Nov 1 1999

Was East Timor Really ‘Out of Control’?

Media downplayed evidence of planned atrocities

A front-page New York Times arti­cle (9/12/99) about the precari­ous situation in East Timor in September began by reporting that Gen. Wiranto, Indonesia’s top mil­itary commander, “conceded Saturday that he had lost control of elements of his military” that were operating on the island. The article’s headline, “Jakarta Concedes a Loss of Control,” echoed this view.

The assertion that Wiranto was unable to control the violence in East Timor went unquestioned in the first two-thirds of the article. Then, in the article’s 29th paragraph, an unnamed official travelling with the visiting U.N. delegation in East Timor flatly contest­ed this idea:

I don’t see any reason to think they are having difficulties controlling the situation. Look at today and look at election day when every­thing was brought under control with the snap of a finger. This is such a coordinated and planned campaign—evacuating towns, assas­sinating moderate leaders, moving huge numbers of people into forced exile—that it could only have come from the top.

This approach was typical of the mainstream media’s recent coverage of the East Timor crisis. NBC Nightly News introduced its September 14 coverage of East Timor with a large graphic reading “Out of Control”–even as anchor Tom Brokaw told viewers that “government-backed militias are reportedly carrying out systematic assassinations of those who support independence for that province.”

A September 14 article in the Washington Post reported that an American general recently told Wiranto that the “United States expected Indonesian forces to reestablish control in East Timor.” In this case, the Post presented without challenge the view that the Indonesian command was unable to stop the violence.

Who had ultimate control in East Timor was very much a contested ques­tion. The Indonesian military—and its supporters in Washington—claimed the violence was directed by armed militias working together with rogue elements of the Indonesian military over whom the top commanders had no control. Critics, however, suggested that the vio­lence in East Timor was not the result of “chaos” or the occupied nation being “out of control,” but rather the intended consequence of a plan from Jakarta to punish the East Timorese for asserting their independence. Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Belo, a Timorese leader, said he believed the killings were “orchestrated by the Indonesian top general in Jakarta in order to stop this historical event.” (Agence France Presse, 9/10/99)

An investigation by the London Observer (9/12/99) reported that the campaign in East Timor was planned months in advance, citing “satellite tele­phone conversations between senior officers in Dili and Jakarta” intercepted by Australian intelligence agencies in March. In these conversations, Indo­nesian military officials planned a “scorched earth policy” if East Timor were to vote for independence.

An Australian opposition spokesper­son said that Australian authorities “had an intelligence assessment that showed that ABRI [the Indonesian army] could easily control and appre­hend that process but was not doing so.” (Agence France Presse, 9/15/99) Australian intelligence sources told the Melbourne Age (9/11/99) that “the lack of any vigorous action by the com­mander of the Indonesian armed forces, General Wiranto, to rein in his forces implied he was at least turning a blind eye.”

Journalist Allan Nairn, who was arrested during the violence in East Timor by Indonesian military authori­ties, wrote not only that “the militias are a wing of the TNI/ABRI, the Indonesian armed forces,” but that last April a high-ranking U.S. military offi­cial gave Wiranto what Indonesian offi­cers interpreted as a “green light to proceed with the militia operation.” (The Nation, 9/27/99)

During the Kosovo conflict, reporters did not take at face value Yugoslav government assertions that atrocities were being committed only by “out-of-control” paramilitary forces. Yet reporters failed to recognize that U.S. and Indonesian officials had their own interests in shaping how East Timorese crisis was portrayed, and often relayed their views without question.

Sidebar: The Pain of Being an Oppressor

With East Timor Facing a human crisis of monumental proportions, with hundreds of thousands of refugees, possibly thousands massacred, the country burned and looted, the New York Times obsessed over the psychological cost of the crisis–to the Indonesian military and political leadership.

On September 25, the Times’ Mark Landler reported from Jakarta that President Habibie was “reeling under the blows of East Timor.” Subsequent anti-military demonstrations were “the last thing he needs.” Meanwhile, Indonesian commander Gen. Wiranto has what the Times called “painful memories” of being caught lying about his troops using live ammunition on student protestors.

It was almost as bad for the departing Indonesian troops. As Australian helicopters hovered over buildings in the port of Dili to prevent them from being set afire by those leaving, New York Times correspondent Seth Mydans (2/25/99) saw the scene as a chance to muse on the “poignancy of the transfer of power.”