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Documents Show US Supported 1975 Invasion of E. Timor - 2001-12-08

New controversy has been stirred by the release of previously classified documents showing the United States supported Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975.

The U.S. role has been generally known for many years, but this is the first time the full extent of U.S. knowledge of the invasion has been made public.

On December 6, 1975, then President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, met with Indonesian President Suharto toward the end of a brief visit to Jakarta.

Earlier that year, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had fallen to Communist forces. The United States was concerned about the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, a concern also shared by the Indonesian leader.

At one point, President Suharto turned to East Timor. Portugal, he said, had been unable to control a deteriorating situation in its former colony. Suharto asked for, what he called, "U.S. understanding" for any "rapid or drastic action" Indonesia might have to take.

President Ford said, "We will understand and will not press you on the issue." Henry Kissinger cautioned that the use of American weaponry by Indonesia's army, "could create problems," but added that this depended on how the operation was "construed."

The complete, formerly secret State Department cable detailing the discussion was declassified last June in response to freedom of information requests. It and others were released by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

For 25 years, Timorese independence activists and human rights groups pointed to the December 6 meeting as proof of what they called U.S. complicity in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. Indonesia invaded only hours after the meeting, and annexed East Timor in 1976.

Critics say Mr. Kissinger's comments to Mr. Suharto provided the green light for Indonesia's use of U.S.-supplied arms in an offensive action in East Timor - something that was prohibited by U.S. law - and set the stage for more than two decades of oppression in the former colony.

John Miller of the East Timor Action Network says the documents provide a clear picture of a foreign policy decision and the implications it had.

"By understanding this history and, I wouldn't call them mistakes, but the policy decisions that were made in 1975, we can avoid repeating them, we can avoid prematurely restoring the ties and continue to use that suspension to try and force changes in the Indonesian military's behavior," he says.

The United States sharply reduced relations with the Indonesian military after massacres by pro-Jakarta militias before a U.N. sponsored independence referendum. Washington later lifted an embargo on sales of non-lethal military equipment.

Neither Henry Kissinger nor former President Ford had any immediate comment on the release of the documents. Mr. Kissinger has maintained that he only learned of the East Timor invasion plans at Jakarta airport after the meeting with President Suharto.

Luis Costa Ribas is Washington bureau chief for Portugal's SIC Television. He says East Timorese leaders know the United States has been a friend and will want to focus on the future, not the past.

"The East Timorese leaders know that and would rather emphasize that then their disappointment with what the United States did in the beginning and I think what they think about Kissinger is different from what they think about the U.S. They just don't think this is the time to emphasize differences in the past because they're looking forward to development aid and political support as they become independent in a few months," he says.

Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Kissinger met in New York with key Timorese leaders, including Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao.

Mr. Kissinger is reported to have pledged his help to generate investment for East Timor. Mr. Ramos Horta was quoted as saying - "Why blame only Kissinger, it was the whole Cold War era?"

A spokesman for the government of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose father was deposed by President Suharto, said release of the documents would not harm U.S.-Indonesian relations, or Jakarta's relations with a future independent East Timor.