The emergence of an independent East Timor on May 20 this year provided a classic example of how the British ‘free press’ act as a propaganda system covering up Western crimes. Many reports did mention that around 200,000 East Timorese – a quarter of the population – were massacred and starved to death following Indonesia’s illegal invasion of the territory in 1975. Missing from the reports, however, was the true extent – and ruthless motives behind – the US/UK support of Indonesia’s assault.

The Guardian’s John Aglionby, for example, observed merely that Suharto invaded “with the blessing of the US, Australia and Britain.” (The Guardian, 20 May, 2002; http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4416858,00.html)

Does this give a true picture of the role of these countries in East Timor? Compare Aglionby’s version with that of Philip Liechty, CIA desk officer in Jakarta at the time of the invasion:

“We sent the Indonesian generals everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn’t have any guns. We sent them rifles, ammunition, mortars, grenades, food, helicopters. You name it; they got it. And they got it direct. Without continued, heavy US logistical military support, the Indonesians might not have been able to pull it off… No one cared. No one gave a damn. It is something that I will be forever ashamed of. The only justification I ever heard for what we were doing was there was concern that East Timor was on the verge of being accepted as a new member of the United Nations and there was a chance that the country was going to be either leftist or neutralist and not likely to vote [with the United States] at the UN.” (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, pp.285-6)

A month after Indonesia invaded, as tens of thousands of people were being massacred, a US State Department official told a major Australian newspaper that “in terms of the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East Timor… The United States wants to keep its relations with Indonesia close and friendly. We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation – a nation we do a lot of business with.” (The Australian, January 22, 1976. Quoted FAIR, Action Alert, September 2, 1999)

US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, UN ambassador at the time of the East Timor invasion in December 1975, explained his role in preventing the UN from acting to halt Indonesia’s aggression:

“The United States wished things to turn out as they did and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success”. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, Pluto Press, 1996, p. 209)

In December 1975, the British ambassador in Jakarta informed the Foreign Office: “it is in Britain’s interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible, and that if it should come to the crunch and there is a row in the United Nations, we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides against the Indonesian government.” (Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1996, pp.219-220)

There was little chance of the Western public coming to the aid of East Timor, for reasons explained by American journalist Amy Goodman:

“In 1979, when the killing was at its worst, there wasn’t one mainstream press article in the New York Times and the Washington Post – not one. ABC, NBC and CBS ‘Evening News’ never mentioned the words East Timor and neither did ‘Nightline’ or ‘MacNeil Lehrer’ between 1975, the day of the invasion, except for one comment by Walter Cronkite the day after, saying Indonesia had invaded East Timor – it was a 40 second report – until November 12, 1991.” (Amy Goodman, Exception to the Rulers, Part II, Z Magazine, December 1997)

A study of the New York Times Index 1975-79 shows that East Timor received 70 column inches of entries over this period, as compared to 1,175 column inches afforded to contemporaneous atrocities by the West’s enemies in Cambodia.

John Pilger notes:

“Countries, whole societies, whole issues are invariably seen in terms of their importance and usefulness to Western interests or Western power. Why should East Timor be virtually ignored by the BBC for years, indeed ignored by most journalists? It was only in 1998 that journalists en masse descended upon East Timor and discovered it.” (David Cromwell, interview with John Pilger, June 3, 2001)

So why the silence? What interests were the media protecting?

Successive US administrations, The New York Times noted in 1999, “made the calculation that the United States must put its relationship with Indonesia, a mineral-rich nation of more than 200 million people, ahead of its concern [sic] over the political fate of East Timor, a tiny impoverished territory of 800,000 people that is seeking independence”. (Elizabeth Becker and Philip Shenon, The New York Times, 9 September, 1999)

Becker and Shenon forgot to mention the role of The New York Times in putting minerals ahead of concern for impoverished people by blanketing the horror in silence.

Western motives for supplying 90% of the weapons used against East Timor are further clarified by a secret cable sent by Richard Woolcott, the Australian Ambassador to Jakarta, in August 1975. In the cable, Woolcott advised that Australia approve the likely invasion because favourable arrangements to gain a share of East Timor’s oil “could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia … than with Portugal or an independent East Timor”. (Quoted, Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, op. cit., p.216)

Tipped off by the Indonesian regime that an invasion was imminent, Woolcott secretly cabled the Department of Foreign Affairs, proposing that “[we] leave events to take their course and act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show private understanding to Indonesia of their problems”.

