Gangster Nations
George Szamuely
New York Press


The other day Gen. Wiranto mocked the worldwide concern for the fate of East Timor by singing "Feelings." Though his gesture was crude, Wiranto did raise an interesting point. Why are people so preoccupied with East Timor? To be sure, Indonesian brutality has been, well, pretty brutal. But we are hardly running short of atrocities. It is interesting to compare today’s attitudes toward Indonesia with those of nearly 40 years ago–the last time it took over half of an island it had no right to and proceeded to colonize it ruthlessly.

In May 1963, after years of agitation, Indonesia took over West New Guinea (now known as Irian Jaya) from the Dutch. Indonesia’s claims on the territory had been based on its being the successor state to the Dutch East Indies. Since West New Guinea had belonged to the Dutch East Indies, it must by rights become part of Indonesia. The Papuans and Melanesians who inhabited the western part of the island were the same Papuans and Melanesians who inhabited the eastern part of the island–then administered by Australia. They did not want to be ruled by Indonesia’s Javanese elite. The Dutch rejected Indonesia’s demands. President Sukarno huffed and puffed. In 1961 he began a military campaign involving a variety of naval actions and an air drop against the Dutch in West New Guinea. Though the Dutch had nothing more on the island than a small garrison, they easily defeated these feeble operations. Survivors picked up from sunken Indonesian vessels were disdainfully returned.

But as far as the United Nations was concerned, the wishes of the island’s population were neither here nor there. The Dutch were European colonists and had to surrender the territory. Significantly, one of the leading champions of Indonesia’s cause was the United States. The Kennedy administration had made a decision that Sukarno was just the kind of nationalist the United States needed in the great struggle against Communism. Its dazzling intellects–Robert Kennedy, Averell Harriman, Roger Hilsman–had concluded that so-called "mandarin" leaders like Chiang Kai-shek, Synghman Rhee and Ngo Dinh Diem could not possibly prevail against the Communists. Their day had come and gone. What the Third World needed was nationalist leaders–"nation builders"–who would run "guided democracies" (to use Sukarno’s description of his dictatorship). Armed with these half-baked notions, Americans engineered the downfall of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, with catastrophic results.

Of course, once the United States backed Indonesia’s claims, the Dutch had little option but to surrender. As its prime minister explained to his outraged nation: "We were forced into it against our will and against everything we honor… The Netherlands could not count on the support of its allies." The Dutch were to hand over the territory to the United Nations. Indonesia would assume responsibility for the administration under UN auspices and a plebiscite would be held in 1969 to determine whether the local population wished to belong to Indonesia or not. No plebiscite was ever held. Instead, Indonesia handpicked a tame delegation of Papuan chiefs and headmen who gave a 100 percent vote in support of remaining within Indonesia. The Indonesians proceeded to rob the place blind and soon thousands of refugees were pouring across the border to the eastern part of the island. The United Nations and the United States had no problem with the outcome.

The United States had of course embraced the two causes of "anti-colonialism" and "anti-Communism," long before Kennedy. These words, sanctimoniously intoned, allowed Americans ruthlessly to pursue their economic self-interest. U.S. companies, salivating at the prospect of winning concessions on their mineral-rich possessions, wanted to get the Dutch out of East Asia. The U.S. decided to promote a spurious "Indonesian" nationalism while concealing unsavory details about its clients.

For instance, during the Second World War, Sukarno’s "Indonesian" nationalists had actively collaborated with the Japanese. In Indochina Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh movement had helped Allied efforts against the Japanese; in the Dutch East Indies Sukarno’s men turned over any Allied agents to the Japanese the moment they arrived in Sumatra. To get around this embarrassing detail, wartime intelligence reports deliberately distorted the truth: Sukarno, they declared, was "anti-Japanese at heart." He was nothing of the sort, and owed the power he commanded at the end of the war to Japanese economic and military assistance.

Americans knew perfectly well that there was no such thing as an "Indonesian" nation. The people who inhabited the thousands of tiny islands that comprised the Dutch East Indies were divided by ethnicity, language and religion. The Dutch proposed to create a series of federal states "associated" with the Netherlands. The United States would have none of it. It preferred to see control of this vast archipelago handed over to the gang of unrepresentative Javanese intellectuals favored by the Japanese.

When Sukarno launched a guerrilla war the Dutch moved to crush it. Secretary of State Dean Acheson threatened to end Marshall Aid to the Netherlands. All this was kept secret. Negotiations on the setting up of NATO were in full swing. It is doubtful if the Dutch public would have agreed to join an organization under the tutelage of a power that was sabotaging their interests with such vigor.

The Dutch government caved into American pressure and an independent Indonesia was proclaimed in 1950. Yet armed opposition to rule from Djakarta was to go on for years. Violent suppression of the independent republic of the South Moluccas took place in 1949. Separatist movements in Sumatra almost toppled Sukarno’s regime over the next decade. Interestingly, already in 1945, Sukarno was laying claim not just to the whole of the Dutch East Indies but to territories that had never belonged to the Dutch empire: all of New Guinea, North Borneo, Sarawak, East Timor, even Malaya and Singapore!

Suharto’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 was thus only a very modest attempt at realizing this grand ambition. As head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Dept., George Kennan wrote in 1948: "Indonesia is the anchor in that chain of islands stretching from Hokkaido to Sumatra which we should develop as a politico-economic counter-force to Communism on the Asiatic land mass and as base areas from which…we could with our air and sea power dominate continental East Asia and South Asia."

Indonesia turned out to be nothing of the sort, always too weak economically to play the part Kennan had written for it. But wishful thinking deluded American policy-makers into backing Indonesia no matter what, in one case even encouraging a notion of Sukarno that North Borneo, a part of the British Commonwealth soon to join the nation of Malaysia, should become part of Indonesia.

By invading East Timor in 1975, Indonesia broke a fundamental principle: former colonies could become independent states, but only within the existing colonial borders. No other changes were permitted. Accordingly, East Timor could not join Indonesia or Australia, but must remain independent. Under Sukarno’s watch, Indonesia could get away with his imperialist ambitions on account of his bogus reputation as a great "nationalist" leader. But Suharto could not.

The problem is, the last country in the world that today has any right to insist on the sacrosanct nature of international borders is the United States. In organizing the murderous onslaught on Serbia it had violated the most fundamental principle of international law, namely, the sovereignty of states within recognized borders. By facilitating the creation of Greater Albania it also redrew by force international borders that it had agreed at Helsinki in 1975 could not be changed. The United States and Indonesia are two gangster states–they should be exchanging tips, not Sunday school sermons.

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