BOOK REVIEW / Hand in hand with tyranny: Distant voices by John Pilger, Vintage pounds 6.99

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A UNITED Nations report from February of this year notes that 'East Timor continues to be particularly affected by violations of the right to life perpetrated by the Indonesian security forces'; and those guilty enjoy 'virtual impunity'. The military commander responsible for the massacre of hundreds of demonstrators in Dili, the capital of East Timor, in November 1991, has just been promoted to become adviser to the Indonesian Minister of Research and Technology, where he will be in charge of matters related to weapons.

There, he will enjoy especially close relations with the British Government, one of Indonesia's major arms suppliers. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, plays down human rights 'problems' in East Timor and makes it clear that Britain has no intention of halting arms sales to Indonesia or of supporting any international attempt to isolate the Suharto regime.

This expanded edition of Distant Voices includes (as well as new material on the Balkans and the Labour Party) four new chapters on East Timor. As John Pilger shows, for nearly two decades Indonesian violence in East Timor has been ignored by the media and supported by the world's major governments. Indeed, these two facts might not be entirely unrelated.

The media coverage of East Timor in recent months has been largely due to Pilger's remarkable television documentary based on a secret visit to the territory. In Distant Voices he draws on his interviews with Timorese who have suffered atrocities, as well as a wide variety of published sources and interviews with officials. The resulting account of the East Timor tragedy both testifies movingly to the moral spirit of those who have to endure it and exposes the moral depravity of those who are helping Indonesia to conduct it. The scale of deaths - 200,000, or about a third of East Timor's population, since the Indonesian invasion in 1975 - is staggering, and one might think that, because of Britain's role as a major arms supplier and an implicit defender of Indonesia at the United Nations (where Britain has refused to support UN calls for Indonesia to withdraw), awareness of the tragedy would be especially marked here. Yet few people know anything about East Timor: few television news producers, apparently, have heard of it either.

Pilger's evidence begs the question of how a democratic state like Britain can continue close military, economic and diplomatic relations with one of the world's worst perpetrators of mass killing, without British leaders even being called upon to justify that policy? There are few interested parties with any real ability to influence foreign policy; the exceptions, it seems, are large corporations such as arms manufacturers, which regularly dictate 'national interests'. When there is little or no media attention or public pressure, governments pursue their own agenda with ease.

John Pilger remains an enfant terrible in the eyes of the Establishment largely because he draws attention to such controversial issues. Most academic studies on international affairs merely underwrite prevailing basic beliefs, and there is no shortage of highly regarded academic beauticians to work on ugly realities. Pilger's book reasserts the real importance of the issues and, in so doing, points up the major conflict of the contemporary world: not a North-South conflict so much as one between the powerful and the powerless.