‘There have been efforts to move to an independent Asia’

Noam Chomsky: (AFP)
Noam Chomsky: (AFP)

Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and philosopher, was a vocal advocate for formerly occupied East Timor (now Timor Leste) and continues to be a proponent of the Papuan struggle for self-determination. He spoke recently with The Jakarta Post’s contributor Prodita Sabarini in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, US, on the impact of US foreign policy on Indonesia and how Southeast-Asian countries should be more independent.

Question: What do you think are the main factors enabling impunity on cases of abuses such as in the 1965 communist killings, the war crimes in East Timor and continuing human rights violations in Papua?

Answer: There’s a very simple reason for it. The US supported it all, every one of them. The US was ecstatic in 1965. In fact, the support was so overwhelming that it was just public. The New York Times and other journals were euphoric about it. They didn’t suppress it. They described the massacre as wonderful. Same in Britain. Same in Australia.

What happened in East Timor was because the US and its allies supported it for 25 years. West Papua is the same. As long as the US primarily and its allies as well — the Western powers — support atrocities, they are carried out with impunity, just like their own atrocities are. I mean, the Vietnam War was the worst atrocity in the post-World War II period but nobody’s [found] guilty for it.

Indonesia’s election is just around the corner. How do you see the potential shift from the desire for more political freedom to a return to the old powers in Indonesia?

Same as everywhere else, the powerful win. I mean the overthrow of the dictatorship in Indonesia was important. Part of the reason [for the overthrow] was Soeharto not carrying out roles that the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the US demanded. And in fact, Madeline Albright, the [then] secretary of state at one point said that the US was dissatisfied with what Indonesia was doing and they ought to think about real change. About four hours later, Soeharto resigned. I don’t know if there was a causal connection but it was awfully suggestive. It is the great powers who decide. Mainly, the US in recent years decides what happens.

What can citizens do to guide where their country’s heading, given these external forces?

Well it’s not hopeless. In fact there are changes. Striking ones. Take Latin America. Ever since the beginning, for 500 years Latin America has been under control of Western imperial power. But now, South America is pretty much liberated. Just in the last 10 years, the changes are enormous.

When the spying scandal broke, Brazil was by far the most outspoken opponent. And in general, Latin America has witnessed a stark change. They’ve pretty much freed themselves, not totally, but largely from imperial control.

There’s recently a study of rendition of which country cooperated: all of Europe — Sweden, France, England, Ireland — Canada and the Middle East of course because that’s where they send them for torture; and Asia mostly cooperated.

One region refused to cooperate: Latin America. And if you think, Latin America not long ago was just the backyard, they did whatever they were told. That’s a pretty astonishing change. I think that should be kind of a model for what could be achieved.

So it’s not hopeless. Latin America was the last place one would have expected to find real independence, given its history, and now it’s maybe the most independent area in the world.

Do you think Indonesia should look into the experiences of Latin America?

You can’t carry over the model. Latin America doesn’t have security problems. Outside of the US there’s no real threat to Latin America. Indonesia does. China’s there. All countries in Southeast Asia have to be concerned with Chinese power.

What do you think of the role of ASEAN is in terms of resisting China’s power?

My feeling is that there have been efforts to move to an independent, non-Chinese Asian system. Like Asian Development Bank for an example. Most have been blocked by the US in the past.

There was a Japanese-based effort to form a kind of Asian Development Bank, but the US undercut it. They want the World Bank, which is US-run, to handle it. But those things can be done and it has to be done in a way which doesn’t form a part of an alliance against China. I don’t think it’s impossible for Southeast and East Asia to become a sort of independent bloc in world affairs, separate from China, separate from the United States.

They’re not doing it now. They’re becoming part of the US system but that’s not good for anyone. That could lead to major serious confrontations.

The US is now strengthening their relationship with Asia.

Pivot to Asia. Well, unfortunately it’s being done in a way which is really threatening to China. I mean, China is not a nice government. They’re not going to be nice to people, but they do have their problems. They’re surrounded and contained.

Take a look at the conflicts between the US and China now. The conflicts are mostly over the seas near the China coast. The US wants to have free rights to send military vessels into those waters and China wants to control those waters. So that’s a confrontation.

There’s no confrontation over the Caribbean or over the waters near California. That would be inconceivable. That tells you about the balance of power.

China is encircled. There’s a ring of military bases from Japan, South Korea, Australia. These are hostile bases and they just surround China. In fact that’s one of the reasons why China is moving to Central Asia where they don’t have these barriers.

