My Favorite Issue: NVA on Solidarity & Self Reflection, 1999

Destruction in Dili. Cover photo by John M.Miller from November-December 1999 NVA.

Destruction in Dili.
Cover photo by John M.Miller
from November-December 1999 NVA.

I started reading WIN in 1976. A roommate subscribed while I was living in Washington, DC, and I was captivated by the then weekly magazine as it chronicled the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice and the beginnings of nonviolent direct action against nuclear power. I soon had my own subscription and a WRL membership card (yes, we used to issue them). And not content to read on the sidelines, I become active in the local Potomac Alliance opposing nuclear power.

In early 1981, I moved to Brooklyn to join the WIN staff for its last three years. Two of us oversaw its final issue, as WIN went out fighting (so wrote the National Guardian) with an October 1983 final issue focused on the global struggle against nuclear weapons. I helped plot the launch of the Nonviolent Activist and later its transition back to WIN, serving over the years as a member of its Publications Committee, doing layout for too many issues to count, rewriting many a headline, and working once or twice as temporary editor.

When I first joined WIN, among the tasks I was responsible for was editing the regular columns (including "Serve the People", on food and cooking, where I learned what al dente meant by asking the other staff) and the "Changes" section, a round-up of short news items. "Changes" became "Activist News" when the NVA launched.

Over the years, Iíve proposed and written (and re-written) many of these short news items, but have not submitted many feature articles. (My first was a report in the Nov. 15, 1979 issue of WIN on a blockade of the headquarters of the Department of Energy; a version also appeared in WRL News.) With so many issues of WIN/NVA/WIN to choose from, I’ll focus on the November-December 1999 issue of the Nonviolent Activist that published my account of East Timorís historic and bloody vote for independence. By then, I had been working toward that vote for nearly eight years.

Among my first introductions to East Timor were articles in the April 1, 1980, and September 1, 1981, issues of WIN. I became active on the issue a decade later, after a November 1991 massacre at a cemetery in Dili inspired me to help found the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) with, among others, Charles Scheiner (a former WRL Executive Committee member), who is also featured in the NVA issue. The U.N.-organized vote was made possible by decades of East Timorese resistance to Indonesian rule, the fall of Indonesian dictator Suharto, and changes in U.S. and other government policies brought on by grassroots campaigns like ETAN's.

The issue contains five pages on the referendum, including background on the issues (one underlying theme throughout WIN/NVA/WIN is that action should be informed by information and analysis). Charlie wrote about the organizing and implementation of the International Federation for East Timor’s Observer Project, the  international non-governmental observer mission that ETAN initiated. IFET-OP recruited 125 activists from the global East Timor solidarity movement to observe the vote and - we hoped - to prevent violence.

My more personal account ("Eyewitness, East Timor") was written in the heat of the vote's aftermath, as East Timor’s towns were still burning, as most East Timorese were hiding in the hills or being forced over the border into Indonesia, and as journalists and the U.N. and peacekeeping troops were only begin to filter in.


WIN and the NVA have always been open forums where issues and controversies within the left, the nonviolence, and/or the peace movements were debated. WIN and the NVA often featured two or more writers arguing their take on issues, including the right to die; property destruction; the perennial quadrennial discussion of whether or not to vote; and, most controversially in 1980, on abortion rights. The discussion would then carry over to the readers. The surest way to generate letters to the editors was to mention choice (from 1980 on WIN/NVA was firmly pro-choice) or meat eating.

Occasionally, writers would wrestle with their principles within their articles. Charlie and I both had to do that in this issue. In his article, Charlie wrote about "re-evaluating longheld pacifist beliefs" in the face of East Timorese requests for armed peacekeepers to help oversee the vote. I wrote, "It will take both an arms cutoff [of Indonesia by the United States and others] and the introduction of multinational force to end Indonesia's ravaging of the country...  While an earlier cutoff might have forced Indonesia to stop the violence before it began," it was at that point too late. "Options become limited," I continued, "as violence escalates and genocide is threatened."

As we had said in the NVA's inaugural editorial, “We cannot possibly profess to know what is the ‘correct’ line of action for people living in El Salvador... or in other situations.  ...We are imperfect in a world that is imperfect. We cannot claim to know truth. Yet, this lack of absolute knowledge must not prevent us from acting on our beliefs."  And solidarity, if it means anything at all, means listening carefully to those whose rights you are acting to defend.

Elsewhere in the issue is another eyewitness account. This one focuses on a visit by congressional staffers to Iraq, the first since the 1990-1991 Gulf War. A report on WRL's A Day Without the Pentagon 1999 focused on military recruiters rounds out the features. A holiday centerfold of WRL resources for sale reminds readers that the NVA also needed to serve WRL’s promotional needs. Activist News contains reports of David McReynolds' bid for presidency under the Socialist Party’s banner and an action blocking a missile systems factory in Massachusetts by a new WRL local. The magazine lists three new locals (alas, none is still active). There are also obits for "African freedom fighter, socialist and peacemaker" Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Walter Bergman, a Freedom Rider who attempted to desegregate transportation in the South in 1961. He was paralyzed after a beating by KKK members, but lived to 100.

In many ways, this was a typical issue of the NVA, which had become bi-monthly by then. There is a strong action focus. The issue is full of stories about people taking action and urging readers to do likewise. And these actions are not only those of direct action or pickets. The periodicals were almost as likely to feature a lobbying campaign as a sit-in.

The issue also includes stories related to WRL's then program priorities, as well as other reports of interest to those seeking to change the world for the better. We are introduced or reminded of interesting people, and not only in the obits. There is also a short report about Dennis Lipton, an Air Force doctor threatened with court martial after he became a pacifist.

For me, one of the most important functions of WIN/NVA/WIN was as a forum where we could express the varied interests of WRL members and friends beyond our national program, in this case an issue that had occupied my attention throughout the decade and beyond.

Regular readers of WIN will know that East Timor is now the independent Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and that ETAN has become the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network. Yes, I confess I picked this issue of the NVA to take one last chance to talk about the issue I have worked on for nearly two dozen years. Not quite as long as I have been involved in WIN/NVA/WIN.

WIN readers will have to get their updates on Timor-Leste’s progress elsewhere. You can start with the ETAN website (And that ís my last plug, at least within these pages.)

John M. Miller

John M. Miller is the national coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) and a member of WRL’s National Committee.