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USIS Washington File

06 October 1999

U.S. Policy Towards Indonesia and East Timor

(A brief overview of since the 1970s)  (1210)
By Jane Morse
Washington File Staff Writer
The United States has long had important national interests in
Indonesia, a key regional actor that is strategically situated in the
Asia-Pacific. The United States supports Indonesia's territorial
integrity, as well as its economic development and transition to
With more than 200 million people, Indonesia is the fourth most
populous nation in the world and has the largest number of Muslims of
any country.
The nation is comprised of more than 17,000 islands, which lie across
key global shipping lanes that allow transit of oil to the United
States and its allies and provide access through which U.S. naval
power moves to defend American interests.
Abundant in many natural resources, Indonesia is among the world's
important producers of oil and is a member of the Organization of Oil
Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Indonesia has played a vital and constructive role in regional
It was a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN), comprised of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines,
Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos. ASEAN meets
annually to discuss political as well as economic issues. In 1993,
Indonesia helped found the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which meets
annually to discuss security issues.
Indonesia is a key supporter of the 18-member Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) forum, which promotes greater economic cooperation
and trade liberalization in the region.
Indonesia supported U.S. efforts to complete negotiation of a
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and supported a consensus decision in
1995 that extended indefinitely the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of
Nuclear Weapons.
Indonesia has sponsored workshops to help resolve longstanding
territorial disputes in the South China Sea. It provided safe haven to
thousands of Vietnamese fleeing their homeland after the Vietnam War.
And it played an important role in the United Nations-sponsored
Cambodian peace process.
The country has also supported the Korean Peninsula Energy Development
Organization (KEDO) and the Agreed Framework, thus helping to reduce
the threat of nuclear proliferation in North Korea.
From the 1960s until the early 1980s, the United States provided
Foreign Military Sales (FMS) credits and/or grants to Indonesia for
the purchase of American weapons systems from U.S. Government stocks
for that country's self-defense.
Increasing American concerns about Indonesia's human rights record,
however, led the United States to limit arms sales to Indonesia in the
early 1990s.
In the last decade, U.S. military assistance has been limited to the
provision of modest funding under the expanded International Military
Education and Training (E-IMET) program. E-IMET programs are designed
to improve the military's respect for human rights and civilian
control of the country's armed forces. Since May 1998, the United
States has provided no lethal military skills training for Indonesia.
Nor has the United States allowed the sales of light arms or lethal
crowd-control items to Indonesia. The President has suspended
military-to-military relations and cut off all arms transfers.
Although U.S. relations with Indonesia have been generally friendly,
East Timor has been the focus of profound human rights concerns.
From 1524 to 1975, East Timor was a Portuguese colony on the island of
Timor, separated from Australia's north coast by the Timor Sea. But in
1975, political events in Portugal led Portuguese authorities to
abruptly withdraw from Timor.
The void left by Portugal's withdrawal exacerbated power struggles
among several Timorese political factions. An avowedly Marxist faction
called "Fretilin" eventually achieved military superiority.
During 1975 and 1976, Indonesia's military forces seized control and
Indonesia annexed East Timor, a move the United Nations never
recognized. U.S. policy makers at that time decided to accept
Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor as an accomplished fact
without accepting the de jure incorporation of East Timor into
Indonesia. They judged that nothing the United States or the world was
prepared to do at that time could change the situation.
The United States did, however, continue an ongoing dialogue with the
Indonesian Government designed to promote the well being of the people
of East Timor. It also supported discussions between Indonesia and
Portugal under the auspices of the United Nations Secretary General,
as mandated by the UN General Assembly in 1982.
In addition, the United States provided direct assistance to the
people of East Timor through the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID). In the late 1980s, USAID provided more than twice
as many project dollars to East Timor on a per capita basis as to the
rest of Indonesia. The Indonesian Government funneled substantial
monies into the province as well.
Political unrest in East Timor persisted and, in January 1999, the
Indonesian Government agreed to a UN-sponsored vote which would allow
the people of East Timor to choose, in effect, between autonomy within
Indonesia and independence. The United States strongly supported the
UN effort.
On August 30, the East Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for
Although the vote itself was conducted peacefully, in reaction to the
results, pro-integrationist militias rampaged through cities and towns
in East Timor. Even the offices of the United Nations and those of
non-governmental organizations were plundered.
Hundreds of civilians reportedly were killed and more than 350,000
East Timorese were displaced from their homes. Some fled to the
surrounding hills and jungles; others went to West Timor.
The Clinton Administration has repeatedly and strongly condemned the
violence in East Timor and is supporting and participating in
international peacekeeping efforts led by Australian troops, providing
technical, logistical and other resources.
The U.S. Government has also responded by providing $10 million
dollars in relief assistance to East Timor. On September 29, it
announced an additional $5.1 million in humanitarian aid.
During her visit to Jakarta in March 1999, Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright told Indonesian officials that "there is a burden
on the military and police to preserve stability without engaging in
human rights abuses that serve, over time, to provoke new
In public remarks delivered September 26 after her meeting in New York
with East Timorese Independence Leader Xanana Gusmao, Albright
expressed concern about credible reports that East Timorese are being
forcibly relocated from West Timor to other locations in Indonesia.
The Indonesian Government and its armed forces, she said, must
understand that the fate of East Timorese living throughout Indonesia
"is as important to the United States policy as what happens in east
Timor itself."
The United States, Albright said, expects the Indonesian government to
allow East Timorese to return home and to allow international
peacekeepers to complete their mission of stabilizing the area.
Collusion between the Indonesian military and anti-independence
militia groups must end, she said, and the militias "must not be
permitted to either threaten displaced persons or to wage an
insurgency campaign against East Timor."
U.S.-Indonesian relations, Albright said, "cannot return to what has
been considered a normal basis" until the issues of East Timor have
been resolved, but the United States continues to work with the
international community and the Indonesian Government to aid East
Timorese and to establish peace.
[The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.]

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