If East Asia and Southeast Asia move toward more independence in world affairs, they have to be careful not to be just part of a ring of military containment around China, preventing it from exercising pretty legitimate rights to have free access to its own maritime [sources] in the area.

The Jakarta Post | World | Wed, March 19 2014, 11:31 AM

Rights should be part of US ‘pivot’ to Asia

ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2010 Papuan activist Filep Karma.

 

A MILITARY helicopter flew overhead, firing rounds, as a young protester named Tineke Rumakabu ran from soldiers. She was bringing food for her fellow citizens of the former Dutch colony of West Papua as they demanded independence from Indonesia on July 6, 1998. Captured by troops, she was blindfolded, handcuffed, and tossed onto a pile of moaning people in a truck that took her to a military compound. There, she was tortured, raped, and watched as her friend was beheaded with a bayonet.

Rumakabu told her story this year before a Biak Massacre Citizens Tribunal organized by the University of Sydney. The tribunal cast fresh light on one of Asia’s worst — and least recognized — atrocities of recent decades. The United States had backed Indonesia’s takeover of West Papua in the 1960s, after which an American company helped start the world’s biggest gold mine and third-largest copper mine there. Many West Papuans have joined the struggle for independence since. Now, more than 15 years since the massacre in the city of Biak, the United States is turning a blind eye toward human rights abuses in West Papua as it strengthens ties to Indonesia’s military.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in August that he welcomed “the progress Indonesia has made in improving transparency and the protection of human rights” as he signed a $500 million deal selling eight Apache attack helicopters. The sale, which is part of the US foreign policy “pivot” to Asia, went ahead despite the objections of some 90 human rights groups who argued that the aircraft could be used to further suppress the people of West Papua. US-supplied arms to Indonesia have been used in cracking down on resistance movements in West Papua and East Timor. The United States restored ties with Indonesian military in 2010 after cutting them in 1999 for Indonesian abuses in East Timor.

It was strange to hear Hagel’s claim that human rights protection in Indonesia has improved, when those responsible for massacres in West Papua and East Timor enjoy impunity while members of unarmed resistance groups face arbitrary detention and killings. Armed rebels in West Papua do exist in the form of the Free Papua Movement army. However, Indonesia has been indiscriminate in suppressing any kind of resistance movements. A month before the sale of the Apaches, United Nations high commissioner Navi Pillay expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Indonesia after police reportedly shot and killed two protestors preparing to mark the 50th anniversary of the annexation of West Papua.

By strengthening military ties, the United States is furthering a culture of impunity that fuels continuous human rights violations. Officers involved in abuses continue to rise in the ranks. Generals who were in command during alleged massacres are free to test their political ambitions. Former military chief Wiranto and former special forces unit chief Prabowo Subianto, both allegedly involved in abuses in East Timor and Papua, are running for Indonesia’s president in next year’s elections.

The grievances of West Papuans are longstanding. They rightly regard the 1969 “Act of Free Choice” as a sham, when the Suharto regime selected around 1,000 Papuan representatives to unanimously vote to join Indonesia. Soon after, Arizona-based mining giant Freeport-McMoRan started its operations there. Through a subsidiary, the company pays Indonesian security forces, ostensibly to guard its mines, but in what amounts to protection money. Some academic researchers argue a “slow-motion genocide” is underway, with more than 100,000 West Papuans having been killed in armed clashes during the half-century of Indonesian rule.

After the brutal 32-year reign of Suharto ended in May 1998, a wave of protests demanding a new referendum in West Papua followed. In Biak, Filep Karma, now a political prisoner and one of the nominees for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, rallied people to gather under the city’s water tower. The protesters occupied the water tower for several days before soldiers and police launched a joint attack. Karma was shot with rubber bullets in both his legs.

The Biak Massacre Citizens Tribunal recently released its findings that the massacre was planned and executed by Indonesian security forces. Large numbers of people were tortured, raped, or killed, including a child in a school uniform. Bodies that were dumped into the sea kept getting caught in fishermen’s nets for days. The Indonesian government continues to deny any wrongdoing.

The tribunal was an effort not only to document the atrocities, but to stop the cycle of impunity. It has collected enough evidence to prosecute those responsible. At the very least, the United States should call on Indonesia to properly investigate the case. The Obama administration should also reevaluate its military cooperation with Indonesia, making sure that arms and training for Indonesian troops are not used to harm civilians. A “pivot’ to Asia should not mean complicity in Indonesia’s human rights abuses.

Prodita Sabarini, an Indonesian journalist, is the 2013-2014 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer fellow at MIT.

Published in Opinion section of The Boston Globe on January 6, 2014