The BBC, East Timor and the Revision of History

Josh Watts, 13 September 2012 | 3 Comments

Categories: BBC News | East Timor | USA | |

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On Thursday, 6 September 2012, the BBC reported US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's 'landmark trip to East Timor', making her 'the first US secretary of state to do so since the country's independence in 2002'.

'Mrs Clinton', explained the BBC, 'said her visit was a sign of America's support for the country and its commitment to the region'. Indeed, she is quoted as saying that 'her visit signified "a clear, unmistakable message that the United States has been, is and will remain a resident Pacific power"'. History, however - effectively rewritten in the BBC's report - immediately derails the straightforwardness of Clinton's assertions, which, it should be noted, go unchallenged.

The fact of the matter is, history does confirm that the United States was undoubtedly ‘commit[ted] to the region’, and one country in the region was ‘support[ed]’. However ‘the country’ to which the Secretary of State refers – East Timor – was most certainly not supported by the United States; rather, its population’s right to self-determination was vehemently denied in the most brutal and horrendous of ways. We refer to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor on 7 December 1975, nine days after it declared independence from Portugal (28 November 1975). What followed were the deaths of some 200,000 Timorese, around a third of the population, in a murderous fashion, which Edward S. Herman has described as a ‘politically correct holocaust’ – in that it was ‘of little interest to the establishment’1 – and which included a calculated program of starvation.

The United States and East Timor

‘Why should we devote attention to East Timor, a small and remote place that most Americans have never even heard of?’ asked Noam Chomsky in 1980. One ‘more than sufficient’ reason ‘is that East Timor has been, and still is, the scene of enormous massacres and suffering’, and ‘What has happened and what lies ahead are very much under our [the United States] control, so directly that the blood is on our hands’.2 This is true: 90 per cent of the arms used by Indonesia were supplied by the United States, and the Carter administration – the ‘Human Rights’ administration – increased the flow of arms to Indonesia when it looked as if it were to run out. One CIA operations officer at the US embassy in Jakarta stated that ‘without continued heavy U.S. logistical military support the Indonesians might not have been able to pull it off’.3 Then-US president Gerald Ford, and Henry Kissinger, had at the time been visiting Jakarta, and in fact departed on 7 December, 1975, only hours before the invasion; thus the invasion was launched shortly after their departure, and as Chomsky comments, ‘There is no serious doubt that the United States knew of the impending invasion and specifically authorized [sic] it’.4 In fact, Ford told Indonesian dictator General Suharto that if Indonesia were to invade East Timor or otherwise take action, the United States ‘will understand and will not press you on the issue. We [the United States] understand the problem and the intentions that you have’.5 As the CIA officer cited above asserted, ‘Suharto was given the green light to do what he did’. 6

None of this is to be found in the BBC’s report; what occurred instead was ‘more than two decades of bloody guerrilla warfare during Indonesian rule’, followed by ‘three years of UN administration’,7 after which ‘East Timor gained independence in 2002’. The implications are stark: the 1975 invasion of East Timor by Indonesia, mere days after it had declared independence, never took place, and the 200,000 slaughtered during the event, never existed. Except, it did take place, as the BBC’s country profile on East Timor8 observes: ‘Indonesia invaded within days of the Timorese declaration of independence, and used force to crush popular resistance’. Indeed, the country’s ‘road to independence - achieved on 20 May 2002 - was long and traumatic’ and the 200,000 dead – ‘at least 100,000’ according to the BBC – ‘died as a result of Indonesia's 25-year occupation, which ended in 1999’. The dead – and surviving - had ‘suffered some of the worst atrocities of modern times’ whilst ‘Major world and regional powers did little to counter Indonesian rule, which was not recognised by the UN’. The invasion, then, is known to have taken place by the BBC. Why then is it not mentioned in its report on East Timor? Why, in a report regarding a ‘landmark’ visit to the country by a US Secretary of State, does it receive not a single word of comment, especially when considering the decisive role the United States played in the invasion? Why is the slaughter of 200,000 following the invasion of one country by another, reduced to the ‘result’ of ‘rule’ by the invading country? And are the 200,000 dead all supposed to be put down to ‘two decades of bloody guerrilla warfare’ which took place during Indonesian ‘rule’?9

Returning to the original point, with the invasion in mind, we can now make sense of the BBC’s interpretation of Clinton’s remarks: the United States was ‘committed to the region’ – unilaterally signified, in this case, by Indonesia – and enthusiastically so; yet consequently, and contrary to the first cited assertion of Clinton’s, the United States did not ‘support’ East Timor in any way. It goes without saying that support for East Timor’s right to self-determination, let alone simply the cessation of arms to Indonesia, would have been detrimental to the Indonesian invasion (recall the comments of the CIA officer cited above). In this respect, Clinton’s remark is oxymoronic. Yet, as the BBC declines to acknowledge the Indonesian invasion in its report, Clinton’s comments appear not in the least illogical.

