Review: "Momentum and the East Timor Independence Movement: The Origins of America's Debate on East Timor"

27 Nov 2015
Momentum and the East Timor Independence Movement: The Origins of America's Debate on East Timor
Carmel Budiardjo

Momentum and the East Timor Independence Movement: The origins of America's Debate on East Timor
By: Shane Gunderson (2015)

The Indonesian military's occupation of East Timor led to years of terror. Dr Gunderson believes that his book “will fill the gap for East Timor history curriculum developers faced with deciding who ought to be included, excluded, recognized, and acknowledged in the national history.” 

His aim is very ambitious and in some important aspects he does indeed ‘fill the gap.’ But there are a number of regrettable omissions. First of all, the US Government's role in the covert intervention (1974-75) and actual invasion (December 1975); the Balibo murders; the truth about the famine, and key elements of Vatican diplomacy. All of these issues are critical not only for understanding East Timor’s independence movement and its journey, but also the parallel journey which continues in West Papua today.

This book excels, however, in describing the strength of the US peace movement's response. Gunderson should be commended for studying United Nations archives and for sharing these with Timorese, symbolizing the solidarity his book aims to document. 

The US and the invasion
After Portugal's 'Carnation Revolution' in 1974, its empire was dismantled – except for East Timor. Independence was seen as 'unrealistic' for the Timorese. This decision paved the way for Jakarta to seize the territory, with dreadful consequences for the Timorese.

On 28 November 1975, the people of East Timor, under the leadership of Fretilin, declared their independence. A bold decision, but years of suffering and brutality followed for the Timorese people.

Nine days later, on 6 December, in Jakarta, described by a US State Department official as the ‘Big Wink,’ Indonesia's President Suharto met US President Ford and Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State. "Both parties avoided making explicit reference to military intervention," states the final report of Timor-Leste's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), "but it is clear from the discussion and references to the use of US arms and guerrilla war that this is what the US President knew he was agreeing to. In giving his consent, he made no reference to the right of self-determination or the humanitarian consequences of war. Consent to the use of force also meant having to ignore advice from officials about the illegality of using US weapons, because most of the Indonesian armed forces equipment was American. Indonesia ignored the request to wait: the invasion began in the early hours of Sunday morning, 7 December, over 24 hours before the designated time of President Ford’s return to the US."[1]

President Ford and Kissinger had known, for 24 hours, that Suharto had decided to give the go-ahead to full-scale invasion. The US President had been briefed, by-by-day, by the CIA and other US agencies, over several months, on Indonesian destabilisation of East Timor and, from early October 1975 onwards, on the slow progress of the covert invasion.

For years, across the world, terrible events in Timor were hushed up as much as possible. Then, in 1991, the truth about Suharto's rule in East Timor was revealed when foreign journalists not only filmed the Santa Cruz massacre but lived to screen the tale on television. In response, people demonstrated across the globe, and a solidarity movement of unprecedented proportions was born.  Demonstrators in the USA called on members of Congress to stop arming Indonesia. Activists from all walks of life took action. The vitality of this movement and the courage of its leaders such as Arnold Kohen and John Miller, is described vividly in this book. 

The Balibo Five
Until today, the Indonesian government has yet to acknowledge publicly and unequivocally that its forces ever invaded East Timor. Excellent job though Gunderson's book does in many ways, it ignores the reasons for that resounding silence.
The incident in question reveals how the Indonesian military dealt with anyone who tried to report the truth about what was happening in East Timor. Throughout 1975, Indonesia denied reports that an invasion was under way. When five TV journalists from Australia, New Zealand and Britain, equipped only with cameras, went to Balibo near the border with Indonesian West Timor to record what was going on, they were killed by Indonesia's security forces. Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart were from Australia, Gary Cunningham was from New Zealand, and Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie were British.  They became known as The Balibo Five. The killing of these five men and the effect of their murders on international access to news of the events in East Timor is not mentioned by Gunderson, despite the fact that official investigations have found evidence of war crimes.


A Coroner’s Inquest held in Australia in 2007 found that once Indonesia had seized and held Batugade in East Timor on 7 October 1975, an international conflict was underway.[2] The inquest recorded that Brian Peters was ‘deliberately killed’ and died ‘from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately and not in the heat of battle by … Indonesian Special Forces.’ All these journalists were killed by an Indonesian officer, Captain Yunus Yosfiah to prevent them from reporting that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo.’ Yosfiah was invited to give evidence at the inquest but declined. He was later promoted. After leaving the army, he became a member of the Indonesian government, holding the position of Minister of Information for several years.

