British Labour: Quartermaster to tyranny in East Timor
     In 1965 Michael Stewart, the Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson's Labour Government, surveyed the mass graves of Indonesia with an air of satisfaction and expectation.  Britain had facilitated the murders of about one million Indonesians in the coup that brought pro-Western General Suharto to power.
     'A little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change,' Sir Andrew Gilchrist, our Ambassador in Jakarta, had told the Foreign Office earlier in the year.  To ensure that one of the great massacres of the century could be executed without the killers being distracted by pressures from abroad, the British Army was pulled back from a confrontation with Indonesian forces in the disputed colonial territory of Borneo.

THE OBSERVER (London), Sunday September 5, 1999
"Labour: quartermaster to tyranny in East Timor"
Nick Cohen

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  Stewart showed no remorse and the myth of British decency ensured that few have demanded that the politicians and diplomats involved in Cold War crime should be held to account since.  'It is only the economic chaos of Indonesia which prevents that country from offering great potential opportunities to British exporters,' he told Wilson.  'If there's going to be a deal with Indonesia ... I think we ought to take an active part and try to secure a slice of the cake ourselves.'
     The Michael Stewart of our days is Robin Cook and the cake that New and Old Labour have both gobbled is bought with the profits of the weapons trade.  On the rare occasions when the national conversation turns to arms, it usually degenerates into vacuity.  One side tells us we must defend our prosperity, even though the merchants of death have been downsizing with enthusiasm and receive lavish subsidies.  Their opponents respond with a kind of simple-minded pacifism, which lays them open to the great modern charge of living somewhere other than 'the real world'.
     What is missed is the scale of the enterprise.  Britain is the second largest dealer in the global arms market.  For hundreds of millions of people, British foreign policy is not the endless temporising about Europe or Tony Blair's ambition for his Third Way witterings to inspire the world, but our willingness to supply the instruments of coercion to their rulers.
     No government likes to tell its citizens that a large part of the human race has good reason to hate them, and last week Baroness Symons, the Defence Procurement Minister, was sent to the studios to ooze counterfeit reassurance.  She was well suited for the task.  Symons was the leader of the senior civil servants union, who accepted a peerage and an unelected Ministerial appointment after the 1997 election, thus making a bit of a nonsense of Whitehall impartiality.  Her husband, Phil, works in Downing Street and churns out articles 'By Tony Blair' that persuade naive newspaper readers that the PM is addressing them personally.
     As she tried to dismiss British complicity with the slaughters in East Timor, Her Ladyship adopted the Blairite tone of pleading and menace -- like a teacher lecturing retarded children.  Applications to arm Indonesia were scrutinised 'very, very carefully' because 'we do not sell arms that can be used for internal repression,' she said with an unwarranted confidence, before developing a curious argument that Indonesia, a country whose armed forces exist solely to repress its people, and which invaded East Timor in 1975 in contravention of the UN charter (killing 200,000 or so in the process), had a right under that same UN charter to buy weapons for 'self-defence'.
     The Observer is a polite newspaper which wouldn't wish to suggest a politician was lying -- that would be ill mannered.  Let us say Lady Symons did not appear to be well briefed.  The public would get more from her if she, along with Blair and Cook who have propagated the same line, were to read a report on Anglo-Indonesian relations, to be released this week by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).
     Official secrecy and commercial confidentiality cover 'defence' sales and, like so many enquirers before them, the peaceniks found they could learn more about what their Government was doing in archives in New York and Washington than London.  They have assembled the facts that are on the record.
     Even this inevitably incomplete account makes the official position an insult to the dead of East Timor and the intelligence of the British.  Of course, our weapons are being used for internal repression -- why else would Indonesia, a country without external enemies, want them?  Hawk aircraft made by British Aerospace have flown in East Timor, as the Government was forced to admit last week.
     In opposition, Cook ridiculed Conservative claims that Indonesia would refrain from sending them on bombing runs over the island.  In government, he suddenly found merit in the Tory position and sanctioned their sale.
     Lord Hollick, a BAe board member and owner of Express newspapers, was, coincidentally, advising the Department of Trade and Industry when the deal was done and Ken Jackson, the Labour loyalist who runs the engineering union, lobbied the Government hard and successfully to let the purchase go ahead.
     Meanwhile, water cannon made by Tacita have been turned on students.  The Indonesian defence attache in Britain admitted that armoured cars from Alvis were roaring round the mountain roads of East Timor, and so it goes on.  What strikes the reader is the evident expectation of Ministers that they can deny the incontrovertible and get away with it.
     As for the claim that applications for arms sales were scrutinised 'very, very carefully', an analysis of the deliveries that have been authorised shows it to be, as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade says with understandable exasperation, 'pathetic'.
     True, Robin Cook did block a sale of sniper rifles in 1997.  A well-informed Financial Times correspondent reported that Blair was furious.  George Robertson, liberator of oppressed Muslims of Kosovo, told Cook that he was offending General Prabowo, an 'enlightened' military leader who deserved to have his demands treated promptly and with courtesy by British politicians.  Prabowo is the leader of Indonesia's paramilitary death squads, who has authorised mass killings and rapes.  His fortune was made by marrying into the fantastically corrupt Suharto family.
     Since his moment of rebellion, the Foreign Secretary has been a good boy.
     Last year, New Labour rejected a mere 2.4 per cent of applications to sell to Indonesia.  It's no longer novel to say that the Tories had a better record.
     It is easy in the dog days of summer to watch the news and think that we are hearing of a far-away island only because nothing else is happening in the silly season.  But the arms trade ensures that we retain a global influence over slaughters in countries of which we know little.
     The Timorese crisis would be seen as a British story if Ministers, who are either deliberately mendacious or stunningly foolish, were unable to pretend that they were following an ethical foreign policy.  Until that happy day, Britain's business and political leaders will continue to defy received wisdom by having their cake -- and eating it too.
     PS: A reader motivated by necessary contempt has sent us a copy of an article by an ambitious and talented Labour MP, from the New Statesman of 30 June 1978.  'How little we care with whom we do business,' the perceptive young author wailed, somewhat inelegantly.  'The nation of shopkeepers' had become a 'military bazaar' selling weapons to 'the world's least likeable governments'.  'Every war for the past two decades has been fought by poor countries with weapons supplied by rich countries.'  Was it 'legitimate' for Labour to destroy the achievements of aid workers by extracting vast sums from the Third World?
     The more the angry Scot thought about the arguments used by his elders, the more spurious they seemed.  British companies were not simply selling weapons but transferring military technology so that rival industries could develop abroad -- to Egypt in the Seventies, to Turkey in the Nineties.  The taxpayer was being robbed by being forced to subsidise 'the historic costs of [military] research and development'.
     What stuck in his craw was the 'particularly disturbing' sale of 'aircraft to Indonesia'.  Labour Ministers were using the 'ingenious excuse' that they didn't have 'a devastating potential'.  All in all, the arms industry was corrupt.  It inflamed conflicts in the Middle East and between India and Pakistan Britain had an interest in preventing but was protected by a Government which ignored the squalid records of its customers.
     'Labour got Britain into this sordid trade ... It would help make amends if Labour were to start us on the first few steps to getting out of it.'
     And with that flourish Robin Cook signed off.  What the hell happened to him? -- Nick Cohen, © The Observer (London), "Labour: quartermaster to tyranny in East Timor," Sunday, September 5, 1999.
   *** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***


