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April 25, 2000

Interview with Allan Nairn

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Allan Nairn, an award-winning journalist from New York, was in Mobile, Alabama, April 5-6 as part of a national speaking tour. He spoke to classes at the University of South Alabama and Spring Hill College, met with Representative Sonny Callahan's chief of staff, Jo Bonner, presented a public lecture, and was on talk radio. His visit to Mobile was co-sponsored by the USA Department of Sociology and Anthropology, the Sisters of Mercy, The School of the Americas Watch-Mobile, The Peace and Justice Committee of Our Savior Catholic Church, and Amnesty International. The following was recorded by Greg Speltz on April 7, 2000.

Speltz: Allan, you've been working as a journalist in the field of foreign policy for over 20 years now, and that's brought you into some pretty interesting situations. Could you comment on how you developed your interest, and how you got into the things you're doing now.

Nairn: When I was in high school, I started working with Ralph Nader and worked for him for about six years. And after that I planned to go down to Puerto Rico and do some work there. My mother is from there. And I found that about ten percent of the land there was U.S. military bases. My first job was just to get some contacts because it was the first time I had worked in a foreign country. Then I went to Guatemala in 1980. The military at that time was doing a campaign of assassination against student leaders.

Speltz: How old were you at that time?

Nairn: I was twenty-four. And I was just stunned by this. I had read about it, but to see people just gunned down like this every day was very depressing and made me very angry. So I decided to do something about it by making it an issue in the United States, by investigating the role the U.S. had. I interviewed U.S. corporate executives there. They endorsed the death squads. I wanted to make an issue of this kind of death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador. Later I went to Asia and East Timor.

Speltz: I know you've become quite an expert in your field. Do you have an academic background in foreign policy, or is this knowledge you've gained from your experience?

Nairn: Well, it's from experience really. I travel to places and interview people directly.

Speltz: As you know, I met you a year ago at Fort Benning at the School of the Americas rally. You indicated that you had an interest in coming to Mobile. Would you comment on your interest?

Nairn: I was specially interested in coming here because this is the home of Sonny Callahan, and as chair of the foreign operations subcommittee, house appropriation committee, he is one of the most powerful people in Washington on U.S. foreign policy. And his subcommittee will decide whether or not the U.S. will restore military training with the Indonesian army and have the say whether arms sales will be restored as well.

Speltz: What is Congressman Callahan's stance on the Indonesian issue?

Nairn: He has been an avid supporter of the Indonesian army. In 1995 when he became subcommittee chair after the Republican gained control of the house, he pushed to restore the IMET army military training and arms aid that had been cut off after the 1991 Dili massacre during which 271 Timorese were killed at the Catholic cemetery, which I happened to survive. So Rep. Callahan has been one of the main obstacles to ending the U.S. policy supplying aid to the Indonesian military. This past year he did soften a bit as the state department policy softened a bit. Many other members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, because of public pressure, decided the U.S. should not be backing the Indonesian army. Both houses passed resolutions in favor of the U.N. supervised referendum in East Timor so that the people who lived in East Timor could vote. And that influenced the state department. The state department shifted in favor of the referendum and became a bit less militant pushing for aid to the Indonesian military. Callahan shifted a bit, following the state department line.

Speltz: So your hope in being here, I take it, is to develop a constituency in his district to communicate to Rep. Callahan.

Nairn: Exactly. Politicians listen to their constituents, but only if their constituents get organized. You could hardly have a more clear case than the Indonesian military. They invaded East Timor in 1975 with U.S. approval. They killed a third of the population. They staged a massacre at the Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991, in which they used M16 rifles from the United States.

Speltz: You were present there. Would you comment on that?

