Companion to East Timor - Congressional hearings

Congressional hearings

Congressional hearings in 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980 were highly significant events in the campaign to end the famine. In the early hearings, Carter administration officials denied that the situation in East Timor was serious. When the famine took place in 1978 and 1979, these denials meant that the administration had a lot of explaining to do. In the March 1977 hearings, US officials Robert Oakley and Richard Holbrooke stated that the US government accepted East Timor's formal incorporation into Indonesia, and that 'allegations' of widespread atrocities were 'greatly exaggerated.' But Congressman Donald Fraser of Minnesota also held Congressional hearings in the same month. Dr John Salzberg, his special assistant, was invaluable to the success of these hearings. James Dunn testified as a witness. He described the Indonesian assault on East Timor as 'a brutal operation, marked by the wanton slaughter of possibly between 50,000 and 100,000 Timorese, by extensive looting and by other excesses such as rape and torture.' US State Department official David T. Kenney contradicted Dunn, saying that Indonesian forces were 'maintaining a defensive posture,' there was 'no search and destroy operation,' and the East Timorese 'can move about' the country freely.

Congressman Donald Fraser's subcommittee held another hearing in June 1977. Congresswoman Helen Meyner tabled a report on a 23-hour visit to East Timor in April. She concluded that 'the Timorese people were satisfied with Indonesian integration and that the integration of East Timor into Indonesia is a fait accompli.' She reported that 'there was no opportunity to investigate the extent of current or past use of US military equipment by the Indonesians in their conflict with Fretilin forces.'

American anthropologists Shepard Forman and Elizabeth Traube also testified here. They had spent significant periods of time in East Timor before the invasion.

Forman expressed his 'firm belief that the people of East Timor are perfectly capable of articulating decisively their political choices', and that 'the free exercise of that choice has been denied to them.'

Elizabeth Traube testified that 'despite the material simplicity of their life', the East Timorese she had studied and lived with had a 'rich and complex' idea 'of themselves and the world around them.' Like Forman, Elizabeth Traube was emphatic that the East Timorese had not had an opportunity for self-determination and that she supported the exercise of that right.

Congressman Fraser held another hearing the next month (July 1977). Under Fraser's persistent questioning, George Aldrich, Deputy Legal Adviser in the State Department, conceded that there had not been a valid exercise of the right to self-determination, and that 'as a legal matter, the right of self-determination continues to exist.' Aldrich also admitted that the Indonesian forces that invaded East Timor 'were armed roughly 90 per cent with our equipment.'

As the famine gathered force, the Australian government extended de facto recognition of Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor in January 1978. The next month, Congressman Donald Fraser held another set of hearings in the US Congress, where Professor Benedict Anderson demonstrated that the US State Department's reports on Indonesia and East Timor were 'inaccurate, tendentious and evasive.' Later, in a hearing in 1980, Anderson showed that:

'… for nine long months, from September 1978 to June 1979, while "in ever increasing numbers the starving and the ailing, wearing rags at best, drifted onto the coastal plain," Ambassador Masters deliberately refrained, even within the walls of the State Department, from proposing humanitarian aid to East Timor. Until the generals in Jakarta gave him the green light, Mr Masters did nothing to help the East Timorese.'

Activists flew East Timorese refugees to the US, where they were introduced to politicians, journalists and others who could help. Support for East Timor gradually increased through painstaking efforts in 1979, the 1980s and the first two years of the 1990s, when the Santa Cruz massacre catapulted East Timor to international prominence. Much of the pressure exerted on the US government in 1999 arose as a result of the structure of legitimacy that was built in these very important constituencies in the 1970s.