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From East Timor to the WTO-The Force Behind the Invisible Hand, Part 1

From East Timor to the WTO: The Force Behind the Invisible Hand by Agatha Schmaedick

“It might not seem clear to you from where you are, but it’s very clear to me what the Indonesian military is planning to do.... tanks are in the street, men with rifles are lined up, everyone here is being told to evacuate immediately...”

These were the ominous words I heard from my co-worker when I called the CARE International office in Dili, East Timor on September 4, 1999. At the time I was staying in Denpasar, Bali, an island in east Indonesia. Up to that moment, I had planned to fly into East Timor on the following day, September 5th. With this disturbing news, my plans took a sudden turn. My international co-workers and I were standing in the eye of a hurricane, a storm that had been brewing for years.

“Yang bener pasti merembes” (The truth always leaks) —Iwan Fals

For the past 10 years my family has had close ties with East Timor. Our relationship with the small half of an island just north of Australia began when I was 13 and I, after seeing a very moving advertisement on TV for Christian Children’s Fund, encouraged my mom to sponsor an East Timorese boy, Tomas Da Costa Ximenes (then seven years old). My interest and involvement in Indonesian issues has grown ever since. I have lived, studied, and worked in Indonesia, first as a high school exchange student from Corvallis, (OR) then as a volunteer for CARE International. CARE is an international NGO (non-governmental organization) that began as a provider of crisis humanitarian food relief after World War II. CARE has since evolved its mission to providing preventative measures for human welfare around the world.

Through my first-hand experiences I quickly grew to love Indonesia and the people I met there, but it didn’t take me long to become aware of a terrible shadow of injustice this country lives with. Shortly before visiting Tomas in East Timor in July of 1996 I learned that in 1975 Indonesia had sent in its troops and forcibly annexed a peaceful island nation. This case of blatant aggression and genocide had never been brought to my attention before, despite my involvement with Indonesia, due to the heavy silencing this issue has faced in the U.S. mass media. Over 200,000 people have been killed since the Indonesian invasion—which amounts to one third of the original population. Indonesia had no cultural or historical ties with East Timor and its reign over those people has never been officially recognized by the UN (yet the United States has routinely refused to sign on to the UN Resolution for East Timor’s Right to Self-Determination). For the past 24 years, Indonesia has terrorized and tortured the population of East Timor into submission, though there has been popular resistance throughout this time.

Early in 1998, a breakthrough occurred, sparked by students and workers in Indonesia who demanded an end to the dictatorship and corruption of the military regime of Indonesian President Suharto. In the chaotic aftermath, Indonesia’s new President Habibi ordered a referendum and elections to allow the people of East Timor to decide their own fate. Although this announcement was met with excitement by many, there was also great fear, apprehension and frustration. Habibi’s gracious PR-move had completely overlooked the peace proposal that had long before been drafted by the UN and the East Timorese. This plan called for a five-year peaceful transition phase, allowing for the nation to stabilize and prepare itself for such a referendum, rather than being rushed through an anxious and terrorized election such as what Habibi initiated.

The months leading up to the referendum had been marked with escalating violence, as “pro-autonomy” militias tried to derail the elections, but it had seemed that they had given up and accepted their defeat... at least momentarily. The elections in East Timor were carried through with relative peace, and with an unprecedented voter turnout of 99%. At the end of the day, there had been dancing in the streets, elation, singing and rejoicing in the prospect of the long awaited freedom.

The results of the referendum in East Timor were released the morning of my phone call at 9:00 a.m. This marked an incredible and historic moment, the first time ever the East Timorese had been asked whether they wanted to be a part of Indonesia. The results of the referendum were not surprising: 78.5% voted for independence from Indonesia while 21.5% voted to accept the “autonomy” proposal, a scheme whereby East Timor would continue to be integrated with Indonesia. (If you aren’t sure what ‘autonomy’ means in this context, the example of Tibet is instructive. Tibet is the beneficiary of an ‘autonomy’ plan arranged by China).

But all this was to be shattered the next night by the Indonesian military (TNI). It soon became clear to those on the inside (and shortly after to the rest of the world) that the Indonesian military had no intention of accepting the independence of East Timor, not at least without one last finishing fight. The sentiment of TNI was, OK, fine, you can have your independence—but we are going to make you pay for it: we will obliterate your people, infrastructure and chances of building a stable nation.

