APSN Banner

East Timor massacre remembered: U.S.-armed Indonesian troops killed 270 Timorese 30 years ago today

Democracy Now - November 12, 2021

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, when Indonesian troops armed with U.S. M16s fired on a peaceful memorial procession in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, killing more than 270 East Timorese. Indonesia had invaded East Timor in 1975 and maintained a brutal occupation until 1999, when East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in a United Nations referendum. The massacre on November 12, 1991, sparked widespread outrage against the Indonesian government led by dictator General Suharto, a staunch U.S. ally, and marked a turning point in international public opinion. We play an excerpt of "Massacre: The Story of East Timor," a 1992 documentary produced by Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn, who witnessed and survived the killings after being severely beaten by Indonesian troops.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

Amy Goodman: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

In East Timor today, the people, the nation remember what happened 30 years ago today. Yes, today is the 30th anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre in occupied East Timor. On November 12th, 1991, Indonesian troops armed with U.S. M16s fired on thousands of unarmed Timorese civilians gathered at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, the capital of East Timor. At least 270 Timorese were killed. The massacre was a turning point in Timor's struggle for self-determination after years of Indonesia's brutal occupation. At least a third of the population over that 17-year period was killed, 200,000 people from 1975 to 1999, when Indonesia in '75 illegally invaded East Timor.

Journalist Allan Nairn and I witnessed and survived the massacre 30 years ago today. The Indonesian military beat us, fractured Allan's skull. We got out that day to report to the world about the massacre to stop the killing. We did not succeed. But today we go back to that day 30 years ago, as we feature an extended excerpt of the documentary Allan and I produced, Massacre: The Story of East Timor.

Jose Ramos-Horta: I lost one sister and two brothers.

East Timorese woman: It was 10 days before I was to give birth. The army was shooting people, and they would die at our feet, but you couldn't stop to help them.

Jose Ramos-Horta: I know families that were totally wiped out.

East Timorese man: Two American newsmen badly beaten: Mr. Allan Nairn and Miss Amy Goodman.

Amy Goodman: The Indonesian army converged in two places.

Allan Nairn: Hundreds and hundreds of troops coming straight at the Timorese.

Amy Goodman: When they came, they opened fire on the people.

President George H.W. Bush: We pride ourselves, and I think properly so, in standing up for human rights.

Richard Boucher: Military assistance programs expose the trainees to democratic ideas and humanitarian standards.

President Bill Clinton: I'm very concerned about what's happened in East Timor. We have ignored it so far in ways that I think are unconscionable.

Amy Goodman: Massacre: The Story of East Timor. I'm Amy Goodman.

James Baker: Big countries with powerful military machines should not be permitted to invade, occupy and brutalize their peaceful neighbors.

Amy Goodman: With these words, former Secretary of State James Baker explained why the United States was going to war against Iraq. Yet, 16 years earlier, another big country, Indonesia, invaded a much smaller one, East Timor, with the support of the United States. What followed was one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century. It is estimated that up to one-third of the Timorese population has been killed through a policy of army massacre and enforced starvation. Many of those who are left have been imprisoned and tortured by a military armed and trained by the United States.

East Timor, a quiet farming nation on a mountainous island about 300 miles north of Australia, had been a Portuguese colony until 1974, when there was a democratic revolution in Portugal and the new government decided to disband its empire. Neighboring Indonesia, a military dictatorship more than 200 times East Timor's size, began attacking Timor in an effort to prevent the island nation from completing its move toward independence. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia launched a full invasion. Timorese shortwave radio, monitored by reporters in Australia, was heard putting out desperate calls for help.

Timorese shortwave radio: A lot of people are being killed – I repeat – indiscriminately. More than a thousand troops have been added.

Amy Goodman: The night before the invasion, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Ford were in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, toasting General Suharto, the Indonesian ruler.

President Gerald Ford: Our relationship involves a common concern for the right of every nation to pursue its destiny on its own independent and sovereign course. On behalf of Mrs. Ford and myself, I raise my glass and propose a toast.

Amy Goodman: Joao Carrascalao, the brother of the former governor of East Timor and himself a political leader now in exile, was working for the Indonesians at the time.

Joao Carrascalao: I arrived at Jakarta one hour before President Ford and Henry Kissinger landed in Jakarta. And on the same night, I was informed by Colonel Suyanto – he was a top officer in the Jakarta administration – that America had given the green light for Indonesia to invade Timor.

Amy Goodman: The United States, Suharto's main backer, supplied 90% of Indonesia's arms. The story of East Timor is a story few know about, except those who have lived through it. Six foreign journalists who were there as Indonesia attacked were executed by the Indonesian military. Australian TV correspondent Greg Shackleton sent this report the night before the frontier town where he was visiting was seized by the Indonesian troops.

