By Ted Kleine

As theater, the demonstration that took place in front of the Indonesian consulate on the evening of November 12 won’t win a Jefferson Award. It didn’t even cause gaper’s block on Randolph Street. At five o’clock three men holding black cardboard cutouts of M-16s advanced toward a crowd of young people holding white crosses.

“Troops!” hollered the rifle squad’s “sergeant,” Mateus Galloway, leader of an Uptown group called the East Timor Action Network. “Do you see a peaceful crowd of mourners?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Are there children among them?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Open fire!”

As well-dressed Indonesian diplomats watched from behind the consulate’s tinted windows, the soldiers silently poked their weapons toward the crowd, which dropped to its knees.

“When the firing stopped,” said Galloway, narrating, “the soldiers moved through the crowd and shot those who hadn’t already been killed.”

The scene, which lasted less than five minutes, was a re-creation of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, the best-publicized atrocity in Indonesia’s 23-year-occupation of East Timor. The massacre–or “incident,” as the Indonesian government calls it–killed anywhere from “a couple” (the consulate’s figure) to 271 (ETAN’s figure) Timorese who had gathered at the grave of Sebastiao Gomes, an advocate of Timorese independence slain by the Indonesian army. The slaughter was captured on videotape by a British journalist. After the tape was broadcast, left-wing activists around the world took up the cause of freedom for East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that occupies half an island at the southeast end of the Indonesian archipelago. On the seventh anniversary of the massacre, reenactments took place in front of Indonesian consulates and embassies all over the world and at Santa Cruz Cemetery itself.

After the scene several demonstrators began chalking the victims’ names on the sidewalk, just a few feet from a pair of bahureska, the mustachioed, round-bellied statues that flank the front steps of the consulate. Indonesians believe these icons guarantee the peace of those inside. The protesters delivered a few chants–“Indonesia, you can’t hide / We charge you with genocide” and “Congress, Clinton, make that call / What we want is a troop withdrawal”–and then dispersed into the chilly night.

The story of East Timor has everything that outrages the left: a small country is attacked–for its oil!–by a bullying neighbor, and the U.S. not only looks the other way but continues to sell the bully guns and helicopters. According to Matthew Jardine’s book East Timor: Genocide in Paradise, East Timor was preparing to become independent from Portugal in 1975 when Indonesia invaded, provoked by the tiny country’s large offshore oil reserves. Days before, President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had assured Indonesia’s President Suharto that an attack on East Timor would not be viewed as a hostile takeover, an agreement some call “the Big Wink.” Since then, 200,000 Timorese–nearly a third of the population–have been killed or have died from hunger and disease. Because East Timor is so obscure and because Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous country, is such a promising market, the rest of the world was slow to notice and slower to condemn. But after the Santa Cruz massacre, support groups began springing up in the U.S. and Europe, and in 1996 two leaders of the Timorese independence movement, Jose Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kristin Sundell is the Chicago-based national field organizer for ETAN; she first heard of East Timor when she was studying in Indonesia on an exchange program through Saint Olaf College, a Lutheran school in Minnesota. “I lived in Indonesia as a college student for five months,” says Sundell. “I was living in northern Sumatra. The [Lutheran] bishop there was speaking out forcefully for human rights. The government basically removed him forcefully.” Sundell says the government “engineered an election” for bishop among local Lutheran congregations. “When this happened, there was mass protest among the Lutheran community. The students I was working with were beaten and arrested. At one point [the army] rolled a tank onto the campus as a form of intimidation. I had no concept of what it was like to live in a military dictatorship, where the military is part of everyday civilian life.”

Sundell began working for ETAN in 1997. This summer she made her first trip to Timor, traveling with her boyfriend, Brad Simpson, another member of the network. Posing as teachers, the couple stayed at a hotel; they say the bellhops wore military camouflage and one of the outbuildings served as a center for interrogation and torture. They met Timorese women who had been conscripted as “comfort girls” for some of the estimated 21,000 Indonesian troops occupying the province. Every village had a barracks, and at night troops in black uniforms patrolled the streets.

One of the couple’s guides, a former political prisoner, told horrifying stories from the torture cells: of Timorese having their fingernails pulled out, their genitals shocked, their organs ruptured by metal poles shoved down their throats. “Everyone you meet has either been tortured or knows someone who has,” says Simpson.

But Sundell and Simpson did see the Timorese, who want a referendum on independence from Indonesia, starting to assert themselves. At a mass meeting the governor of Timor lectured students on Indonesia’s plan to make East Timor a semiautonomous province, a proposal most Timorese scorn. The regional military commander was also sitting on the dais. “Afterward, they permitted the students to come up to the mike,” says Sundell. “Basically the students used the opportunity to call for a referendum. It was an exhilarating experience for the students to talk directly to the general’s face.”

