200,000 Skeletons in Richard Holbrooke’s Closet

Much ado has been made in the press and academic discussions about how Richard Holbrooke has been a force for peace in the Yugoslavia imbroglio. The reality behind Holbrooke’s activities in the former Yugoslavia has been excellently exposed in recent issues of Covert Action Quarterly and elsewhere by journalist and Yugoslavia expert Diana Johnstone.

A little known chapter in Holbrooke’s career in the US government is his complicity in Indonesia’s campaign of genocide against East Timor. Holbrooke was head of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Carter Administration. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, which it continues to occupy today, killing over 200,000 Timorese in the process, approximately 1/3 of the pre-invasion population. The US supported Indonesia in ways that are already well known; there is no doubt that the invasion, ongoing occupation, and genocide could not have been possible without US support.

Following Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, the US supposedly imposed an “arms ban” on Indonesia from December 1975 to June 1976. The ban was a secret. In fact the ban was so secret that the Indonesians were completely unaware of it as they unpacked the American weapons that flowed to them unabated. This fraud was later exposed by Cornell University professor Benedict Anderson in his testimony before Congress in February 1978. Anderson cited a report, “confirmed from the Department of Defense printout,” showing that there never was an arms ban, and that the US initiated new offers of military weaponry to the Indonesians during the period of the alleged ban:

If we are curious as to why the Indonesians never felt the force of the U.S. government’s “anguish,” the answer is quite simple. In flat contradiction to express statements by General Fish, Mr. Oakley and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Holbrooke, at least four separate offers of military equipment were made to the Indonesian government during the January-June 1976 “administrative suspension.” This equipment consisted mainly of supplies and parts for OV-10 Broncos, Vietnam War era planes designed for counterinsurgency operations against adversaries without effective anti-aircraft weapons, and wholly useless for defending Indonesia from a foreign enemy. The policy of supplying the Indonesian regime with Broncos, as well as other counterinsurgency-related equipment has continued without substantial change from the Ford through the present Carter administrations.1

Indeed by late 1977 the Indonesians literally began to run out of weapons in its campaign to destroy the Timorese. The Carter Administration stepped in and increased military aid and weapons sales to the Indonesians, which fueled Indonesia’s stepped up campaigns of 1978 to 1980 when the level of killing reached genocidal proportions.

When asked by Australian reporters at a press conference about atrocities in East Timor, Holbrooke responded:

I want to stress I am not remotely interested in getting involved in an argument over the actual number of people killed. People were killed and that always is a tragedy but what is at issue is the actual situation in Timor today . . . [Asked about how many Timorese were killed in the past] . . . we are never going to know anyway.2

The date of this press conference was April 6, 1977. Holbrooke would most certainly have been aware that a few days earlier (April 1) the Melbourne Age quoted Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik as saying that, “50,000 people or perhaps 80,000 might have been killed during the war in Timor, but we saved 600,000 of them.” Also on April 1, the Canberra Times quoted Malik as saying:

The total may be 50,000, but what does this mean if compared with 600,000 people who want to join Indonesia? [sic!] Then what is the big fuss. It is possible that they may have been killed by the Australians and not us. Who knows? It was war.

Malik’s claim that perhaps 10% of the Timorese population may have been killed in less than two years was a bit much for the United States: Australian state radio reported, “The State Department is clearly embarrassed by Adam Malik’s statement that the number killed in East Timor might have been as high as 80,000.”3 Fortunately the State Department could rely on the US media’s overwhelming silence on the subject of East Timor and American complicity to spare them from any embarrassment here at home.

In September 1978, US Ambassador to Indonesia Edward Masters went to East Timor accompanied by an entourage of Indonesian diplomats. While there, Masters visited refugee camps — concentration camps to be more precise — that the Timorese had been herded into by the Indonesians, where they where subjected to a forced starvation policy. According to one US reporter who was there, Masters and company “came away so shocked by the conditions of the refugees that they immediately contacted the governor of East Timor … to explore the possibilities for providing foreign humanitarian assistance.” However, it would not be until a full nine months had passed that Masters (in June 1979) would urge the US to provide humanitarian assistance. The timing of Masters’ silence coincided with Indonesia being bolstered by a huge shipment of US military aid and weapons described above. As Benedict Anderson told Congress in 1980:

In other words, 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,”4 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, although Mr. Holbrooke insists that “the welfare of the Timorese people is the major objective of our policy towards East Timor.5

Despite the fact that the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor was and is an egregious violation of international law and an act of genocide, the Carter administration and Holbrooke in particular, while acknowledging that the East Timorese had not been allowed to carry out an act of self-determination, regarded the situation as a fait accompli.6

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who at the time was the US ambassador to the UN, boasted in his memoir that he effectively prevented the UN from implementing resolutions calling on Indonesia to withdraw immediately from Timor and which affirmed the Timorese people’s right to self-determination:

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.7

The State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs was Holbrooke’s fiefdom. While the State Department made great efforts to interview Cambodian refugees in order to assess the level of human rights violations by the Khmer Rouge, the opposite was true of Timorese refugees who were easily accessible in Australia and Portugal. A Christian Science Monitor article from 1980 on East Timor and the State Department’s indifference to the plight of the Timorese is worth quoting at length:

Francisco Fernandes, a Roman Catholic priest who served for several years as head of the Timorese refugee community, said he knew of no attempt by US officials to seek out and interview any of the more than 2,000 such refugees who have been living in Portugal for the past several years.