The saddest part of this story, and why I’ve taken the time to write it all down here, is that the violence unleashed before and after the elections in East Timor was completely premeditated by the TNI and supported by 24 years of military aid from my own country, the U.S. The U.S. provided 90% of the weapons used against the East Timorese including OV10 Broncos and Winchester bullets (officially outlawed in our country). The militias, characterized by our mass media as being “out of control,” were in fact armed, trained and directed by the TNI for the past six months, from the day that Indonesian President Habibi first called for the referendum in East Timor. The U.S. Pentagon had complete knowledge of this and is complicit in all of the murders that took place there. The terror continues to this day.

Preliminary to Slaughter During the calm week long period following the elections, the TNI evacuated all of its “important” people from East Timor. Then the militias, armed with automatic weapons and drugged with speed, were unleashed.

My CARE co-workers were told by Indonesia officials that they should consider leaving the island on the night before what the TNI later claimed to the media were “surprise” attacks by the militias. The TNI, out of patience, didn’t wait for the UN and media evacuations to be complete. The night of the 5th, the militias began rampaging in Dili. Barely a building was left standing; over 70% of the infrastructure was destroyed. At the peak of the violence East Timorese were fleeing over the border at a rate of 1000 people per minute, only to have this escape for their lives later twisted and used against them. The TNI is now claiming that the elections must have been a farce because far more than the 21.5% who voted for “autonomy” left the new nation to “join” Indonesia. Many people have also been forcefully evacuated by TNI from the island of Timor altogether, shipped to other islands within the archipelago of Indonesia.

Today 400,000 people are still unaccounted for (missing, kidnapped, buried in hidden mass graves, dumped into the ocean?) in East Timor. Over 200,000 East Timorese are in West Timor, trapped in refugee camps controlled by the militias, terrorized and daily subjected to kidnappings, rapes and executions.

Globalization for Whom? Meanwhile, in our neck of the woods, the Clinton Administration is eagerly pushing towards rebuilding its cordial relationship with the criminals responsible for the wholesale destruction and slaughter in East Timor. U.S. foreign policy requires getting back to business as usual (of all the US presidential administrations since the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, Clinton’s administration has sold the most weapons to Indonesia).

Clinton was in a hurry throughout the fall of ’99 because, at the end of November, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Third Ministerial meeting was scheduled to be held in Seattle and he didn’t want any of these pesky human rights issues to interfere with fully expanding ‘free’ trade to emerging markets, particularly Indonesia.

Clinton knows that investors prefer order to democracy, as the decades of engagement with Indonesia’s corrupt Suharto regime demonstrate. Ethical questions of human rights, sovereignty, justice and equity seem always to go unaddressed in the WTO and other “globalization” institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, etc.). Why is it that, when it comes to globalization, the questions always come down to who has the cheapest labor force and largest natural resources with the lowest environmental standards? Why does globalization require that these values be enforced by autocratic regimes and cozy alliances between foreign military establishments and our own military-industrial complex?

What Clinton and other “leaders” have to come to grips with is the fact that there is a popular movement emerging worldwide to redefine the global corporate economy to include concerns about human rights, workers’ rights and environmental protections. East Timor is a test of these higher values when it comes to doing business with Indonesia.

Taking It Personally Corruption and violence are terrible wherever they occur. What has happened in East Timor has affected me on many levels, starting with my own family. The neighborhood in the capital, Dili, in which Tomas lived was ransacked and demolished. My family spent long weeks anguishing over the fate of Tomas. Fortunately, we recently found out he is alive in Dili. Though gratified that he escaped with his life, our capacity to help is limited, given the enormity of the devastation wrought by the Indonesian reaction.

But my sense of outrage and commitment extends beyond the concerns of my own family. We, all of us, must make a commitment to our world. It is crucial for our humanity that we stand for a "Community Interest" that extends beyond what we define as our own "Self-Interest." In my case, what started out as a cool student exchange experience in high school has grown into a passion to live in a just world. Becasue I have experience in the country of Indonesia and speak the language, I have chosen to work on the issues arising out of the Indonesian and American relationship. That choice is deeply affecting my life, all to the good.

My question to you is, what choices are you making on behalf of the "Community Interest?"

Agatha Schmaedick was born and raised in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. She was the last child of three in a multi-cultural family, her mother a Dutch high school teacher of French, her father American, and her stepfather Swiss-American. Agatha is now a student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, studying International Studies and Environmental Science. She plans to return to East Timor this coming summer, after finishing her BA, to help with reconstruction and crisis relief. Agatha volunteers at the Survival Center & Human Rights Alliance and the University of Oregon.

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