If we restrict ourselves to the context of the report only, Edward S. Herman’s charge of the invasion as a ‘politically correct holocaust’ appears true (as it is not reported to have taken place): Indonesia merely ‘rule[d]’ (BBC), and ‘the decimation of the East Timorese population by the Indonesian army’ (Herman) did not occur.10

Britain’s Role in the Slaughter

As the report in question concerns the US Secretary of State, we have so far looked specifically at the culpability of the United States. However, considering our critique is aimed at British media, perhaps it is appropriate also to consider Britain’s significant role in the horrors inflicted on the East Timorese, since the 1975 invasion.

In 1999 Peter Hain, at the time British Foreign Office minister, stated that the people of East Timor had been denied ‘the right to determine their own destiny . . . for over a quarter of a century, often with Western complicity including British complicity’.11 Indeed, the British ambassador in Jakarta told the Foreign Office in July 1975 that ‘it is in Britain’s interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory [of East Timor] as soon and as unobtrusively as possible’.12 Britain – like the US – continued supplying Indonesia with military equipment, even when aggression by Indonesia was reaching genocidal proportions, such as in 1978, with Hawk fighter planes being especially effective, as the leader of East Timor’s resistance army explained: ‘The War in East Timor would have taken another course if the Indonesians had not received military support from abroad, including the Hawks that Great Britain offered during the crucial period of the invasion’.13 As a major arms supplier to Indonesia – in fact taking the place of the United States as leading supplier in the 1990s14 – Britain gave the green light for Indonesia to persist in its merciless invasion and continuous repression of the East Timorese.15 John Pilger, for example, wrote in June 1999 of the Blair government approving 92 licences for shipments of arms in Indonesia which were used to fashion death squads intended to prevent Timorese independence.16

Presumptions and Further Omissions

Returning to the report in question, aside from the 1975 invasion, there is another glaring omission: the independence referendum of 30 August, 1999. Recall that, according to the report, ‘East Timor gained independence in 2002 after three years of UN administration, which followed more than two decades of bloody guerrilla warfare during Indonesian rule’. Nowhere, though, is there mention of the 1999 referendum, in which nearly 80 per cent of the East Timorese population voted for independence, in spite of threats and intimidation before the referendum - for example, Colonel Tono Suratman, commander of the Indonesian military in Dili, warned voters: ‘if the pro-independents do win . . . all will be destroyed . . . It will be worse than 23 years ago’17 - torture and murders in a huge resurgence in violence either side of the vote. Such atrocities however, did not deter the United States or Britain from continuing to supply the Indonesian military with the necessary tools of repression,18 leaving many thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.19 It is not that the August 1999 referendum was unknown to the BBC, though; like the original invasion, it received mention in the East Timor country profile (see note 8).

Finally, the report points out that ‘Although rich with natural resources, Timor has struggled to raise the standard of living of its people, with an estimated 40% of Timorese still living below the poverty line’, according to the BBC’s correspondent. What is not remarked upon, however, and which may go some way to explaining why East Timor has ‘struggled to raise the standard of living of its people’, despite being ‘rich with natural resources’, is that Australia, as John Pilger has documented, has ‘continu[ously]’ ‘the[ived]’ ‘most of East Timor's seabed resources’, disputing maritime borders recognised by international law, ‘refus[ing] to recognise the jurisdiction of both the International Court of Justice and the Tribunal for the Law of the Sea’, and ‘demanding that the old border, agreed illegally with Suharto, should apply’. ‘Since 1999’, in fact, ‘Australia has received more than a billion dollars in taxes on oil extracted from a field fully situated in East Timorese territory; East Timor has received nothing from the same field’. ‘Australia today occupies the East Timorese seabed and is poised to rob the tiny nation of roughly $30bn over the next three decades’, wrote Pilger in 2004, ‘constantly threatening to pull out of negotiations, thus denying a stricken people money they urgently need for reconstruction’.20


In September 1999, amidst the violence following the referendum of 30 August, Pilger stated that ‘East Timor is the greatest, most enduring crime of the late 20th century’.21 The horrors of this crime are well documented. Yet, despite this crime being recognised by the BBC in its own profile on East Timor, in this recent report regarding a visit to the country by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the Indonesian invasion of the island on 7 December, 1975, is entirely absent. To continue, the major complicity of the US and Britain in the invasion and continuous bloodshed (up to and after the independence referendum of 30 August, 1999) are removed from the record, as is the referendum itself. Nevertheless, the record is clear: East Timor, thanks to both British and US diplomatic support and the continuous and enthusiastic supplying of arms, has been ‘the scene of enormous massacres and suffering’, and there can be no doubt that ‘the blood is on our hands’.22 The confining of the full extent of, and foreign complicity in, the atrocities, to the memory hole, by the BBC, provides an illuminating and shameful example of the mainstream media’s unmistakable avoidance of inconvenient truths, and subservience to the interests of government.23


1. Edward S. Herman, ‘Politically Correct Holocausts’, c.1992, in Edward S. Herman, Triumph of the Market: Essays on Economics, Politics, and the Media (Boston: South End Press, 1995), p. 103.

