Companion to East Timor - Remember East Timor

Remember East Timor

Boston Globe editorial

Suharto visited the US in October 1982. Arnold Kohen led the effort to insert East Timor into the US media's coverage of his trip. He worked with Representative Tony Hall and Senator Paul Tsongas to coordinate letters to President Reagan from 66 House members and 18 senators, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, asking him to apply pressure on Indonesia to allow international observers into East Timor. These letters created an angle that Kohen's media contacts could use. Separate letters were organised by Republican Senator David Durenberger and signed by a diverse bipartisan group of 16 influential senior Senators. They were sent to Secretary of State George Shultz calling for increased international humanitarian access to East Timor. A letter from 14 Senators to Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles Percy called for hearings 'to determine as accurately as possible the actual situation in East Timor.'

On 7 October, the New York Times began by mentioning the bipartisan Durenberger and Hall letters and quoted Representative Tony Hall, who said that the 'famine was comparable to the ones in Biafra and Cambodia' and that 'serious food shortages resulting from Indonesian military operations' were 'largely unnoticed because of restrictions by Indonesia on foreign journalists and other visitors.'

Two days later, Karl Meyer editorialised in the same paper, comparing Indonesia's seizure of East Timor to Argentina's seizure of the Falklands. He called East Timor 'a wasting prison. As many as 200,000 people may have perished under Indonesia's occupation… At the very least, Indonesia's rulers have to be persuaded to open the doors to East Timor. But there is nothing persuasive about a UN that regularly threatens Israel for much lesser transgressions while gently chiding Indonesia for the abduction of a whole people.'

The next day the New York Times called Suharto's political support in Indonesia itself into question:

'although the Indonesian economy as a whole has soared under the increasingly autocratic rule of President Suharto, his political support – especially among poor and landless peasants, jobless or underpaid city-dwellers and a growing and often democratically inclined middle class – remains shallow.'

The highly-regarded columnist, Anthony Lewis, wrote that 'President Reagan's responsibility' was to 'bring home to President Suharto that what happens in East Timor matters to the United States… The important thing is simply to raise the question of East Timor. Not to do so would be wrongly understood as a signal that there is no real American concern. Many people engaged in the issue believe the Indonesians should be pressed to leave the territory altogether, allowing the Timorese to choose freely what government they want. But humanity requires at least a signal that we care.' Importantly, Kohen also arranged for the influential Sunday New York Times Week in Review to focus attention, alongside the Congressional efforts, on reports from Amnesty International of the 4,000 deportees then estimated to be held on Atauro Island.

The day after Lewis' column, the Washington Post and the New York Post accused the Reagan administration of being 'determined to play the same see-no-evil, hear-no-evil role … over the Indonesian campaign that cost the lives of as many as 200,000 East Timorese.' Referring to 'the genocidal attack on the peaceful people of East Timor by Indonesian troops', columnist Jack Anderson said that President Carter had 'declined to apply his loudly proclaimed human-rights standards to Indonesia'. He attacked US diplomats for 'playing down the Indonesian conquerors' continued brutal treatment of their vanquished neighbours.'

Alan Berger, editorial writer in the Boston Globe, wrote that 'it would be unfortunate … if Suharto is allowed to leave without hearing firm words from the President on the subject of East Timor. … Last year, the Indonesians were reported to have used Timorese men as shields for their armies as they sought out guerrillas resisting the Indonesian takeover. One consequence of this was that the agriculture of the region was abandoned, and suffering, hunger, malnutrition and starvation were commonplace.' He urged Reagan to 'heed the congressional advice.' (Boston Globe editorial)

In the Christian Science Monitor, the influential Daniel Southerland cautioned Presidents Reagan and Suharto that conservative Senators such as Barry Goldwater were 'concerned about … a disturbing situation in East Timor.' Goldwater, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, signalled his intention 'to take up some of the issues involved in hearings held by his committee' if 'for some reason the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not look into the matter.'

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorialised that President Reagan should take the 'opportunity to engage in the quiet diplomacy he professes to prefer where human rights are at issue.' It asked 'by what right does Indonesia replace Portuguese colonialism with its own?'

The campaign to remember East Timor continued in the Washington Post, with an editorial criticising 'Indonesia's refusal to countenance reasonably open access by relief agencies, journalists and other observers'. It said that 'Indonesia [should] be prodded to care for the people of East Timor [who] have a special claim to the protection of their human rights.' Human rights violations in East Timor were 'an embarrassment to the American relationship with Indonesia. Why should Mr Reagan not tell Suharto, in his fashion, that he does not understand why Indonesia lets it go on?'

The Christian Science Monitor once more reminded Reagan that he 'should feel no constraints in raising the issue' with President Suharto, whose 'economic achievements cannot hide the growing world concern over the reported massive denial of human rights in East Timor.'

US press coverage of East Timor was nation-wide. In the south, for example, the Tennessean editorialised about 'the human and political rights of Indonesians, who aren't generally fond of Mr Suharto. Why the US should tread lightly on his toes is difficult to understand.'

On the west coast, the San Francisco Chronicle said that there was 'a shadow that falls across Suharto's visit, and it is the shadow of Indonesia's conduct in East Timor,' which was 'still the scene of oppression and famine.'

The press coverage had a noticeable effect on the White House press briefing after the meeting between Reagan and Suharto. The New York Times reported that the official who delivered the briefing 'grew irritated when pressed about the subject. He repeatedly refused to say anything other than "our policy is to rely on quiet diplomacy – this is an issue we do not bring up in public." … "Sixteen questions and no answers", a reporter shouted at the senior administration official after the briefing. The official responded, "That's what I'm paid for."'

The Suharto visit ended in a subdued fashion with the New York Times reporting that some guests at the State Dinner at the White House for 'Indonesia's controversial President and Mrs Suharto … had no idea why they were there.'

The generally pro-Suharto Far Eastern Economic Review noted that East Timor had 'dominated' Congressional and media commentary of Suharto's visit.

Similar activities were carried out when Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke visited Washington in 1983, and when US Secretary of State George Shultz visited Indonesia in 1984.

Similar activities were carried out when President Reagan visited Indonesia in 1986.