A year ago, she says, such boldness might have been impossible. But in May prodemocracy demonstrations ended the 32-year dictatorship of President Suharto, and the students of Indonesia are making demands of their leaders much as American students did in the 1960s. (This week, students in Jakarta rioted for democracy and called for a three-day general strike against the government.) Now even the cabbies are talking independence. “You’ll be riding with a cabdriver and they’ll say, ‘We want a referendum,'” says Sundell. “They ask if you’re an activist or a journalist. Nobody goes to East Timor as a tourist. There’s so much tension.”

The morning after ETAN demonstrated in front of his building, Indonesian consul R.K. Utomo sat down in a conference room one floor above the street and gave his government’s version of the story. East Timor, he said, was exploited by the Portuguese for over 400 years. When the colonizers left in 1975, a civil war broke out between factions who wanted to control the nascent country, and Timorese leaders invited Indonesia to restore order. Since then Indonesia has tried to make up for Portugal’s neglect by building schools and roads. “East Timor was better treated than our brothers,” said Utomo, a genial man with a Buddha smile. “For hundreds of years, being under the Portuguese, they didn’t leave anything for them.” East Timor belongs in Indonesia, he argues. The island it sits on was unjustly divided by the Dutch and the Portuguese, and Indonesia is simply redressing the colonialists’ misdeed.

Furthermore, East Timor wants to be part of Indonesia. “Probably just one or two percent only” want independence, says Utomo, and those are people who’ve become sophisticated about politics since Indonesia established schools in East Timor. “I don’t know why they don’t feel satisfied,” Utomo said. “That’s probably part of the education. The more people are aware, the more they complain.” The Santa Cruz incident, as Utomo calls it, was blown out of proportion. It was like the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles–police, who are only human, reacting too violently after a crowd provoked them. “If they are demonstrating peacefully, that wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “The total number of victims were highly manipulated.” There were “very few, maybe a couple of them.” Utomo also questioned the sincerity of the group demonstrating in front of the consulate. “One of the professors in Illinois told me those people are part of the left in the United States. He told me they are professional activists….Those people are all the same. It seems like they are demonstrating by the hour. Sometimes they are demonstrating here, sometimes they are somewhere else.”

Jeffrey Winters, a professor of political economy at Northwestern University, has authored several books on Indonesia. Last month he was barred from the country after accusing its minister for the economy, finance, and industry of cutting a shady business deal with a U.S. mining company. “I would say the vast majority of the Timorese want an independent country,” says Winters, who’s been to Indonesia “hundreds” of times. “It’s one of the reasons Jakarta doesn’t want a referendum. Otherwise, why do you need tens of thousands of occupying troops?”

The army killed far more than “a couple” of mourners in the Santa Cruz churchyard, says Winters, and the soldiers weren’t provoked. In fact the shooting started “after the whole protest had finished.” (According to Max Stahl, the journalist who videotaped the massacre, soldiers “crushed the skulls of the wounded with large rocks, ran over them with trucks, stabbed them, and administered–with doctors present–poisonous disinfecting chemicals as medicines.”) Winters predicted that East Timor will eventually win its independence. One of the candidates running for the Indonesian presidency in next spring’s planned election advocates a referendum. Another wants “phased independence.” Winters explains, “It’s the old Suharto holdovers, of which [consul Utomo] is a part, who are holding on.”

Consul Utomo is right about one thing, though: ETAN’s members are “part of the left in the United States.” According to Winters, some are involved in environmental causes and could be considered “granola-ish.” But only Sundell is a professional activist; her office is in the Stone Soup Cooperative, an urban commune in Uptown that smells strongly of lentils.

Often the causes of small left-wing groups get little mainstream exposure, but lately even Republicans have started agreeing with the East Timor Action Network. “ETAN is really a remarkable group, because they’ve changed the global debate on East Timor,” says Winters. Besides bringing Belo and Horta to the attention of the Nobel committee, ETAN has successfully lobbied Congress to suspend U.S. training of Indonesian troops and prohibit them from using American weapons in East Timor. In July the Senate passed a resolution supporting the referendum. Indonesia has been so skunked by a “ragtag group” of activists, says Winters, that it’s set up its own counter-lobbying group, the U.S. Indonesian Society, with funding from Mobil and General Electric. The government in Jakarta, he says, is hearing the same chants that commuters heard in the Loop last Thursday.

“This consul general is going to write a report to his ambassador in Washington,” Winters says. “In come the reports that there were protests in Vancouver, in Chicago. On every continent there were protests in front of Indonesian embassies and consulates. No country likes to be portrayed as massacrers.” The consul agrees that the fuss over East Timor damages his country’s reputation. “They are trying to make our image bad,” Utomo said. “[East Timor] could be a lot peacefuller in our minds. It irritates our minds. The Americans would say it’s a pain in the neck.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): protest photos by Nathan Mandell.