  The Observer internet link is (with The Guardian) at

  The reversible Robin Cook is one of the Ministers expected at the APEC meeting in New Zealand, due to start about now as I write.  It is said tody (8 September 1999) that Indonesia will not be attending this time.  Australian Foreign Minister Alex Downer, at his press conference before leaving for NZ, said that he would be meeting the various other foreign ministers there.  He seemed hopeful that some action about East Timor might arise from meeting these ministers informally during breaks in the APEC meetings.
     APEC is a trade body, so the advisers and ministers going there will presumably be as concerned about the genocide going on in East Timor as they have been about the world's several other genocides, performed often with weapons the supposedly "civilised" countries have sold them, and mostly paid for with loans or gifts from those rich countries.

THE ARMS TRADE: Useful Links found by MetaCrawler of 08 Sep 1999

Australian Campaign Against the Arms Trade (ACAAT), PO Box 1017, Aitkenvale, Qld, 4814, Australia.  Contact: David Johnson, phone: +61-77-891-664, fax: +61-77-891-664, e-mail:
Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) (Lycos)
DISARMAMENT: End British Arms Trade To Indonesia, Say NGOs, By Dipankar De Sarkar LONDON, Apr 8 (IPS) - Campaigners caught short by recent setbacks in their court battles to stop Britain selling arms to Indonesia are mulling other options, ... (Infoseek)
British American Security Information Council (BASIC) for big list of LINKS to groups gathering information about the world's sales of light weapons, at
CAAT: UK arms trade protest April 28, Selected postings from East-Timor (reg.easttimor) (Lycos)
Mets, Cards in arms trade (Lycos)
IBT War Machine - Directory of Organisations, (Infoseek)
Arms Trade News - December 1997 / January 1998, (Lycos)
Indonesia: The People's Resistance in Indonesia [CSVI], The Indonesian Page of People Movement for Justice and Democracy, (WebCrawler)
Arms Trade Bulletin #10 5 November 1998 To inform Governments and NGOs, (Lycos)
Landmine Campaign - International Campaign, Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), an Australian affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), (Infoseek)
Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (C.O.A.T.) (Lycos)
Catholics Ditch BAe.  This was the headline accompanying a piece in The Observer, Britain, on 18 December 1994.  The piece continued.... 'In a move against Britain's growing arms trade, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster has sold a holding of 11,000 shares in British Aerospace which it managed on behalf of more than 60 Catholic trusts.  This takes sales by Church-related charities of arms-related companies to £350,000 in the past month.
Westminster's action follows a church investigation and reports in The Observer of a massive sale of BAe aircraft to the Indonesian armed forces illegally occupying East Timor....The Westminster action is part of what campaigners see as a quickening trend towards 'ethical investment' and way from shareholdings in the weapons industry.  Ray Hemmings of the Clean Investment Campaign, which is run by Campaign Against the Arms Trade, says various Anglican dioceses are preparing motions for next year's General Synod which would seek to outlaw investment in the weapons business'.  -- from CEIG Newsletter No. 2 at

Project on Light Weapons: British American Security Information Council (BASIC) Project on Light Weapons, Working Paper #1 Internet Edition. (AltaVista)
Quaker Council for European Affairs, The basis of a Quaker concern for peace ... (Infoseek)
Tear Fund's Arms Trade Resource. Information about the world-wide arms trade, ... (AltaVista)

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Tagged on 08 Sep 1999, (a few links missing 28Sep1999), last modified (21kb) 15 Aug 03
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