Nairn: This was a massacre that began with a Catholic Mass. The Timorese held a mass to commemorate Sabatio Gomez, nineteen years old. He had been in sanctuary inside the Catholic church in Dili, the Timorese capitol. He was killed when the army stormed the church in the middle of the night. They dragged him and other young people out of the church and shot him in the gut with a pistol. The Timorese held a mass in his honor. They went to lay flowers on his grave. But at the cemetery where thousands were gathered, school children still in their uniforms, the Indonesian military marched on the crowd. They were holding up their American M16 rifles. Didn't even tell the people to disperse nor throw tear gas. They were just there to kill. I was there with another American, Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio. When the military attacked, we stood between the army and the Timorese. But that didn't work. The soldiers went around us. They opened fire. They just turned the street into a river of blood. They took our cameras and tape recorders. They beat us. They fractured my skull with the butt of an M16 rifle. They put the rifles to our heads. They were considering whether to execute us. But they let us live when they realized we were Americans. I think they knew there would be trouble if they killed Americans. This was not the largest Timorese massacre, but because there were foreigners there, it got some attention.

Speltz: Do you have an idea of the total number killed there?

Nairn: The Timorese estimate there were 271 killed on that day. But the bodies were simply thrown into a mass grave. A week ago, or less than a week ago, when I was in East Timor, I visited what people say is the mass grave site for many of the victims of the massacre at Dili. The people say the army pulled up with truckloads of bodies. And there were moans from the trucks, because some people were still alive in the stack of corpses. But they had just pitched them in there. The army that did this has not changed. After Timorese voted for freedom on August 30 in a UN supervised ballot, the army sent out militias that went on a rampage and burned 80 percent of the housing. They went into the Catholic church in Suai in the south East Timor, shot the priest and the assistant priest, and they killed another priest. They killed maybe 200 refugees. They burned the bodies in front of the church. Now the Indonesians have withdrawn from East Timor and the United States is there. They are still holding about 100,000 Timorese within Indonesia, and they are not letting them go. In Indonesia itself they're carrying out terror operations in the countryside. In places like Aceh, a Muslim area in the Western tip of Indonesia or Ajai, the place where Freeport McMoran, a gold and copper mining company operates, the Indonesian military is stirring up religious-ethnic rioting by means of covert operations throughout the area. Just recently, a manual created by the Indonesian military came to light. The manual is written for the special forces, and it openly says that its men should be trained in terror, kidnapping, and similar tactics. So we should not and Rep. Callahan should not be backing this military. If we cut them off completely, it gives a real chance to the Indonesian people because there is a growing democracy movement that is trying to break the power of the army, dismantle the police state, get them out of politics and end the oppression, force them back to their barracks and hold them legally responsible, and put the generals on trial for their crimes. That's what we should be supporting. We should not be supporting the enemies of democracy.

Speltz: Now, you just came from East Timor. In fact, you had a 48-hour trip directly to Mobile. So the news you brought us is rather current news.

Nairn: Yes, right before Timor I was in Indonesia, in Aceh. In the rural zones the military is doing sweeps looking for refugees. They have police snipers pick people off during their sweeps. I was in West Kalimantan, where I saw police acting as tacit accomplices. So this is right up to the minute.

Speltz: You have an organization, The East Timor Action Network. Who are the members, and are they all liberal activists?

Nairn: Well, it is a grassroots group that started after the Dili massacre in 1991. There are about two dozen chapters across the country, and what each has pushed for is the self-determination and freedom for Timor and the end of U.S. military support for Indonesia. I think many of the people in ETAN come from a broad range of ideologies.

Speltz: How about the liberal-conservative question?