2. Noam Chomsky, ‘The United States and East Timor’, c.1980, in Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy from Vietnam to Reagan, c.1982 (New York: The New Press, 2003) p. 358.

3. Cited in Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), p. 89.

4. Chomsky, ‘The United States and East Timor’, Towards a New Cold War, 2003, p. 359.

5. Cited in Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (London: Vintage, 2003), pp. 404-5.

6. Cited in Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, 2010, p. 89.

7. David Chandler (David Chandler, From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, London: Pluto Press, 2006) argues that such a process is detrimental to the sovereignty of the state(s) concerned, citing the examples of Bosnia, East Timor and Kosovo, where democratic accountability is replaced by unaccountable, external forces and ‘under the rubric of human rights protection’ ‘increasing levels of civil interaction have come under regulatory control’, with this ‘external regulation’ being ‘highly destructive of the political sphere’ (pp. 203, 207). Furthermore, ‘the most striking aspect of the depth of feeling of human rights advocates and educationalists is the ease with which they shift from one issue to the next as the humanitarian bandwagon rolls on from Iraq to Somalia to Bosnia to Kosovo to East Timor to Sierra Leone to Afghanistan. The concern for particular human rights victims is not only fickle but also highly superficial. The key aspect these activists are concerned with is highlighting the barbarism of genocide and human wrongs and the need for moral lessons, they care little for an understanding of the problem in trouble-torn societies’ (p. 227). In East Timor specifically, ‘the leading political group in East Timor, the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), was ignored by the UN and refused office space in the capital Dili’, which lead to daily protests (p. 204).

8. ‘East Timor profile’, BBC, 2012,
It is worth pointing out the apparent inconsistencies and paradoxes existent in the profile itself. For instance, it explains that ‘The rebuilding of East Timor has been one of the UN's biggest success stories’. It goes on to say, however, that ‘security has been precarious. An outbreak of gang violence in 2006 prompted the UN Security Council to set up a new peacekeeping force, Unmit’. Also, the island’s ‘infrastructure is poor’ (my emphasis). Though ‘Indonesia and East Timor set up bodies to bring the perpetrators of the 1999 violence to justice. . . . a 2005 UN report concluded that the systems had failed to deliver’. The violence was, for the record, committed by ‘a pro-Indonesian militia, apparently with Indonesian army support, [which] tried in vain to use terror to discourage voters’ from participating in an independence referendum of 30 August, 1999. Amnesty International stated that East Timor was then ‘the only place in the world where UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] workers are heavily escorted by police and army troops when they go into [‘makeshift’ refugee] camps’ in Indonesian West Timor (Cited in Noam Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line: “Humanitarian” Intervention and the Standards of the West, London: Pluto Press, 2012, p. 52). We may wonder if, given all this turmoil, the rebuilding of East Timor by the UN has been ‘successful’, or, at least, whether it can be considered one of its ‘biggest success stories’? (my emphasis) Regardless, surely any success is eclipsed by the failure of ‘Major world and regional powers . . . to counter Indonesian rule’? As Chomsky observes, UN peacekeeping came ‘after the country had been destroyed and its population expelled or killed, in accord with plans that were surely known to Washington well in advance’ (Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line, 2012, p. 79). It is useful to compare the BBC profile’s praise of UN peacekeeping with the thoughts of David Chandler (see previous note). Regarding the failure of ‘Major world and regional powers . . . to counter Indonesian rule’, the United States put pressure on the UN – which had condemned the invasion (a fact noted in the East Timor profile) and ordered Indonesia to withdraw from the island - to discourage action, with the US ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, exclaiming that ‘The United States wished things to turn out as they did [in East Timor following the invasion], and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly in effective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success’ (Cited in Chomsky, ‘The United States and East Timor’, Towards a New Cold War, 2003, p. 360).

