A Laughing Soldier with a Razor Blade

How the West has licensed Indonesia’s reign of terror

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 16th September 1999.

Just as the UN security council was voting to intervene in East Timor, fresh evidence of British and American complicity in genocide started coming to light. That the western powers approved and equipped army operations in East Timor is well-known. Now we discover that western support for the Indonesian army persisted even as its proxy warriors were warning the population not to vote.

On April 8 this year, US Admiral Dennis Blair met General Wiranto, head of the Indonesian armed forces. He invited Wiranto to strategic discussions in Hawaii and offered the army training in “crowd control measures”. Since then, the US government, pointing to its commercial stake in Indonesia, has argued that the west must be “realistic” about East Timor, and strive to achieve a “balance of interests”. Britain and the US continued to sell weapons to Jakarta throughout the build-up of militia activity: over the past year Britain has subsidised its sales of Hawk aircraft to Indonesia with £130 million in loan guarantees.

Our governments have been able to facilitate genocide in East Timor partly because, numbed by statistics, we find it hard to engage with the consequences of that support. No human mind can circumscribe two hundred thousand violent deaths. So I want to tell you the rest of the story, the part from which we have been shielded and which, I think, all of us can understand.

There is a convention in journalism that details of torture are not revealed, for fear, it seems, of upsetting the readers. But it is partly because our sensibilities have been spared that the agonies of people like the East Timorese have not.

Torture in Indonesia, Amnesty International has shown, is common, crude and, as an instrument of terror, devastatingly effective. Soldiers smash the fingers of their victims with hammers, drive nails through their toes, break their ribs and knees with iron bars, place a table leg on the prisoner’s foot and jump on the table, and burn people’s genitals with cigarettes and embers. But the Indonesian army’s favourite method is vivisection.

In West Papua, another of the regime’s occupied territories, I met a man I shall call Tom. At the age of twelve he had watched as his uncle became an experiment in agony. The operation took twelve hours. Early in the morning, Tom’s uncle had reported to the local army headquarters to ask permission, as required, to go hunting. He had a large, bushy beard, and this, the soldiers decided, identified him as a rebel. They took him into the kitchen and started questioning him. Tom hid in the bushes by the window, and saw everything.

His uncle denied that he had done anything wrong. The men produced the simple equipment that all soldiers in Indonesia’s annexed lands carry: cut-throat razors. They sliced off his ears. They held them in the kitchen fire with tongs, cooked them, then forced him to eat them. Then, very slowly, they opened up his cheeks, so that the flesh hung off the bone. They began to strip the muscles from his arms and legs. Beneath the laughter of the soldiers, Tom could hear the blood running through the kitchen floorboards. An iron bar was heated until it was red hot, then pressed into his thighs. The soldiers mixed up a pan of chilli and salt, and rubbed it into his wounds. By nightfall, Tom’s uncle had been scalped and largely flayed, but he was still alive. The soldiers stuffed him into a rice sack, dragged him a mile over the rocky ground, then dumped him in a hole. Tom could still hear his uncle’s cries, but by the time he had fetched his relatives to pull him out, the man was dead.

This was no aberration, but, in the Indonesian army, the respectable norm. The commander of West Papua’s pacification programme, Colonel Sarwo-Edhie, used to recount over dinner his means of prolonging people’s deaths, while chopping them up with a knife. When he retired from the army, he ran a university department teaching the principles of government. Today, in the cellars of Dili and the concentration camps of Kupang, the army, with the blessing of the commanders who will “assist” the UN force, will be doing to the East Timorese what it did to Tom’s uncle.

The Indonesian armed forces behave like this only because they are licensed to do so. Ever since the CIA assisted Suharto’s 1965 coup and the subsequent murder of a million Javanese people, the army has seen that the international community approves of butchery. As, over the years, it has tortured thousands to death in East Timor, Aceh, Ambon and West Papua, America, Britain and Australia have looked on and smiled. There would, the commanders saw, be no Nuremberg trials, no war crimes tribunals. They could do precisely as they pleased.

We have heard plenty this week from the British and American governments about “honouring” contracts, about strategic objectives and the balance of interests. But all this fine talk comes down to one thing: a laughing soldier with a razor blade.