The Coroner also found that the Fourth Geneva Convention[3] was applicable once Indonesia had seized Batugade. She declared that the killings of the journalists were ‘grave breaches’ under Article 147 of the Convention, and that those responsible were ‘guilty of war crimes.’

Starvation Strategy
With international journalists out of the way, the situation in East Timor under Indonesian military occupation was reported only rarely. The famine of the late 1970s is a case in point. It resulted in massive numbers of conflict-related civilian deaths (estimated at between 102,800 and 183,000). Gunderson’s account misses that that famine was a deliberate policy by the occupiers. Even when he emphasises the importance of an article by Rod Nordland, published in May 1982 by the Philadelphia Inquirer (‘Hunger: Under Indonesia, Timor Remains a Land of Misery’), he does not mention that article's account of the role of Indonesian military operations in the famine.

Nor does Gunderson mention the book by John Taylor and Arnold Kohen published by TAPOL in 1979 which refers to Australian intelligence reports “that thirty to forty thousand Timorese had died of starvation as a result of the Indonesian air force’s use of defoliants in Fretilin-held areas.” There is ample evidence of bombing and crop burning, which further contributed to the famine. In 1978, several ambassadors in Jakarta, including US ambassador Edward Masters, were allowed to visit East Timor. One ambassador told the Far Eastern Economic Review that he had seen children in one transit camp “who were so undernourished that they reminded him of victims of an African famine.” Tens of thousands of Timorese had been forced to leave their villages and re-settle in so-called transit camps. The ambassadors were shocked at witnessing many Timorese camp dwellers suffering from “advanced malnutrition and disease such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and malaria.”
Kohen and Taylor described in their book how the famine was largely the “direct outcome of a calculated Indonesian policy of enforced starvation.” Gunderson fails to analyse such accounts. Nor does he mention the research cited in 2005–6 by Timor Leste's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR). The CAVR's chapter on famine and forced displacement concludes: “The massive campaigns waged by Indonesian forces between mid-1977 and late 1978 made the already difficult conditions in which hundreds of thousands of East Timorese people in the forest and mountains were in living in intolerable conditions, forcing the people to surrender to Indonesian forces. Once in Indonesian hands, they faced an even worse fate in ‘resettlement camps’: the Indonesian military made inadequate provision for their everyday needs and placed restrictions on their freedom of movement which made it impossible for camp inmates to provide for themselves. The result was a famine which took thousands of lives, largely because the Indonesian military permitted international relief agencies to operate in Timor-Leste only once it decided that it had achieved its military objectives.”[4]

Gunderson says little about one of East Timor's towering heroes who spoke out about the famine at the time. Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes was a key East Timorese figure between 1977 and 1983, when he served as East Timor's ‘Apostolic Administrator.’ That post enabled the Vatican to distance East Timor from Indonesia, a crucial diplomatic manoeuvre. Despite Costa Lopes’ efforts on behalf of the Timorese, the Vatican removed him from his post in 1983 for too publicly talking about hunger and atrocities. In an interview with TAPOL in 1982, he described the “killing, killing, killing...,” adding his analysis of the impact of government policy on famine-related deaths by saying “If people could live where they like, there would be no shortage of food.”

US Grassroots Movement
For many years, people around the world were unaware of the situation in East Timor until 1991 when Indonesian troops massacred a crowd of mourners at the Santa Cruz cemetery. Several foreign journalists were present and witnessed the massacre. At last, Suharto's secrets became known to the world. 

The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), a major solidarity movement, emerged. Supported by people from all walks of life, ETAN waged a campaign urging members of Congress to stop arming Indonesia. The vitality of this movement and the courage of its leaders, Arnold Kohen and John Miller, is described at length by Gunderson.

The author quotes Noam Chomsky, a leading political thinker in the USA, as saying: “This tiny group deserves full credit for the fact that there is any awareness at all of the Timor tragedy and the US role in it, for the fact that the story did finally break through and reach the press and Congress as well as significant parts of the peace movement.”

Carmel Budiardjo,
Founder of TAPOL
Recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, 1995

With editorial assistance from UK activist Hugh Dowson

[2] Magistrate Dorelle Pinch, Coroner of NSW, 2007, Inquest Report on Brian Raymond Peters:

[3] Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 1949