Subject: Australia accused of backing Indonesia on East Timor

Canberra Times

Australia accused of backing Indonesia on East Timor

November 19, 2004 10:07pm

HAVE SUCCESSIVE Australian governments been lapdogs to the Indonesian military in their assessment of the impact of East Timorese independence on the interests of Indonesia? Clinton Fernandes, a former military intelligence officer and now a historian, certainly thinks so.

In 1999 he circulated a report throughout the intelligence community alleging that the Indonesian military were controlling the Timorese militia in an effort to eliminate the independence movement, and later his home was raided by police. Undeterred, he has enlarged on that theme in his analysis of the impact of East Timorese independence upon the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Australia's support for continuing Indonesian control of the former Portuguese colony goes back at least three decades. In 1974, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam discussed Australian policy on East Timor with Indonesian President Suharto as Portuguese control began to disintegrate, and Fretilin declared independence for the colony. The background briefing on the meeting produced by the Department of Foreign Affairs summarised the Australian position thus: 'Mr Whitlam is understood to have indicated Australia felt an independent Timor would be an unviable state and a potential threat to the stability of the area. But he is also thought to have made clear that the people of the colony should have the ultimate decision on their future.' Fernandes believes that dichotomy remains, despite what has been widely hailed as a fundamental change under Howard. After 23 years of Indonesian occupation, incoming President B.J.Habibie suddenly offered in 1998 to discuss autonomy for East Timor. John Howard wrote to him supporting that offer, but also making it clear that Australia still believed autonomy rather than independence would be the desired outcome.

He suggested a means of addressing the East Timorese desire for an act of self- determination through a mechanism adopted in New Caledonia that had effectively deferred independence for many years. 'The successful implementation of an autonomy package with a built-in review mechanism would allow time to convince the East Timorese of the benefits of autonomy within the Indonesian republic,' he told Habibie in his letter. Fernandes describes assertions that Howard's letter was a support for self- determination by the East Timorese as 'a revisionist distortion.' 'The truth,' he says, 'is the exact opposite. Howard was trying to contain the pressure for independence.

He simply wanted to defuse the issue and postpone self-determination indefinitely.'When the East Timorese people rejected the proposal for autonomy and opted for self-determination in the 1999 ballot by a four-to-one vote there was an immediate attack on the offices of the United Nations and on the leaders of the pro-independence campaign. Fernandes describes the Australian decision to evacuate UNAMET staff, journalists and foreign observers as an act that 'allowed Indonesia to act without foreign witnesses, permitting it to manoeuvre without restrictions.' 'What Now?' asks his final chapter, and makes clear his belief that what he calls the Jakarta lobby in the Australian Government still supports repressive elements in Indonesia, by which he means the military as an institution. At the same time he warns that small countries like East Timor have to find new ways of assuring international support outside the traditional balance of power politics. He recommends that they develop instead 'solidarity networks and other links between their people and people in the West'. That, he says, would be an important source of pressure on ruling elites in countries such as Australia, and he lists the Timor oil and gas dispute as a good opportunity for that kind of action.

That strategy leads him to the belief that working with a popular solidarity movement in Australia would advance the national interest of East Timor. He says a number of senior Indonesian political and military figures bear responsibility for war crimes against the East Timorese between 1975 and 1999 and have real-estate and other commercial interests in Australia. He sees citizen-initiated legal action in Australia against such figures as a way of providing compensation for East Timorese victims of their crimes against humanity, opening up an important new front against the Indonesian military and building valuable networks between Indonesians and Australians.

Whether such action is possible or desirable cannot be determined without further study than Fernandes has given it, but it attests to his clear reliance on people- to-people contacts between East Timor and Australia as a way of helping one of the world's poorest countries. His other big assertion, that successive Australian governments have helped the Indonesian military to crack down on the population, is also one that needs a lot more investigation before the final conclusion can be drawn.

John Graham is a Canberra reviewer.

Copyright © 2004 The Federal Capital Press of Australia Pty Limited. Source:


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