Nairn: Well, it's interesting, because if you look at congressional support on this issue, members of Congress who responded to pressures from ETAN and others, it goes completely across the board. It's not a question of liberals or conservatives. It's not a question of Democrats or Republicans. Both Republicans and Democrats have blood on their hands when it comes to this issue. It was Kissinger and the Republicans that gave the green light to invade East Timor. It was Jimmy Carter the Democrat and Richard Holbrook the Democrat who sent in the helicopters to bomb the Timorese from the hills. After the Dili massacre, both Bush and Clinton tried to keep aiding the Indonesian military against the will of many in Congress. There are also many in Congress, both Democrat and Republican, that tried to change the policy. Tony Hill, a liberal Democrat from Ohio. Frank Wolf, a conservative Republican from Virginia. Chris Smith, a conservative Republican from New Jersey. Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat from California. These are some of the leading advocates of reversing the direction of the policy. Dana Rohrbacher, a very conservative Republican from California, is a very strong advocate for stopping military aid to Indonesia. Recently in the Senate there was a bill to continue a freeze on U.S. military cooperation with Indonesia. The co-sponsors were Senators Feingold, liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, and Jesse Helms, conservative Republican from North Carolina. Not exactly ideological soul mates. So there are Republicans more conservative than Sonny Callahan who have come out and said that this is wrong, that we should not be backing the Indonesian military; we should be backing the pro-democracy forces.

Speltz: So you seem to be saying there are some basic issues like we shouldn't kill people, like people should have freedom, that irrespective of political stance we ought to be able to agree on.

Nairn: Killing unarmed civilians, suppressing free speech, these are things most Americans would not agree with. And our legislators shouldn't be arming those who do such things.

Speltz: You've talked primarily about Indonesia and East Timor. I know you've worked in Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, and at other places. Is there a parallel between what you see happening in Timor now and what happened in those other countries?

Nairn: Yes, unfortunately there is a very close parallel because in all those cases there were oppressive forces. In Guatemala there were the military and particularly the G2, the intelligence unit. In El Salvador the military and the military death squads. In Haiti the military and the FRAP, paramilitary terrorist groups, the spin-offs of their military. All of these units were backed by the United States just as the Indonesian military was.

Speltz: So this is a long-standing American foreign policy position?

Nairn: Unfortunately so. It has been a long-standing bipartisan policy of the executive branch. They've done it in dozens of countries.

Speltz: Why are we on that side of the fence in foreign policy?

Nairn: Politically to maintain domination over governments that will do what Washington wants. It's always been easier to do it with governments that are military at the core. Often they have elected civilian administrations, but the military is hovering in the background waiting to lay down the law. And Washington often shows a preference for those regimes. There are lots of U.S. multinational corporations that profit handsomely from those deals. Freeport McMoran, on whose board Henry Kissinger sits, operates the world's largest gold and copper mines. And they pay the Indonesian military to protect them. They actually built barracks for them. And that military in turn crushed local people who were protecting against the company. Reebok for years made about a third of their sneakers in Indonesia. They pay their workers two dollars a day, not two dollars an hour. And people might end up dead for organizing against them. So this benefits the CEOs and the shareholders of these companies. But it ends up hurting American workers and middle class people because it pulls down and undercuts American jobs and wages. There used to be a shoe industry here in the U.S. It barely exists any more because it has moved precisely to places like Indonesia and China, where they can find repressed labor forces.

Speltz: So right now Indonesia and East Timor are going to be your main focus?

Nairn: Well, one of the main things. And then beyond that working on trying to launch a new organization, Justice For All. I've been speaking to people about it for several years, and there seems to be a lot of interest. The idea is to recruit new activists on issues of basic oppression and economic justice, to complement the work of existing single-issue organizations like ETAN or School of the Americas Watch by activating new people, going to new constituencies not currently involved and saying, "If you agree that we should not be sending weapons and know-how to armies that kill civilians and if you agree that we should not be driving children into hunger, then let's get active and exert pressure."

Speltz: If people want to get in touch with you and your organizations, how would they do that?

Nairn: Well, with East Timor Action Network there is a website,, where you can get all sorts of information and also get hooked up with organizers. There's also a number you can call in New York, (718) 596-7668. The Justice For All group has not yet gotten off the ground. It's just in formation stages. But I can be contacted by email, which is The last thing I want to say is, please, everyone should weigh in with Rep. Callahan. It's very important. His committee will be deciding on these issues very soon in the coming weeks. Say to Rep. Callahan, "No aid, no training, no weapons sales, no spare parts, no munitions for the Indonesian military."

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