This “private understanding” clearly assisted in Australia’s subsequent carving up of the considerable oil and gas reserves covered by the Timor Gap Treaty, signed with Indonesia in 1989.

Indonesia under Suharto was a significant market for Western arms. By providing ‘political stability’, Suharto also offered Western business interests the opportunity to benefit from the country’s extensive natural resources. A few months before the invasion, a Confederation of British Industry report noted that Indonesia presented “enormous potential for the foreign investor” and that, according to one press report, the country enjoyed a “favourable political climate” and the “encouragement of foreign investment by the country’s authorities”. (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, p.225)

Curtis notes that “RTZ, BP, British Gas and Britoil are some of the companies that have since taken advantage of Indonesia’s ‘favourable political climate'”.

All of this lies hidden behind Aglionby’s description of Indonesia invading “with the blessing” of the US, Australia and Britain.

Likewise, The Independent’s Richard Lloyd Parry referred to Indonesia’s devastating occupation as “straightforward international thuggery, colluded in by the United States, Britain and Australia”. (The Independent 20 May, 2002; http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=296894)

Recall that Lloyd Parry was here describing one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century by proportion of population. We can imagine the reaction if Lloyd Parry had described the Holocaust as “international thuggery”. At the time of the invasion, a lone radio voice in East Timor was picked up sending a desperate a call for help:

“The soldiers are killing indiscriminately. Women and children are being shot in the streets. We are all going to be killed. I repeat, we are all going to be killed.” (Quoted, The Age, Melbourne, December 8, 1975)

This indeed was the boast of Indonesian general Try Sutrisno, who said:

“These ill-bred people have to be shot… and we will shoot them.” (Quoted in Amnesty magazine, British Section, September/October 1994, p.5)

The line commonly used by the Indonesian military when dealing with East Timorese civilians was, “we will kill your family to the seventh generation”. (Quoted, Goodman, op., cit)

This is “international thuggery” only if a thug is comparable to a mass murderer.

In his article, Lloyd Parry described John Pilger as a “campaigner”. In fact, Pilger is one of a tiny number of honest and courageous Western journalists who brought the fate of East Timor to public attention. This was not appreciated by the rest of the ‘free press’, which had long surrounded Indonesia’s crimes with the same silence it reserves for so many damaging truths. Reviewing Pilger’s documentary, The Timor Conspiracy, detailing the full horror of what happened in East Timor, Charles Jennings of the Observer, wrote:

“I guess you have to have John Pilger. With his tan, his Byronic haircut, his trudging priestly delivery and his evident self-love, your main instinct is to flip right over to BBC1…” (Jennings, the Observer, January 24, 1999)

Again, we can imagine the consequences were Jennings to write in similar vein about a journalist presenting a searingly powerful documentary on horrors committed against the West. In a review of Pilger’s documentary describing Western responsibility for the death of 500,000 children under five in Iraq, Joe Joseph of The Times wrote:

“In his latest, harrowing documentary, Paying the Price: The Killing of the Children of Iraq [sic] – A Special Report by John Pilger (ITV), the fearless Australian journalist reminds us that – however daunting the odds stacked against him – he is not going to shy away from his lifelong commitment to make TV programmes with extremely long titles… His angry, I-want-some-answers-please documentary style, like his haircut, is a hangover from the 1970s; and like much of the Seventies, he is enjoying a small retro revival. Pilger is the Prada of TV journalism.” (Joseph, ‘Views of Iraq from the moral high ground’, The Times, March 7, 2000)

More recently, The Times made no mention at all of Britain’s role in supporting Indonesia’s brutal 24-year long occupation. Instead, reporter Ian Timberlake wrote deceptively that “British and Australian troops led an intervention force that ushered in a United Nations administration [that] began the task of rebuilding East Timor and preparing it for self-government.” (The Times, 18 May, 2002)

In fact, the intervention was primarily an Australian initiative following enormous public support for the East Timorese; but it was too little, too late. As Noam Chomsky observed at the time:

“It would have sufficed for the U.S. and its allies to withdraw their active participation [in arming and supporting Indonesia], and to inform the Indonesian military command that the territory [East Timor] must be granted the right of self-determination that has been upheld by the United Nations and the World Court.” (ZNet Commentary, 4 October, 1999, www.zmag.org)

In the Daily Telegraph’s account of how “bloodied” East Timor gained independence, reporter Chris McCall made no reference to the West’s complicity in “the territory’s bloody recent history” (Daily Telegraph, 20 May, 2002). However, the Telegraph’s anonymous report the previous day did note correctly:

“Indonesia’s 1975 invasion was carried out with the support of former US president Gerald Ford and then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger – who visited Jakarta on the eve of the attack. Successive US administrations later backed Indonesian dictator Suharto in his bloody crackdown against the rebels.” (Daily Telegraph, 19 May, 2002).