Greg Shackleton: Why, they ask, are the Indonesians invading us? Why, they ask, if the Indonesians believe that Fretelin is communist, do they not send a delegation to Dili to find out? Why, they ask, are the Australians not helping us? When the Japanese invaded, they did help us. Why, they ask, are the Portuguese not helping us? We're still a Portuguese colony. Who, they ask, will pay for the terrible damage to our homes?

My main answer was that Australia would not send forces here. That's impossible. However, I said, we could ask that Australia raise this fighting at the United Nations. That was possible. At that, the second in charge rose to his feet, exclaimed, "Camerado journalist!" shook my hand, the rest shook my hand, and we were applauded, because we are Australians. That's all they want: for the United Nations to care about what is happening here.

The emotion here last night was so strong that we, all three of us, felt we should be able to reach out into the warm night air and touch it. Greg Shackleton in an unnamed village, which we'll remember forever, in Portuguese Timor.

Amy Goodman: And it was to be a report Australians would remember. The following day, Indonesian troops moved in and executed Shackleton and his crew. Though the government of Australia ended up siding with Indonesia, the U.N. Security Council denounced the invasion of East Timor and passed two resolutions like those later passed against Iraq, calling on Indonesia to withdraw its troops without delay. But United States lobbying prevented any U.N. action, and as Indonesia began to execute the Timorese en masse, Washington doubled its military aid.

I first arrived in East Timor in the summer of 1990. Almost 16 years after the Indonesian army first came to shore, they were still occupying East Timor. I was there with journalist Allan Nairn, a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.

Allan Nairn: Dili, the capital city, was honeycombed with army bases and torture houses. There were soldiers on the street corners, secret police watching the market stalls and the public parks. Timorese could be hauled away to the torture houses if they were found speaking to foreign tourists or listening to foreign shortwave radio. There, people would be given electroshock, beaten with iron bars. And at night, soldiers wearing hoods would roam through the neighborhoods terrorizing the Timorese.

Amy Goodman: Journalist Allan Nairn and I returned to East Timor for a historic event. A special delegation from the United Nations and Portugal was due to visit East Timor. The Timorese hoped the visit would finally lead to U.N. action and enforcement of the Security Council resolutions calling on Indonesia to withdraw from East Timor.

Allan Nairn: We were told in place after place that the army had been holding neighborhood and village meetings to warn the Timorese that if they tried to speak to the U.N. Portuguese delegation, they and their families would be killed. And Bishop Belo, the bishop of East Timor, told us that the threat was: "We will kill your family to the seventh generation."

Amy Goodman: But despite the threats and a dramatic increase in disappearances, torture and deaths, Timorese had prepared to speak out. They had met in secret, making banners and petitions for the delegation. When the army tried to hunt them down, many had gone into hiding and sought refuge inside churches. But under pressure from the United States, the visit of the delegation had been called off. Three days later, with the world's spotlight removed, the army stormed the Motael, Dili's main Catholic church, and killed a young man named Sebastiao Gomes, who had taken refuge there.

And then came the morning of November 12, the two-week commemoration of Sebastiao's funeral. A memorial mass and procession were planned to lay flowers on Sebastiao's grave. After the mass was held at the Motael, people, young and old, came out into the street, and in a land where public speech and assembly had been forbidden over a decade, they started chanting. The Timorese then held up banners drawn on bed sheets. They had been prepared for the delegation that never came. The banners called on Indonesia to leave East Timor and said things like "Why the Indonesian army shoot our church?" The Timorese were facing a gauntlet of troops that stretched the length of Dili. It was the boldest act of public protest occupied Timor had ever seen.

Allan Nairn: More and more Timorese joined the procession. They came from huts and schools and offices along the way. And there was this building feeling of exhilaration, as well as fear, among the Timorese. And when they reached the cemetery, the crowd had swelled to maybe 5,000 people. Some went inside to lay flowers on Sebastiao's grave. Most of the crowd was still outside. And then suddenly, someone looked up, and we saw that marching up along the same route that the Timorese had come came a long column of Indonesian troops, dressed in brown, holding M16s in front of them, marching in a very slow, deliberate fashion, hundreds and hundreds of troops, coming straight at the Timorese.

Amy Goodman: Allan suggested we walk to the front of the crowd between the soldiers and the Timorese, because although we knew that the army had committed many massacres, we hoped that we, as a foreign journalists, could serve as a shield for the Timorese. Standing with headphones on and microphone and camera out in full view, we went and stood in the middle of the road, looking straight at the approaching troops. Behind us, the crowd was hushed as some Timorese tried to turn away, but they were hemmed in by cemetery walls.

