While tributes to Reagan – who died on Saturday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease – have flooded in from former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe and other US allies, in East Timor reactions to his passing have been tempered by his role in supporting Jakarta’s occupation.
“The world must not forget that under his leadership, America helped the Indonesian military commit genocide in East Timor,” said Jose Luis Oliveira, who heads Yayasan HAK, the country’s leading rights organization.
During Reagan’s presidency, Washington maintained close ties with Indonesia’s military dictator Suharto, whom the administration viewed as a bulwark against the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
In 1975, just hours after receiving the backing of ex-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Suharto ordered the invasion of the former Portuguese colony.
The Timorese resisted and conducted a successful guerrilla war during which up to 200,000 people – a third of the population – died as a result of military operations, starvation and disease.
“Reagan was a key supporter of the Indonesian military who gave them the equipment that was used to kill … the people of East Timor”
The war lasted until 1998 when Suharto was ousted and the new government in Jakarta allowed a referendum which resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence the following year. In 2002, East Timor became the world’s newest country.
Despite pleas from human rights groups, Reagan – who visited Indonesia at the height of the bloodshed in 1986 – refused to ban the use of US-supplied arms in East Timor.
“Reagan was a key supporter of the Indonesian military who gave them the equipment that was used to kill … the people of East Timor,” Oliveira said.
Re-establish military links
The military relationship began to unravel after Bill Clinton assumed office. He initially restricted ties after Indonesian soldiers slaughtered hundreds of mourners in a cemetery in Dili, and cut them off in 1999 after the withdrawing army laid waste to the province.
Paul Wolfowitz, one of Reagan’s main foreign policy advisers and his ambassador to Jakarta, was highly supportive of Suharto’s hardline policies in East Timor. Wolfowitz, currently the Pentagon’s deputy head and a key architect of the Iraq war, is now said to be spearheading efforts to re-establish military links with Jakarta.
“With Reagan’s passing, another witness to the crimes of America in East Timor has gone,” said Mericio Akara, a researcher with the Dili-based rights group Lao Hamutuk.
“The Indonesians killed tens of thousands in East Timor using American-made weapons,” he said. “So the American government under Ronald Reagan should be considered morally responsible for their deaths.”