The extent of this ‘support’ and ‘backing’ was not explored.

On August 30, 1999, despite months of murderous intimidation by militia forces organised and armed by the Indonesian military (TNI), the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence: 344,850 (78.5%) voted in favour and 94,388 (21.5%) voted against.

The aftermath was a horrendous bloodbath as militias escalated their attacks on pro-independence supporters. It took until September 9 before Washington, under growing public pressure, finally suspended the Pentagon’s formal military ties with the TNI – a step the U.S. government could have taken much earlier. Almost immediately, Jakarta announced that it would allow in a peacekeeping force.

Indonesian historian John Roosa, an official observer of the referendum, reported:

“Given that the pogrom was so predictable, it was easily preventable… But in the weeks before the ballot, the Clinton Administration refused to discuss with Australia and other countries the formation of [an international force]. Even after the violence erupted, the Administration dithered for days.” (Quoted, New York Times, September 15, 1999)

As Amnesty International noted:

“If US leverage was ultimately the critical factor in persuading Indonesia to stop the killing and permit peacekeepers, why weren’t these steps taken sooner? Everyday between the vote and President Clinton’s [September] 9th statements meant more corpses, more burned buildings, more refugees.” (Quoted, Stephen Shalom, Humanitarian Intervention, ZNet Commentary, 18 January, 2000)

Remarkably, all of this happened just weeks after the conclusion of the West’s “humanitarian crusade” in Kosovo. With stunning audacity, the press feigned not to notice the hypocrisy. Hugo Young of the Guardian explained the sudden silence and inaction of the West’s “moral crusaders” thus:

“British intervention, a la Kosovo, will not happen: too far away, not enough troops. The Blair doctrine of crusading humanitarianism has its practical limits”. (Young, ‘Stop selling UK arms to the cruellest regimes on earth’, The Guardian, September 9, 1999)

Discussing the Western failure to react to the atrocity until 70% of all public buildings and private residences in East Timor had been destroyed, and 75% of the population had been herded across the border into militia-controlled camps in West Timor, where hostage taking, killings and sexual assault were a daily occurrence, Matt Frei of the BBC said:

“This is a moral crusade by the West, like Kosovo… but a moral crusade without teeth.” (BBC1 6 O’Clock News, October 10, 1999)

Mary Robinson, then UN commissioner for human rights, took a different view:

“For a time it seemed the world would turn away altogether from the people of East Timor, turn away from the plain evidence of the brutality, killings and rapes. (Robinson, ‘We can end this agony’, The Guardian, October 23, 1999)

Media Lens has found no mention in recent mainstream reports of the above uncontroversial account of the prelude to, and aftermath of, the August 1999 referendum. None of the reports we saw on East Timor winning independence in May 2002 included such ‘details’.

Small gestures have been made in the direction of truth. But, as ever, these serve only to maintain the illusion of press freedom, while the true extent of Western responsibility for mass murder goes unreported.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Richard Lloyd Parry of The Independent:

Email: [email protected]

Ask him why he failed to mention the cynical motives and central role of the UK, US, and other Western countries, in arming and supporting Indonesian dictator Suharto. Why did he not make it clear that Western arms and support were vital in making the genocidal assault on East Timor possible? Why did he not explore the spectacular hypocrisy of the West’s “moral crusaders” in allowing pre- and post-referendum Indonesian violence in East Timor to go unchecked just weeks after the “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo? Why did he not explore a quarter of a century of media silence on the genocide in East Timor?

Copy your letters to the Independent’s editor, Simon Kelner.

Email: [email protected]

Write to John Aglionby at the Guardian with similar questions:

Email: [email protected]

Copy your letters to the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger.

Email: [email protected]

Copy your letters to the Guardian’s Reader’s Editor, Ian Mayes.

Email: [email protected]