Even today, with the magnitude of the East Timor problem better known, refugees going directly to the State Department in Washington with their stories find that most officials here give the benefit of the doubt to the Indonesians.

“He acted like a lawyer for the Indonesians,” said one refugee after talking with a State Department official recently. . . .

What many Timorese would like . . . is the departure of the Indonesians and control over their own affairs. The Timorese identity and languages are distinct from those of the Indonesians.

But in deferring to Indonesia on this issue, the Carter administration, like the Ford administration before it, appears to have placed big-power concerns ahead of human rights: Indonesia is an anticommunist, largely Muslim, oil-producing nation with the fifth-largest population in the world. It commands sea lanes between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke recently declared it is potentially one of the great nations of the world.

US policy toward East Timor has been made for the most part by the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, headed by Mr. Holbrooke. The bureau most concerned with human rights, which is headed by Assistant Secretary Patricia Derian, was barely getting organized in 1977 when East Timor policy was first set by the Carter administration.

However, it was Ms. Derian, not Mr. Holbrooke, who was in the position of having to answer questions about East Timor, among other subjects, at a recent congressional hearing. Mr. Holbrooke let it be known he was too busy preparing for a trip to appear at the Feb. 6 hearing. He did have the time, however, to play host at a black-tie dinner later the same day.8

All of this stands in stark contrast to Holbrooke’s impassioned defense of the right of Kosovar Albanians to “autonomy”. Perhaps he’s had some kind of religious conversion in recent years.

The Carter Administration’s position on Indonesia and East Timor was best summed up by Assistant Secretary Holbrooke in a more honest moment:

The situation in East Timor is one of the number of very important concerns of the United States in Indonesia. Indonesia, with a population of 150 million people, is the fifth largest nation in the world, is a moderate member of the Non-Aligned Movement, is an important oil producer — which plays a moderate role within OPEC — and occupies a strategic position astride the sea lanes between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. President Suharto and other prominent Indonesian leaders have publicly called for the release of our hostages in Iran. Indonesia’s position within the Association of South East Asian Nations — ASEAN — is also important and it has played a central role in the supporting Thailand and maintaining the security of Thailand in the face of Vietnam’s destabilizing actions in Indo-China [sic]. Finally, Indonesia has provided humane treatment for over 50,000 Indo-Chinese refugees and taken the initiative in offering an island site as an ASEAN refugee processing centre. Indonesia is, of course, important to key US allies in the region, especially Japan and Australia. We highly value our cooperative relationship with Indonesia.9

If there was a world in which an International Court of Justice had any meaning, Richard Holbrooke’s shameful service to State power would surely be characterized as a series of Crimes Against Humanity. For now, such a thought is merely a fantasy for those of us who seek peace and justice.

  1. Hearings Before the Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations. US Policy on Human Rights and Military Assistance: Overview and Indonesia, February 15, 1978. []
  2. John Hamilton, “Timor death toll not the issue: US,” Melbourne Herald, April 7, 1977. []
  3. Australian sources cited in Chomsky, Noam and Edward S. Herman. The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume I (South End Press, 1979), pp. 174-175. []
  4. Anderson is quoting from an article by Henry Kamm in the New York Times, January 28, 1980. []
  5. Holbrooke, written statement to the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, Committee on Foreign Affairs, December 4, 1979. The topic of the hearing was East Timor, which Holbrooke did not bother to attend. Anderson’s statement: Benedict R.O.G. Anderson, testimony at the Hearings before the Subcommittees on Asian and Pacific Affairs and on International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 96th Congress, 2nd Session, February 1980 (US Government Printing Office, 1980). []
  6. Holbrooke said as much to author James Dunn. Timor: A People Betrayed (The Jacaranda Press, 1983), p.351. []
  7. Moynihan, Daniel P with Suzanne Weaver. A Dangerous Place (Little Brown, 1980), p.247. []
  8. Daniel Southerland, “US Role in Plight of Timor: An Issue That Won’t Go Away”, Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 1980, p.7. []
  9. Foreign Assistance and Related Programs: Appropriations for 1981. Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, 96th Congress, June 1980. Cited in ibid. p.354. []

Sunil K. Sharma is a musician and activist based in Santa Rosa, CA, and is the founding editor and publisher of Dissident Voice. He retired from Dissident Voice in the summer of 2010. Read other articles by Sunil, or visit Sunil's website.