By Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Timor-Leste President José Ramos-Horta said Friday that he bore no anger towards Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state who died this week and had helped greenlight Indonesia’s December 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese colony.
But Virgílio da Silva Guterres, human rights ombudsman of the country formerly known as East Timor, was less conciliatory, saying it was unfortunate that the elder American statesman had died without retribution for his ruthless policies. More than 200,000 people were killed in the 24 years that Indonesia illegally occupied East Timor until 1999.
Kissinger, who died on Wednesday at age 100, served as America’s top diplomat and the U.S. national security adviser under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and was widely viewed as an influential and hard-nosed practitioner of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, who had no room for human rights.
In the tiny ex-colony formerly known as East Timor and now an independent nation, he remains a controversial figure for his approval of a massive military invasion by next-door neighbor Indonesia, which was led at the time by the dictator Suharto, a firm ally of the U.S.
“From the narrow perspective of Timor-Leste, I cannot have obviously the best recollection of Mr. Kissinger,” Ramos-Horta told BenarNews via an email on Friday.
“He was the Cold War diplomatic architect of the U.S., who not only supported the Suharto dictatorship, but every other dictatorship across the planet, including in Latin America, the most notorious case was in Chile. Having said that, I harbor no anger or anything of that sort.”
Kissinger’s admirers have hailed him for his diplomacy that paved the way for the establishment of full diplomatic ties between the United States and communist China and for having spearheaded negotiations with Hanoi to end the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Critics have accused him of being a war criminal for, among other things, the principal role he played in the Nixon administration’s secret B-52 bombings of Cambodia in 1969; his backing of Pakistan in its brutal war with East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1971; his support for a military coup that toppled Chilean President Salvador Allende, a leftist leader, in 1973; and, of course, the bloody course of events in East Timor.
On Friday, Ramos-Horta, who lost a sister and two brothers to the conflict during the years of the Indonesian occupation, said he met Kissinger two or three times over the years.
The Timorese leader, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who had served as the spokesman for the rebels who were fighting against Indonesia in East Timor, said he could grasp the feeling of U.S. paranoia during the Cold War era.
“Paranoia about the domino effect of communist insurgencies winning in Indochina, with possible influence in an independent East Timor at that time. I can understand all of that,” he said.
“I never asked him to apologize when we met. He was very much a gentleman with me, when we met more than 20 years ago. May his soul rest in peace.”
Guterres, Timor-Leste’s ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice, said Kissinger would be remembered in the same way that people remember Indonesia’s former autocratic leader Suharto “and his murderous regime.”
The invasion of East Timor was carried out under President Suharto’s orders, and began on Dec. 7, 1975, the day after he, Kissinger and U.S. President Gerald Ford met at the presidential palace in Jakarta.
In Guterres’ view, Kissinger represented the hypocrisy of the U.S. and Western countries.
“Kissinger embodied the face of U.S. and Western double standards on global human rights issues. It’s sad to see him die without him being held to account for his inhumane policies,” he told BenarNews.
‘Will not press you on the issue’
Declassified U.S. documents detail a conversation that took place in Jakarta on the eve of the invasion among Kissinger, President Ford, President Suharto, Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik, Indonesian Minister of State Sudharmono, and U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia David Newsom.
During the conversation at the presidential palace, Suharto told his American guests that political clashes and turmoil in neighboring East Timor after the exit of the colonial Portuguese may threaten his country.
Jakarta was contemplating its options to preserve the country’s security, Suharto said, according to the declassified U.S. State Department document made available online by the Gerald. R. Ford Presidential Library.
“We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action,” the Indonesian leader told the Americans.
Ford replied saying he and his team would understand and “will not press you on the issue.” Kissinger then told Suharto a minute or so later that “it is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.”
The then-top U.S. diplomat went onto say that whatever action Jakarta decided to take, it would be better if the Indonesians could delay that until after he and Ford had returned to the U.S.
“We understand your problem and the need to move quickly but I am only saying that it would be better if it were done after we returned,” Kissinger said according to the diplomatic cable marked “secret.”
Indonesia invaded East Timor a day later, when Ford and Kissinger landed in Honolulu on their way back to Washington.
When reporters asked Ford’s press secretary whether the Americans had asked the Indonesians to delay the invasion of East Timor until they left town, he said that was “not the indication he got from the president or at least the president did not participate in such a conversation.”
Early in the year 1975, however, Kissinger had expressed concern about the possibility of Indonesia’s plan to forcibly take over East Timor by the end of the year, and had sent a telegram to embassies in Jakarta and neighboring countries.
In it, he stated that any action by Indonesia to seize East Timor by force would pose “serious problems for us” and asked for advice on how to persuade Jakarta not to take this step.
Was only Kissinger to blame?
Some human rights activists in Indonesia also cast doubt on the extent to which Kissinger was involved in Indonesia’s decision to invade East Timor.
Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Indonesia, said Kissinger and the U.S. were not entirely to blame for the invasion, although Washington gave the green light.
“According to [then-military chief] Benny Moerdani’s biography, Indonesia actually had made preparations and infiltrations before the invasion,” he told BenarNews.
“Blaming him [Kissinger] and the U.S. entirely for the invasion is also not fair because the attack had been prepared.”
Some references said that Kissinger and the U.S. government at the time knew and had a role in providing political and military support to the Indonesian government that enabled the invasion of East Timor to happen, said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.
“However, the debate about the extent to which Kissinger or the U.S. government is responsible for human rights violations in this context continues,” he said.
Tria Dianti and Arie Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.