9. The invasion is not noted as such in the overview of the BBC’s profile of Indonesia. Rather, it is mentioned in passing, in the tenth (of twelve) paragraphs: ‘The country faces demands for independence in several provinces, where secessionists have been encouraged by East Timor's 1999 success in breaking away after a traumatic 25 years of occupation’. In the timeline, however, an entry for 1976 reads: ‘Indonesia invades East Timor and incorporates it as a province’ (‘Indonesia profile’, BBC, 2012,

10. Edward S. Herman, ‘Politically Correct Holocausts’, Triumph of the Market, 1995, p. 103.

11. Cited in Curtis, Web of Deceit, 2003, p. 402.

12. Cited in Curtis, Web of Deceit, 2003, p. 404.

13. Cited in Curtis, Web of Deceit, 2003, p. 406.

14. Mark Phythian, The Politics of British Arms Sales Since 1964 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, p. 294).

15. Mark Phythian argues that ‘the British government’s freedom to criticise Indonesia’s involvement in East Timor was circumscribed by its desire to continue selling the military equipment that aided the genocide of the indigenous East Timorese population’ (Phythian, The Politics of British Arms Sales Since 1964, 2000, p. 40).

16. John Pilger, ‘Censorship by Omission’, in Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman (eds.) Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (London: Pluto Press, 2000), p. 137. Mark Phythian, in a study of the UK arms trade, has asserted that that supplying military equipment to a country ‘serve[s] as an expression of approval of the recipient country’ – and naturally of any action it may take, either internal or external (Phythian, The Politics of British Arms Sales Since 1964, 2000, p. 36).

17. Cited in Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line, 2012, p. 73.

18. Britain supplied two Hawk aircraft in April 1999; two in May; three in August and three in September, during the post-vote repression (Curtis, Web of Deceit, 2003, p. 409). Britain should not be castigated, however, because ‘The aircraft is not suitable for [the suppression of the people of East Timor] and we [the British government] have guarantees from the Indonesians that the aircraft would not be used for internal suppression’. Besides, ‘The point of selling Hawk aircraft to Indonesia is to give jobs to people in this country [Britain].’ So explained MP Archie Hamilton at the beginning of 1993 (Cited in Phythian, The Politics of British Arms Sales since 1964, 2000, p. 146). Nevertheless, the day before registration for the vote one of three Hawk 100s based in West Timor flew low over Dili twice, in an act of intimidation. Regarding the United States continuing military supplies, see Noam Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line: “Humanitarian” Intervention and the Standards of the West (London: Pluto Press, 2012).

19. Regarding the violence, Mark Curtis writes: ‘Between 3,000-5,000 people were killed in the run-up to the vote, with widespread rape, torture and maiming. . . . The response to this vote by the army and militia was to continue such a ruthless campaign[,] that around 1,000 more were killed, thousands of others shot, stabbed or raped and 500,000 (more than half the entire population) forced to flee for their lives, mainly into Indonesian West Timor’ (Curtis, Web of Deceit, 2003, p. 408). Come January 2000, Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic specialist, explained: ‘no one really knows how many people were killed in the pre- and post-ballot period. Bodies, often in mass graves, were still being discovered, many more were believed to have been dumped in the shark-infested ocean and a disturbingly high number of people, as many as 80,000, had still not been accounted for’ (Cited in Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line, 2012, p. 53).

20. John Pilger, ‘John Pilger reveals Australia's role as Bush's sheriff’, c.2004, New Statesman,
See also: John Pilger, ‘Australia ignores the plight of the East Timorese, but keeps a watchful eye on their oil and gas’, c.2000,, ;
John Pilger, ‘East Timor: The coup the world missed’, c.2006,, ;
John Pilger, ‘East Timor: a lesson in why the poorest threaten the powerful’,, 2012,

21. John Pilger, ‘We helped them descend into hell’, c.1999,,

22. Chomsky, ‘The United States and East Timor’, Towards a New Cold War, 2003, p. 359.

23. The failure to acknowledge the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 (7 December), reducing Indonesian control over the island simply to unexplained and apparently circumstantial ‘rule’ – in spite of very clear knowledge to the contrary of ignorance – is truly remarkable, and it’s significance cannot be overstated.

Categories in which this article appears: BBC News | East Timor | USA | |

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Comments (3)

1. nick shimmin13 September 2012 10:11

this account seems to be as highly selective as the BBC reporting it criticises. to fail to mention the civil war which was taking place at the time of the Indonesian invasion (which resulted in 2000 deaths in three months), and the nature of the dominant Fretilin forces who beat and jailed UDP supporters in late 1975, is whitewashing. your article creates the illusion that there was a simple peaceful declaration of independence by the East Timorese in 1975, which is simply not the case.

2. rippon13 September 2012 10:31

nick shimmin,

The article is about the *illusion* created by the BBC - that America and Britain were *not* complicit in the genocidal actions of Indonesia.

Do you think the article is flawed on that crux point?


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