Blood on Our Hands

25 January 1999

More than 200,000 people have been killed since Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. For decades, the British government was complicit in these killings. All that was supposed to change in May 1997. Instead, it's been business as usual. John Pilger reports on the sham of Labour's ethical foreign policy.

It was Primo Levi who said the worst moment in the Nazi death camps was the recurring fear that people would not believe him when he told them what had happened, that they would turn away, shaking their heads. This same fear is written on faces in East Timor: in the diffidence long cultivated for the Indonesians, and in the eyes of children forced to sing as the flag of their parents' executioners is raised and of women, in the 'villages of the widows', who stand every sunrise before the black crosses that litter the island.

Look at the dates on these crosses, and they reveal the extinction of whole families, wiped out in the space of a year, a month, a day: 'R.I.P. Mendonca [the surname]... Filismina, Adalino, Alisa, Rosa, Anita': all murdered on the same June day. Having travelled clandestinely through the hinterland of East Timor, I did not meet a single family that had not lost at least five members to the genocide.

Even in the age of mass communication, few images or reports reached the outside world when the forces of General Suharto invaded the Portuguese colony on December 7, 1975. The only foreign journalist to remain behind, a remarkably brave Australian called Roger East, was handcuffed and dragged to the seafront where he was shot in the face, his body thrown into what people now call the Sea of Blood.

In the first three months, some 60,000 people died resisting the invasion, or were slaughtered. Or they died in concentration camps, where many starved to death. The role of the American, British and Australian governments in this crime was crucial. The CIA's senior operations officer in Jakarta at that time was C Philip Liechty, whom I found, in retirement, in Washington.

'Suharto was given the green light by President Ford and [Secretary of State] Kissinger to do what he did,' he told me. 'There was discussion in [signals] traffic with the State Department about the problems that would be created for us if the public and Congress become aware of the level and type of military assistance that was going to Indonesia at that time. The decision was taken to get the stuff on the high seas before someone pulled the chain. Most of it went straight into East Timor and was used against non-combatants... 200,000 people died.'

The British, who saw Suharto's fascist new order as an 'investors' paradise', were Washington's principal accessories. Tipped off that the invasion was coming, the British Ambassador in Jakarta, Sir John Archibald Ford, cabled the Foreign Office: 'It is in Britain's interests that Indonesia absorb the territory as soon and unobtrusively as possible and when it comes to the crunch we should keep our heads down.'

Philip Liechty's estimate of 200,000 dead, now regarded as conservative in demographic studies and representing at least a third of the population, was quickly covered up in Whitehall. 'No one knows the truth,' said Foreign Office statements and letters written for ministers and MPs, 'and we cannot help but suspect [the figures] to be exaggerated.'

At Foreign Office briefings, journalists were assured there was 'no story' in East Timor, and the British press by and large reflected this. One of the few to break the silence was David Watts of the Times. When his report, headlined 'Indonesia accused of mass murder in East Timor', was published in 1977, he was called to the Foreign Office and asked to explain his interest. 'It was obvious,' he told me, 'that I was being warned off the story.'

Operating from a spy base near Darwin, Australia, set up by British intelligence and run by Australia's Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), both MI6 and the CIA knew almost everything the Indonesians were planning. On September 17, 1975, the CIA reported to Washington: 'Jakarta is now sending guerrillas [to East Timor] to provoke incidents that provide the Indonesians with an excuse to invade.' The outside world was told nothing.

However, an enterprising young Australian journalist, Greg Shackleton, had been listening to the fears of the East Timorese and in October 1975 set out for the port town of Balibo with his crew from Channel 7 Melbourne. He was joined by Malcolm Rennie and his crew from Channel 9. There were five of them: Rennie, aged 28, and his cameraman, Brian Peters, 29, were Britons. They waited in a house with 'Australia' painted in large red letters on the wall.

Peters wrote a letter to his sister, Maureen Tolfree, in England, describing his terror as they waited for the Indonesians. He wondered if he would have the courage to film. When the Indonesian special forces landed, Peters and the others were lined up and shot and stabbed to death by Indonesian soldiers and their bodies burned. Australian government documents, leaked last year, disclosed that a senior Australian official in Jakarta was given a detailed briefing of the Indonesian operation three days before it happened, but no attempt was made to warn the journalists of the grave danger that awaited them. There can be little doubt that the British government was complicit in this.

Both the British and Australian governments made no public protest about the killing of their citizens, effectively giving Suharto the go-ahead for a full-scale invasion. The families of Peters and Rennie received no official notification of the deaths. Maureen Tolfree says that the Foreign Office later claimed to have phoned her father - who did not have a phone. 'It was as if my brother never existed,' she said. When she first heard about her brother's death through the Australian press, she flew to Jakarta, hoping to collect his remains. At Jakarta airport, she was taken to a room where she received a telephone call from a British or Australian embassy official - she cannot say which - who told her that if she remained in Indonesia, her safety could not be guaranteed.

Nineteen years later, in 1994, she was called to the Foreign Office and casually handed an envelope of photographs said to have been taken at the funeral of the journalists in a Jakarta cemetery. None of the families had been invited to or had known about this 'funeral', which was attended by senior Australian and British officials in dark glasses.

