb question: Gerald Ford certainly knew about this?
Chomsky: He knew about it but we really don’t know to what extent he was aware of what’s going on. I mean certainly Kissinger and Moynihan were. The Presidents are often… it’s very hard to tell sometimes—they sometimes have a figure head status. So, I’m not sure for example how much George Bush knows about the policies of his administration. But Ford was certainly aware of it. He may not have known the vicious details which Kissinger and Moynihan certainly did. He, Moynihan, mentions the early ones in his memoirs. Kissinger repeatedly provided apologetic commentary about how we have to end it to Congress and internally, documents are available about we have to make sure the Indonesian get this over fast, let’s get rid of it, we can’t—we can’t let an independent East Timor develop. I think they’re mainly concerned that-- pretty much the same reason they were concerned about Cuba or Allende or Vietnam for that matter, it wasn’t that threat to anyone, it was that successful independent development, but particularly in some very tiny backward country, it’s quite dangerous because it can be, using Kissinger’s phrase, it can be a virus that could spread contagion elsewhere. Others might try it.
Q: When did you –I’m sorry if I—when did you first get involved with the East Timor issue?
Chomsky: Very quickly. Within about--I mean I knew about the invasion. I didn’t know much about the region or anything, but within about two months--it must have been February, I guess--the New York Times did have a small item, in which it said that apparently 60,000 people had been killed—that the back page somewhere but immediately sparked interest. Killing 60,000 people in an invasion in two months in a little country of 600,000 is no small achievement.
Right at that time, there were a few mostly young activists who were trying to get some interest in this. The most important one, and he’s still working on it, is Arnold Kohen. He was a graduate student at Cornell University, the department of Southeastern Asian studies, actually a student of Ben Anderson and George Kahin, who is sort of a founder of modern Southeastern Asian studies. He left graduate school and started working full time on this and in fact has--the ultimate liberation of East Timor owes probably more to him than any other person. Of course, he’s pretty much unknown, which is the usual story, but he began—I don’t remember exactly how, but he contacted me, asked if he could come to a talk, some event that he was organizing, a couple of others came along. Pretty soon, there was a small movement trying very hard to get people to be aware of this.
I mean this is--the slaughter in East Timor is about as close to literal genocide as anything in the modern period. I mean they may have been-- nobody knows for sure-- to the quarter of the population something like that, quite an atrocity. In fact in scale, it was about the same as what was credibly reported from Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge at the same time before the major Cambodian massacres in 1978.
Q: And Alan Nairn and Amy Goodman deserved a lot of credit for their reporting.
Chomsky: They did it very--they went to East Timor in 1991. There was a major Indonesian massacre in a cemetery. The Indonesian army came in and just mowed down hundreds of people who were commemorating the killing of a Timorese at church shortly before Amy and Alan were there. They were--Alan actually had his head cracked by Indonesians. They were trying to protect…they tried to say, look, we’re American journalists, but the Indonesians just came after them. Miraculously they survived and they then came back and managed to get out and they made it public here.
Also there was one journalist, British photo journalist who was in the cemetery hiding behind a gravestone, and he made photographic record, he videotaped a lot of it and played it on British TV. So, at least in England and other places it got to be known. And Amy and Alan played a major role in letting it be known here. Right at the times the Dili massacre, finally there had been substantial --there had been support groups, small activist support groups in the United States, in England, in Canada, one in Sweden, a few other places, all of these countries were participating in the atrocities in East Timor. The US was sending substantial arms, I think Britain took over in 1978 as the leading arms supplier. France, the French foreign minister in 1978.. 1978 was the peak year of atrocities, they know it. In 1978 he informed Indonesia and it was published in the press..
Q : And all this can continue well into the Clinton years.
