SIXTEEN years ago this past week Indonesian troops invaded East Timor, a Portuguese colony on an island north of Australia. They crushed the local independence movement, which was about to take over as Portugal left, and annexed the territory.
The United States turned a blind eye to that bloody act, and to years of murderous repression that followed. So did the other major powers. Indonesia had a free hand, and used it cruelly. Of the 750,000 people in East Timor, between 100,000 and 200,000 were killed or died of hunger and disease.
Why have we done nothing about such massive inhumanity? Why have we not put pressure on Indonesia, a recipient of much American aid?
Whenever I asked such questions over the years, State Department officials told me that it was not "realistic" to object loudly and strongly to Indonesia's butchery in East Timor. That would only anger President Suharto and his government, they said. The best hope was quiet diplomacy -- not to get Indonesia out of the territory but to persuade it to behave more reasonably.
The effectiveness of that "realistic" policy was demonstrated last month in Dili, the Timorese capital. At 8 a.m. on Nov. 12 Indonesian soldiers fired without warning into a group of young people marching into a cemetery to protest other killings. The Roman Catholic Church said that more than 100 were killed.
This massacre was different from others in East Timor in one important respect: Western journalists were there and saw it. Two American writers walking alongside the marchers were themselves injured. A courageous British television cameraman filmed the whole thing. The footage, which was shown in part by CBS in this country, is grisly viewing.
Indonesian authorities said the soldiers had fired "in fear of their lives." But that and other evasions were unpersuasive in the face of testimony by witnesses that it was a deliberate, unprovoked massacre.
Suharto appointed a commission to investigate. But a commission of Indonesians is hardly likely to persuade anyone of its good faith.
What is needed right now -- urgently needed -- is obvious. It is to have observers from the outside world on the scene in East Timor to check on the human rights situation and prevent further loss of life.
The need is urgent because reports filtering out since the massacre say that military repression and brutality are worse than at any time since the 1975 invasion.
East Timor is small and far away. Indonesia has counted on that -- counted on the world not caring. It has closed the territory to outside visitors for most of the time since 1975.
The United States of all countries should care, and act. For it has had a responsibility from the beginning.
The day before Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, President Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, were in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, while on an Asian tour. Kissinger knew that the Indonesians might well move on East Timor, but he chose not to warn them against invading. Brent Scowcroft, who was Ford's national security adviser then, later explained why:
"It was fundamentally a matter of recognizing reality. . . . It made no sense to antagonize the Indonesians. . . . East Timor was not a viable entity."
The Indonesian forces used arms received from U.S. aid in the invasion -- which violated American law. That was pointed out to Kissinger in a cable sent to him from the State Department while he was abroad. When he got back, he excoriated his aides for letting the cable go out.
"I know what the law is," Kissinger told a meeting of top State Department officials on Dec. 18, 1975, "but how can it be in the U.S. national interest for us to . . . kick the Indonesians in the teeth?"
So far, such "realism" has permitted the death of up to 200,000 people in East Timor. More are dying all the time.
Indonesia has no legitimate reason to be in East Timor at all -- no more than Iraq had to be in Kuwait. American policy should be to end the occupation. But the immediate requirement is to get international observers on the ground and stop the killing.
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.