In 1977, with the East Timorese cut off from the world and fighting for their existence, David Owen, foreign secretary in the Callaghan government, approved the sale of the first Hawk fighter-bombers to the East Timor Indonesian dictatorship. Owen said the reports of killings in East Timor had been 'exaggerated' and that the 'most reliable' figure was 10,000 and, anyway, 'the scale of fighting had been reduced'. The opposite was true. As Owen concluded the deal, a letter written by a Portuguese priest in hiding in East Timor reached Lisbon. 'The invaders,' he wrote, 'have intensified their attacks from land, sea and air. The bombers do not stop all day. Hundreds died every day. The bodies of the victims become food for carnivorous birds. Genocide will come soon. . .'

At that time, a young Scottish Labour MP, Robin Cook, was making his name as critic of the arms trade. In two long articles in the New Statesman in 1978, entitled 'Britain's arms bazaar' and 'The tragic cost of Britain's trade', Cook lamented that 'wherever weapons are sold there is a tacit conspiracy to conceal the reality of war', and 'it is a truism that every war for the past two decades has been fought by poor countries with weapons supplied by rich countries'. He attacked 'those governments who are so unpopular they only stay in power by terrorising their civilian population'. He singled out the dictatorship in Indonesia and the 'particularly disturbing' sale of British Hawk aircraft.

Sixteen years later, now on Labour's frontbench, Cook seemed to have lost none of his spark. Lambasting the Tory trade minister, Richard Needham, for selling more Hawks to Indonesia, he said: 'He will be aware that Hawk aircraft have been observed on bombing runs in East Timor in most years since 1984.' And now it was a sunny spring day in May 1997 and Robin Cook, the new Foreign Secretary, was the main attraction at a Mandelson-inspired media event at the Foreign Office. As the unctuous images of a video display juxtaposing Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela faded, Cook declared: 'We will not permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression. We shall spread the values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy which we demand for ourselves.' Human rights, he emphasised, would be at the 'heart of British foreign policy'.

The announcement was, of course, at odds with the historical record, which shows that since 1945 Tory and Labour governments have had almost identical foreign policies, none of which have upheld human rights. On the contrary, in serving what are known as 'British interests', they have played a significant part in some of the century's worst abuses of human rights. What is more, it was Labour that had set up the Defence Sales Organisation at the Ministry of Defence, specifically to boost the arms trade.

Today, Britain is the world's second biggest arms dealer, with a majority of its arms going to countries either in a state of war-preparedness or with an undisputed record of 'internal repression'. One of the most important clients, Indonesia, was clearly the test for the new 'ethical' policy.

Instead, under Labour, the cover-up has deepened. Around the time Cook was making his 'mission statement', the new government gave the go-ahead for the export of Alvis 'riot control' vehicles and Tactica water cannon to Jakarta. These have been subsequently used on pro-democracy demonstrators, who are sprayed with a dye that causes vomiting and identifies them to the secret police. When they are arrested, many 'disappear'. Seven other consignments of weapons, ammunition and equipment were secretly approved. 'Details cannot be released due to their commercial confidentiality,' intone Blair's ministers in Parliament. Or: 'Acquiring the information would incur disproportionate costs' - exactly what the Tories used to say.

For his part, Cook flew to Jakarta and presented Suharto with 'a deal on human rights' that included 'a series of lectures on non-violent crowd-control given by senior British police officers'. This would have been hilarious were it not for the fact that Indonesia's Kopassus special forces, (a kind of Waffen-SS and the people who murdered the journalists), were then conducting 'Operation Finish Them Off' in East Timor, using one of the most sought-after British exports, rapid-firing machine guns made by Heckler and Koch, a subsidiary of British Aerospace.

Last week, on his pathbreaking Channel 4 show, the satirist Mark Thomas revealed a conversation he had recorded with Paul Greenwood, a director of Pains Wessex, manufacturers of CS gas, who said: 'The UK government don't care. I've had the DTI [Department of Trade] down... and I've spoken about it, and I said I can take the order [here] and get somebody else to make it and ship it, [and they said] yeah, that's fine. . . Just as long as we're not shipping it in the UK, they don't give a toss.'

The truth is that the Blair government has secretly approved 64 new arms contracts to the Indonesian dictatorship. These include small arms, ammunition, bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, mines, riot-control agents, aircraft. Moreover, arms manufacturers are more likely to have their export licences approved under Labour than they were under the Tories. Fewer than one per cent of applications were turned down between August 1997 and August 1998.

As I recall, Tony Blair went to Dunblane following the massacre there and shed a tear on television. He subsequently banned the sale of hand guns in this country, while his government secretly approved their export to other countries, where these British weapons have been used in the equivalent of Dunblane many times over.

The present military regime in Jakarta, which replaced Suharto but is basically the same, has offered the East Timorese 'autonomy'. This is a trap, recognised as such by the thousands of angry young people who have bravely come out to demonstrate their opposition in East Timor. They must also sense that the 'international community' is preparing one of its famous 'comprehensive solutions' for the troublesome territory. The UN representative has talked about giving the territory a status similar to that of Hong Kong, as if Hong Kong was free. Meanwhile, the 'ethical' British government swims with the current of this incipient betrayal of a people's great suffering and resistance, claiming to be furthering a 'peace process' while actually protecting the interests of its merchants of death. This time, they ought not to be allowed to succeed.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library