Subject: Australia's Diplomatic Disaster in East Timor

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Asia-Pacific Report first broadcast May 28, 2001 -transcript-

Australia's Diplomatic Disaster in East Timor

Like the rest of Indonesia's neighbours, Australia is reduced to standing on the sidelines watching the current power struggle in Jakarta.

But Canberra carries an extra problem - the strains imposed by Australia's military leadership in carrying through East Timor's independence vote in 1999.

Australia's support for Indonesia's hold on East Timor for 25 years, and then its policy somersault, is the focus of a new analysis by Professor Rodney Tiffen of Sydney University.

His book -- entitled "Diplomatic Deceits -- Government, Media and East Timor" -- describes East Timor as Australia's greatest foreign policy disaster of the last quarter of the 20th century.

Professor Tiffen told Graeme Dobell he's traced the East Timor story by charting the clash between the Australian Government focus on Indonesia and the Australian media's reporting on East Timor.

TIFFEN: The Australia media approach most of the time reflected the Australian political environment, that many journalists accepted the foreign affairs line that it was necessary to go along with our large and powerful neighbour over these events. Many other journalists were responding to the fierce domestic controversies in Australia about East Timor policy, and every so often you got pieces of journalists showing greater initiative or reporting from the island itself and reporting firsthand what was going on there. And those sorts of occasions often changed the political agenda to at least some degree.

DOBELL: Did it have much influence on the political agenda?

TIFFEN: I think it had some influence, especially in the post-Suharto era, you know with the fall of President Suharto in May 1998, it meant that all sorts of long buried issues, all sorts of taboos were suddenly open for inspection, and one of those was East Timor. And so I think the ferment on the issue through late 1998 meant it became a live issue again in Australian politics. And then the reporting of what was actually going on in East Timor in those long months leading up to the referendum, that meant that it was very hard for the government to ignore the atrocities and the actions of the militias, and who was paying the militias and so forth.

DOBELL: You write that Australia's approach to East Timor over 25 years was partisan Australian politics at its worst. Why did Australian political leaders get it wrong?

TIFFEN: There's a slightly different answer on that for each of the leaders. I mean Gough Whitlam saw Indonesia as absolutely crucial to Australia and he took a very pre-emptive stance, led the way on saying well we should just, East Timor should be part of Indonesia full stop. And he really wasn't interested in process, he wasn't interested in entertaining any other options, he did this in a very incautious reckless way that paid no attention to any of the things that could go wrong.

Malcolm Fraser I think didn't quite understand at first all the ramifications of the issue, and then when he did decide to go along with Jakarta he did so in a rather clumsy way, just trying to sort of refuse to comment on issues and so forth.

And then if we leap forward to Paul Keating we get this, you know in the 1990s just as the rest of the world is wondering when will the Suharto era finish, we get an Australian Prime Minister who is perhaps the most ardent admirer of all President Suharto for all of his 30 odd years in power, and there was just no room for East Timor in Paul Keating's vision.

John Howard and Alexander Downer moved decisively in late '98 early '99 but it's very unclear just how decisive they knew they were being, you know they set in train this huge series of events but whether they foresaw at the outset just where it would all lead is a very moot point.

DOBELL: So what is the Timor lesson for Australia in the future?

TIFFEN : Well I think back in 1974-75 Ambassador Woolcott recommended that we were faced with a choice between principle and pragmatism and that in the interests of long term relations with Indonesia we should opt for pragmatism. And what I think it showed is that when you adopt an unprincipled stand it often also ends up being unpragmatic because people don't foresee all the costs involved. They didn't foresee what a murderous occupation Indonesia would ravage on East Timor. They didn't foresee the degree of domestic protests that would accompany their stance. They didn't foresee just how long or how powerfully it would become an international issue that would plague Australian-Indonesian relations for over a generation. So I suppose the single most important lesson is that the people that say they are being pragmatic are often being too blinkered, too myopic about what constitutes pragmatism, and they are sometimes underestimating the importance of principle in determining what is likely to be pragmatic in the long run.

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