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The Ties That Bind

09.09.2001 | POLITICS

On Sunday, August 12th The New York Times ran a characteristically context-free article reporting that the Bush administration is moving to re-open ties with the murderous military regime in Jakarta, Indonesia. "Critics of the plan," the paper wrote, "say that America's past training of Indonesian troops did little to prevent the widespread abuses [of human rights.]...Senior Bush officials say that they will take a step-by-step approach that will allow them to exercise a positive influence."

Interestingly, earlier influential "steps", reported just two weeks earlier, went unmentioned. On July 27, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released a report on a State Department request, sent to libraries around the world, asking for the return of a book that had been accidentally released by the Government Printing Office. The book, as it turns out, discussed the CIA's practice of providing the names of dissidents to Indonesian death squads in 1965 and 1966. Included in it was a memo from the US government that recommended payment to the death squads for the murder of between 100,000 and one million alleged dissidents. This bloody campaign brought to power first the ruler Sukarno, for two years, and then the dictator Suharto. Suharto's 32 year pro-US regime was followed by the brief Presidency of Mr. Wahid, whose ouster in last month's military coup brought to power Sukarno's daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and prompted Bush to reopen military ties with Indonesia. In other words, the "step-by-step process" that the President has proposed is really only another chapter in a relationship that began a long time ago.

The question of why so much US hegemony has been invested in Indonesia is a complex one. Certainly finance plays a role. There are ample US investments in Indonesia today, and many of them have been cultivated by US military and intelligence intervention. And maintaining these investments requires the continued projection of influence into the country. (Former Secretary State Henry Kissinger, for example, who forged close ties with Suharto, now profits handsomely off private sector activities in the country he helped plunge into repression. For more information see the April 2000 issue of In These Times, "With Friends Like These: Kissinger Does Indonesia.") Because Indonesia's attractiveness to multinational corporations lies in its police-like intolerance for dissent and nonexistent labor laws, maintaining investments generally means shoring up the government and stifling the opposition.

The province of Aceh (pron. Ah-chey), which is caught in separatist revolutionary struggle (threatening the "stability of the country" NYT 8/12/01), is also home to the largest liquid natural gas extraction facility on earth. The facility is owned by Exxon, and its operations have been shut down since early March, due to repeated attacks by the Free Aceh Movement, which has bombed the facility and hijacked its trucks.

The Free Aceh Movement is a rare guerilla group; even the international powers-that-be acknowledge that it has no history of attacking the civilian population. Indonesian security forces, by contrast, can make no such claim; it is estimated that they carry out an average of 10 political killings a day in Aceh alone. Nor can Exxon claim such moral high ground. It is currently being sued in US District Court by the International Labor Rights Fund, on grounds that it hired private security forces that engaged in "torture, murder and genocide" in order to protect its facilities in Indonesia. There is nothing ironic about which side of this conflict is set to receive US aid.

The August 12th New York Times story continues, "administration officials say that they plan to stop short of training the Indonesian military and of selling it weaponry, both banned under congressional [human rights] restrictions. But officials said they had asked Congress to consider allowing junior Indonesian officers to be trained in operations like peacekeeping and disaster relief."

But this, too, is not as moral as it might seem. George Bush Sr.'s administration pulled a similar stunt in 1991, when aid to the government of Colombia was under Congressional human rights restrictions similar to those of Indonesia today. The CIA sidestepped those restrictions and by carrying out not actual military trainings in Colombia, but "practice trainings" (not for Colombia's benefit, just training trainers by doing practice trainings!). Those operations included a reorganization of the Colombian Intelligence community, with a new emphasis on co-operation with the "civilian intelligence networks" that later became trainers for the Colombian military, and more importantly for its death squads. The death squads' cleansing programs kept a murderous lid on all opposition, and also devastated the nation's indigenous peoples.

Much like Colombia, Indonesia's government is continuing to use US supported security forces to eliminate its pre-civilized, indigenous cultures. The province of West Papua, for example, is one of the least "developed" places on earth, and also one of the most culturally diverse. It is home to only 0.1% of the world's population but 25% of its remaining distinct languages, with corresponding indigenous worldviews. That's a resource infinitely more valuable than oil, as the world now stands on the verge of catastrophic homogenization.

West Papua is also home to the world's largest copper and gold mine, owned by New Orleans based Freeport-McMoran. Freeport's own scientists have reported that each year the company dumps 115,000 tons of untreated toxic mining waste into three of the province's rivers. Freeport's security forces have collaborated with the Indonesian military to commit human rights atrocities that would be hard to believe, were they not so common around the "developing" world. The head of FreePort, Jim-Bob Moffat, has said "we are thrusting a spear of development into the heart of West Papua." The people of West Papua see it somewhat differently: they have responded for 20 years with force: bows, arrows and magical forest evasion against an industrial army. Nevertheless, the battle is hardly fair. The Trade and Environmental Database from American University in Washington D.C. documented the following confrontation between the corporation and the native people:

On Christmas day in Timika, at a peaceful prayer gathering of three churches, troops opened fire on villagers--killing three and wounding at least 14.

Yunas Omabak, an Amungme tribal chief described the day, "[I] was put in a Freeport vehicle and taken to a Freeport 'security cell'...they hit me over the head with a big stone till the blood streamed over my body. They put an iron bar in the hollow of my knees and forced me to squat and lean against a chest for hours."

A chief of the Amungme people later responded to this tragedy, offering his knife to a representative of Freeport, "Take it and kill me," the chief told the executive as he held out the weapon, "because I can't stand anymore to see these problems.... Slice the left side of the body and bury each piece from here up to Grasberg the mountain that Freeport mines!.... On your way back round up all the Amungme people, our pigs and every piece we have. And make a huge hole to bury us with all our belongings. You cover that and then do anything you want."

The Freeport man declined the invitation, perhaps confident that there, as throughout the world, his company could achieve the same result without such personal exertions.

-- Trade and Environmental Database, Case Study 157, June 1994

Henry Kissinger, incidentally, just retired emeritus from Freeport's Board of Directors this March.

* * *

For the world at large, the countless complex cultures that such "development" will erase are more valuable than the gold or natural gas under the ground. But for Freeport, Exxon, and the rest of the international financial elite, cultural standardization is a business imperative. Contemporary author Derrick Jensen writes that the best way to enforce compliance is to destroy all alternatives. He says that Western Civilization is a process of forgetting (in this case, as in many others, through genocide and ecological annihilation). It silences our own experiences and the voices of women, children, indigenous people and non-human animals, because without silencing them, their exploitation would be impossible.

Anything short of fundamental change, on the part of our culture, will allow this process of forgetting and degradation to continue, and its likely end will be the disappearance of countless cultures and voices the provide the world with its vitality. In their place will rise a single voice, one beholden to only to the interests of capital and the logic of business. It may sound suspiciously like the New York Times.

About the Author
Marshall Kirkpatrick is based in Eugene, Oregon and is part of the Cascadia Media Collective.
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