Chomsky: Then it goes on right into the Reagan years more in the Clinton years. Suharto came to Washington in 1995, the Clinton administration greeted him with great ceremony, he was described by a high official as “our kind of guy,” a guy we really like. (Q: Great, great.) And it goes on right through the Clinton years. Finally just to get to the end, in 1998, Suharto was beginning to lose control. There was--his regime was very brutal inside Indonesia as well: one of the worst human rights records in the world. Tremendous corruption, he was in fact way in the lead among in measures of corruption by the Transparency International, Euromonitor. By 1978 he was kind of losing control. There were student protests and so on, and he was also beginning to drag his feet on IMF orders, that’s a real crime. At that point, the United States--what actually happened is Madelaine Albright called him and said it was time, the United States decided it was time for a “democracy transition” in Indonesia. In other words, you’re finished, get out of here. A couple of hours later, he resigned. It wasn’t cause and effect. But the symbolism is striking.
Q: We almost had time to…there’re just two more (Chomsky: Just to fill..) Oh, OK.
Chomsky: As Indonesia was going through this crisis, there was an agreement to allow the Timorese to have a referendum on independence. We are now in early 1999, the Indonesian army stepped up atrocities sharply, actually considerably worse than anything reported from Kosovo at the same time. Big atrocities. That increased. And they warned, the Indonesian army warned that if the Timorese voted for independence, they were just going to destroy the place. Well, the Timorese with amazing courage, did go to vote on August 30 and they voted for independence. And then a huge massacre took place.
By that time, Clinton was under tremendous pressure--domestically from Catholic Church, conservative republicans, internationally to call off the Indonesians. And he finally said, basically told them, look, the game is over. That’s about it. At that point the Indonesians withdrew immediately. And the Australian-led peace keeping force entered.
It’s interesting how this has gone down in history. It’s gone down in history as a remarkable humanitarian intervention by the Clinton administration. Actually it’s opposite transparently. I mean as soon as Clinton said the game is over, they withdrew. That tells you, as if you don’t know already, that the US could have stopped the massacre at anytime, from the time that Ford and Kissinger were there and prevented it at anytime since, by just saying look, we’re not going to support you any longer, but they didn’t until it was under tremendous pressure. Then they finally allowed…finally Clinton said OK, it’s over, and then they withdrew in fact the Clinton administration impeded efforts to gain forensic evidence to determine what happened and to provide meaningful aid and so on. And that takes us up to the present.
Q: Well, thanks for all this on East Timor, just two more questions. President Ford has been praised as a great healer for pardoning Nixon, and pardoning draft resisters who had fled to Canada. Was this kind of healing what we really needed at that time in the 70s?
Chomsky: Well, I find it hard to answer that because I regard it at-- I wrote at that time, now even more so, that the whole Watergate proceedings were almost a farce. I mean Nixon was not charged with the series of crimes of his administration. They were off the agenda. So, for example the bombing of Cambodia which was right in everyone’s mind now and we have since learned it was five times as heavy as the Pentagon reported at that time. Everyone knew that it was a major crime. That was on the original proposal for an indictment, but it was taken off.
Watergate itself, the Watergate exposures appeared at the very same time as the exposures of Cointelpro. Cointelpro was an incomparably worse crime: went through four administrations, was the National Political Police- the FBI- and they reached all the way to the political assassination: the Blank Panther organizers, two of them. That was horrible, it was real monstrous atrocity to be revealed at the same time as Watergate. In comparison, the Watergate charges were a tea party. Very minor, you know ugly but by comparison certainly minor. The difference was Watergate annoyed powerful people. Cointelpro was just destroying left-wing political parties, undermining the Women’s movement, the Black movements, murdering organizers and so and so who cares? Cointelpro passed virtually unnoticed, Watergate became a huge issue. What it teaches you is calling important people bad names in private, like enemies list, is much worse than, say murdering Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. That’s the lesson of Watergate. In fact, even the major crimes of the Nixon administration were eliminated. So it’s a little hard to get exercised over Watergate and over bringing the country together. But I mean as Presidents go, Ford was not unusual for carrying out criminal enterprises. The worst was his acquiescence to the Indonesian invasion exactly what he knew about it. You can speculate.
Q: Thank you very much for this interview.
Chomsky: Good to talk to you.