Allan Nairn: The soldiers marched straight up to us. They never broke their stride. We were enveloped by the troops, and when they got a few yards past us, within a dozen yards of the Timorese, they raised their rifles to their shoulders all at once, and they opened fire. The Timorese, in an instant, were down, just torn apart by the bullets. The street was covered with bodies, covered with blood. And the soldiers just kept on coming. They poured in, one rank after another. They leaped over the bodies of those who were down. They were aiming and shooting people in the back. I could see their limbs being torn, their bodies exploding. There was blood spurting out into the air. The pop of the bullets, everywhere. And it was very organized, very systematic. The soldiers did not stop. They just kept on shooting until no one was left standing.

Amy Goodman: A group of soldiers grabbed my microphone and threw me to the ground, kicking and punching me. At that point, Allan threw himself on top of me, protecting me from further injury. The soldiers then used their rifle butts like baseball bats, beating Allan until they fractured his skull. As we sat on the ground, Allan covered in blood, a group of soldiers lined up and pointed their M16s at our heads. They had stripped us of all of our equipment. We just kept shouting, "We're from America!" In the end, they decided not to execute us.

Allan Nairn: The soldiers beat us, but we actually had received privileged treatment. We were still alive. They kept on firing into the Timorese. We were able to get onto a passing civilian truck, went into hiding, but the Timorese, who had been with us there on the cemetery road, most of them were dead.

Amy Goodman: Inside the cemetery walls, Max Stahl, a filmmaker on assignment with Yorkshire TV, had had his video camera running.

Max Stahl: The soldiers began at that point to encircle the entire cemetery. I saw soldiers as they gradually moved towards the middle, picking out people who were wounded or taking refuge between the tombstones, and when they got to them, they beat them and assembled them in the back of the cemetery. People were stripped to their waists. They had their thumbs tied behind their backs, and they were made to look at the ground. And if they looked up, they were immediately beaten, usually with a rifle butt.

Amy Goodman: Max Stahl was filming near a crypt in the middle of the cemetery. Some of the wounded and those too scared to run were huddled inside praying. As Stahl filmed, he buried his videocassettes in a fresh grave. Then he was arrested by the troops.

Max Stahl: Whilst I was being interrogated, I observed these trucks driving by with more people in them. These people were clearly in a kind of paralysis of fear. They were not able to move. Some of them, at least in the cemetery and, indeed, even in the trucks, when I saw them going by, were barely breathing. When people are that terrified, it's quite often difficult to tell if they're dead or alive.

Amy Goodman: After nine hours in custody, Stahl went back to the cemetery under cover of night, dug up his videocassettes and had them smuggled out of the country. Allan Nairn and I had managed to leave East Timor a few hours after the massacre. From a hospital on Guam, we reported what had happened to dozens of newspapers, radio and television outlets around the world.

Pacifica report: From Washington, this is the Pacifica report for Tuesday, November 12, 1991. A massacre in East Timor. Among those injured were two journalists, including a news editor of Pacifica station WBAI in New York.

Amy Goodman: They beat me and dragged me over and started slamming me with rifle butts and kicks and punches, and then Allan jumped on top of me, and they beat him very badly. But that was the least of what they did. They opened fire on the people, and these were truly defenseless people...

Montage of world news footage: When Indonesian troops opened fire on a crowd – This is CBC Radio – The massacre of 100 unarmed Timorese by the Indonesian military – Photographs of the bloody massacre during a fight for freedom – This is the CBS Evening News.

Amy Goodman: In the face of the massacre story, even Suharto's longtime allies were compelled to condemn the killings and came under public pressure to cut back their aid to Indonesia. In Australia, large crowds marched on the capital and surrounded Indonesia's local consulates. The European Parliament voted for sanctions against Indonesia, and the European community later canceled a scheduled trade pact. There were even open protests inside Indonesia where student demonstrators were beaten and arrested.

Back in the United States, the Bush administration continued to ship weapons to Indonesia.

Amy Goodman: That's an excerpt of Massacre: The Story of East Timor, the documentary I produced with journalist Allan Nairn. East Timor, or Timor-Leste, would vote for its freedom in a U.N. referendum in 1999 and become an independent nation in 2002, one of the newest nations in the world. The video from inside the cemetery was filmed by Max Stahl, the award-winning filmmaker who died several weeks ago at the age of 66. To see the whole thing, go to democracynow.org. I'm Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

Source: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/11/12/east_timor_massacre_anniversar