A Worse Slaughter

1 June 2006

Blair makes much of 'humanitarian values' but sells arms to Indonesia which are used against East Timor.

The indictment of Milosevic is good news. The crimes he and his gang have committed make him a first class war criminal. However, try as he may, he has yet to approach the record set by the Indonesian dictator Suharto.

According to a study commissioned by the Australian Parliament, "at least" 200,000 East Timorese have died as a direct result of the Indonesian invasion and occupation. That is a third of the population or, proportionally, more people than were killed by Pol Pot in Cambodia.

When I travelled through the Matabean mountains of East Timor, beneath endless silhouettes of black crosses etched against the sky, I failed to meet a single family that grieved for fewer than five immediate members.

Now the slaughter that began with the invasion 23 years ago has returned. In the tumultuous aftermath of Suharto's forced resignation last year, the new regime headed by his stooge, BJ Habibie, offered the East Timorese a vote on autonomy within Indonesia or independence. What Habibie failed to spell out was that real power remained with the army that Suharto built as a force for colonial expansion and domestic oppression and which has devoted itself to destroying the prospect of a free vote set by the UN for August 8.

While the army chief, General Wiranto, gives bogus public support to the "peace process", there is abundant evidence that his officers train, arm and pay death squads to murder and intimidate anyone associated with the independence movement. "Just as it seemed the next generation might not be born in tears," wrote a friend from the capital, Dili, "hope is being snatched away from us." And the Blair government, those noted fighters for "humanitarian values" and against "repressive governments" are up to their necks in it.

Britain is the biggest supplier of weapons to the Indonesian military. Everything from surface to air missiles, to anti-riot vehicles and cluster bombs, comes from Britain. In 1997, the joint East Timorese Nobel peace prize winner, Bishop Carlos Belo, came to London to appeal to Tony Blair and Robin Cook. "Please do not sustain any longer a conflict which without these [arms] sales could never have been pursued in the first place, nor for so long," he begged.

Their response was to secretly approve 64 new arms shipments to the Indonesian army, using "commercial confidentiality" to justify ministers' refusal to answer MPs' questions. In March, just as the media's attention was concentrated on Kosovo, the government released, without warning, its long delayed annual report for 1998 on arms sales. Although hiding more than it reveals, the report confirms that Labour approved 92 arms contracts to Indonesia up to last December. These include the weapons prized by the Kopassus special forces, which led the invasion of East Timor and are behind the campaign of terror aimed at destroying the referendum.

On April 29 Robin Cook routinely denounced the iniquities of "the Milosevic war machine", as 16 Hawk fighter-bombers were secretly delivered to the Indonesian military by British Aerospace. Others will soon be on their way. These were originally approved by the Tories. Last January, the late Derek Fatchett, then foreign office minister, told me: "The legal advice that we had was that we had no power to revoke the [Hawks'] licences..." Two months later, the annual report acknowledged the government's power to revoke licences on page 20.

Armed with the same missiles and cluster bombs currently being used to great effect against civilians in Serbia and Kosovo, Hawk aircraft are ideally suited for the mountain passes of East Timor. The foreign office refrain is that the Indonesians would never dare betray their solemn "assurances" and use "our equipment" in their illegal colony. The British taxpayer might object; the Hawks, after all, are virtually gifts under an export credit system designed for tyrants without the readies. Alas, an outspoken member of Labour's opposition front bench gave the game away on May 11 1994, when he told parliament, "Hawk aircraft have been observed on bombing runs in East Timor in most years since 1984." His name is also Robin Cook.

Mark Higson, the former foreign office official commended by the Scott inquiry into the arms-for-Iraq scandal, described "a culture of lying" pervading Britain's foreign policy establishment. "Like so much of the lethal equipment we sold the Indonesians," he told me, "the Hawks were destined for East Timor. Everybody [at the foreign office] knew that."

The Blair government is frightened of public opinion on this issue. The tens of thousands of people who have phoned television companies and written to their MPs over the years should now insist that the government stop, forthwith, the shipment of every bomber and gun and bullet to its monstrous clients, and that the prime minister and his foreign secretary demand that the East Timorese people and their leader, Xanana Gusmao, are set free, and that Suharto joins Milosevic in the dock. If Blair and Cook continue as accessories, history will indict them, too.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library