Companion to East Timor - Building a structure of legitimacy

Building a structure of legitimacy

In 1979, Karl Meyer, then the chief foreign affairs editorial writer for the New York Times, was teaching a course on journalism at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and was getting advice from people on whom to invite as guest lecturers. Someone suggested Noam Chomsky. Meyer invited Chomsky, who spoke about the differences in the US press' coverage of East Timor and Cambodia. Both had experienced comparably similar levels of violence but press coverage had focused only on Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia, not on Indonesian atrocities in East Timor, although US weapons were a vital part of the Indonesian assault. Meyer says, 'I didn't know what he was talking about.' He was quite skeptical until students began to speak up. Chomsky gave the background, explaining the role of Ford and Kissinger and how US foreign policy supported the occupation.

After the seminar Meyer asked if Chomsky would be willing to write an op-ed in the New York Times about it. Chomsky told him it would be much better to run an interview with Father Leoneto do Rego, a qualified engineer and priest who had lived in the mountains of East Timor for three years and had experienced the terrible conditions firsthand. Meyer did some more research on the role of the US and discovered that 'Chomsky was absolutely right. So I went to Max Frankel, editor of the New York Times' editorial page, and said I'd like to write something about East Timor. I explained the background to him. He said to go ahead and write an editorial. So I did.'

Before writing the editorial, Meyer convened a meeting with New York Times reporter Kathleen Teltsch, Arnold Kohen, Jeremy Mark, Father Leoneto do Rego, Father Francisco Fernandes, Father Reinaldo Cardoso, and Jacinto Tinoco, who acted as an interpreter. Father do Rego gave a very detailed testimony of his time in the mountains of East Timor. After nearly two hours Meyer said, 'It has been established that a great atrocity has taken place.' Father do Rego said that although things were normal for people in the interior during the first year of the war, 'problems started in early 1977. A full-scale bombardment of the whole island began. From that point there emerged death, illness, despair. The second phase of the bombing was late 1977 to early 1979, with modern aircraft. This was the firebombing phase of the bombing. Even up to this time, people could still live. The genocide and starvation was the result of the full-scale incendiary bombing… We saw the end coming. People could not plant. I personally witnessed – while running to protected areas, going from tribe to tribe – the great massacre from bombardment and people dying from starvation. In 1979 people began surrendering because there was no other option. When people began dying, then others began to give up.' While estimating that 200,000 people had died in the first four years, Father do Rego's crucial point was that the aircraft provided to the Indonesians by the US was the primary factor in the massive death toll.

However, Teltsch's article mentioned only one sentence of this: 'He said that bombardment and systematic destruction of the croplands in 1978 were intended to starve the islanders into submission.' Worse, she portrayed Father do Rego as a partisan figure rather than what he really was – a simple priest who happened to live through the war. Teltsch also went to Catholic Relief Services for 'the other side,' and made it look as though the events described by Father do Rego may have been true at the time, but were now in the past. The transcript of Leoneto do Rego's interview with the New York Times was later leaked to the Boston Globe, where Robert Levey wrote a comprehensive account. However, Karl Meyer wrote a forthright editorial for the New York Times, condemning Indonesia's actions for the first time in very strong terms:

Although most of the weapons of suppression are American-made, Washington has muted its concern for the familiar pragmatic reasons… American silence about East Timor contrasts oddly with the indignation over Cambodia; the suffering is great in both places.

Meyer's uncompromising editorial ('An Unjust War in East Timor') was framed in similar terms to Chomsky's remarks at Tufts University. He made it clear that East Timor wasn't an old problem; atrocities were happening at that very moment, not in the past, and US policy needed to change. Meyer provided Kohen with much-needed mainstream credibility. Armed with the editorial, Kohen and the group of East Timor refugees working with him were able to increase awareness in Congress and elsewhere. Also providing credibility to the efforts was Daniel Southerland, the respected Washington diplomatic correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, whom Kohen had first contacted in November 1979 and with whom he worked closely over the next five years. Southerland's stories in December 1979 also compared East Timor with Cambodia. He wrote that 'the Indonesians attacked relentlessly with infantry and with US-supplied, armed reconnaissance planes known as the OV-10 (Bronco). They concentrated people around the villages and resettlement centres. They stole at least part of the relief food and sold it.'

Southerland's respectability and his hard-hitting coverage had an effect on the then-foreign editor of the New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld, who subsequently became executive editor of the paper. When Lelyveld realized that Southerland believed East Timor was an important story, he sent one of his best reporters, James Markham, to Lisbon to interview East Timorese refugees who had settled there. Kohen accompanied Markham, paying his own way there. While in Lisbon, he developed a good rapport with Markham, who was horrified at the refugees' testimony. They both agreed that more members of the US Congress needed to know about this. Kohen says, 'at that point we'd only gone around Congress with Father Fernandes for a couple of months and with Father Leoneto do Rego for a few days, due to his health and the Catholic Church's sensitivity to Indonesian pressure. But we didn't really have the money to bring refugees back to the US from Lisbon. We hadn't gone to Lisbon planning that this would take place.'

However, those four days spent with James Markham convinced Kohen that the refugees' testimony needed to be brought to the attention of Congress. Having no money to buy the tickets to fly these refugees to the US, he decided to ask Noam Chomsky for help. Chomsky obliged immediately. Kohen says, 'I intended to pay him back but there never was enough money. I never did pay him back, and he never asked for it.' Professor Benedict Anderson also helped with money, as did Herb Feith of Australia's Monash University. Father Francisco Fernandes and Father Apolinario Guterres had come to the US and testified at the United Nations in September 1979. With help from other US sources, Father Fernandes returned to Washington in early 1980 to join the more recent refugees from East Timor. Kohen worked intensively for several years with East Timorese refugees Ao Seu Ki, Vicente Guterres Saldanha and others chosen by James Markham for their credibility. They went to Washington and elsewhere in the US and met about 100 congressional officers in early 1980, playing a crucial role in developing long-term Congressional contacts. Kohen says, 'We went any place where somebody would see us… We didn't just drop in, we had articles and editorials to give, whether it was Meyer's editorial or Southerland's report or Markham's report.' Father Fernandes testified before a Congressional Subcommittee in June 1980. The refugees and Arnold Kohen collaborated for several years in the US and Portugal.