Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: GLW: Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the Independence of East Timor

also API Review of Books

Timor: Australia's real role


Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the Independence of East Timor
By Clinton Fernandes
Scribe Publications, Melbourne 2004
138 pages

Clinton Fernandes, a Melbourne-based writer on politics and international relations, revisits September 1999 and Australia's intervention in East Timor in this excellent and well-researched offering.

Fernandes' home was one of two raided in September 2000 by the Australian Federal Police and Defence Security Authority officers for suspected leaks of intelligence material. These leaks were instrumental in exposing what the Australian government really knew about the situation in East Timor, including the links between the Indonesian generals and the various massacres in Timor in 1999. No incriminating evidence was found and no charges were laid against Fernandes or Dr Phillip Dorling (former opposition Foreign Affairs spokesman Laurie Brereton's policy adviser).

On September 20, 1999, Australian forces at the helm of Interfet (International Force for East Timor) entered East Timor and put an end to 24 years of Indonesian rule there. As Fernandes argues in his book, the Coalition government had not turned into an "enemy" of Indonesia nor the greatest defenders of the East Timorese overnight. It was with a great degree of reluctance that Interfet was formed and intervened in the way that it did in East Timor. In this book, Fernandes emphasises the importance of people power in overturning a bankrupt, decades-old bipartisan government policy on East Timor.

Fernandes demonstrates that in spite of public calls for armed UN personnel to secure the August 30, 1999 independence ballot and more and more evidence coming to light that the militias and the Indonesian military were inseparable, Canberra repeated statements exonerating the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) and privately making "diplomatic representations" to Indonesia.

The Coalition government's "implausible denial" was worse than the US position, which at least acknowledged in June 1999 that there was a potential problem looming in East Timor, and looked at the possible attachment of Australian officers to a US peace enforcement operation in East Timor. The US explored the possibility of using "overwhelming force" to stop the violence in East Timor. Canberra was not interested in these propositions, foreign minister Alexander Downer going as far as firstly denying ever receiving such a request.

The only operation Canberra was ready for was Operation Spitfire, which was preoccupied with evacuating foreigners from East Timor. Fernandes contends that in this way Australia was playing along to ensure that the Indonesian military would be free to carry out its extermination of the pro-independence forces without any foreign observers present. In his interviews with National Audit public servants, it was revealed that the Australian military had not prepared for an intervention, beyond an operation to evacuate foreigners.

Defence department planning to participate in a peacekeeping mission, known as Operation Warden, did not begin until September 7, as public outcry mounted in Australia over what was going on in East Timor. The images of desperate parents throwing their children to "safety" onto barbed wire enclosing the UN compound in Dili were beamed around the world. Yet, according to Fernandes, the images of humanitarian crisis belied the fact that Indonesia's terror operation in East Timor in the aftermath of the ballot was a coldly calculated one, designed to draw Falintil, the armed wing of the national liberation movement, out into the firefight. The TNI could then step in and "restore the peace", using this opportunity to move in and destroy Falintil decisively. In this way, new "facts on the ground" could be created, forming the basis for overturning the result of the ballot, which was a resounding rejection of Indonesian rule.

The chapter "Love in the nick of time" is an account of the heady, exhausting and inspiring days of organising protest rallies and union bans and the lengths solidarity activists went to mobilise the largest numbers possible in Sydney (where the author was located at the time). These public protests and union bans threatened to bring about a political crisis in Australia and forced the government to overturn its previous policy of keeping peacekeepers out of East Timor.

The book is dedicated to the late Dr Andrew McNaughtan, a stalwart in the Timor solidarity campaign who passed away late last year, "and his transnational family of activists".

From Green Left Weekly, October 20, 2004.


API Review of Books

Issue 44, July 2006

Clinton Fernandes, Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the independence of East Timor (ISBN 1920769285), Carlton North, Scribe Publications, 2004, 138 pages, paperback, $22.00, reviewed by Damian Grenfell, RMIT University.

It has been more than five years since Australian-led intervention in East Timor. Following the 30 August vote for independence in 1999, both the Indonesian military and militias destroyed much of the physical and social infrastructure of East Timor. In September an international military force, largely made up of Australians, finally entered to prevent further violence. Answering to key questions on the nature of this intervention is Reluctant Saviour, a short polemically-styled text by Clinton Fernandes.

With Australia finally taking a political and military lead to secure East Timor from violence, the intervention has often been represented as some kind of glorious national act that has both compensated for Australia's complicity in the occupation by Indonesia and for the theft of East Timor's oil and gas reserves since. For politicians such as John Howard and Alexander Downer, the intervention stands as a high water mark for Australian foreign policy; a humanitarian intervention to secure the East Timorese their long awaited freedom.

In contrast to those who have portrayed the intervention as a benevolent act of necessary militarism, Reluctant Saviour seeks to strip away the rhetoric of various governing elites in a Chomsky-like fashion. Drawing on largely established debates, the first three chapters concentrate on Australia's longer term complicity in the occupation of East Timor. These arguments include that successive Australian governments supported Jakarta to an extraordinary degree, that the Howard government had been caught off-guard by rapid changes in Indonesia in the late 1990s and that it continued to support Indonesia publicly even when it was known that there were close relations between the Indonesian military and the militias.

Yet one hardly feels like they are reading old material as Fernandes brings rare information to these debates. His discussion of the Jakarta lobby, the short-hand name given to academics, bureaucrats and journalists in Australia who worked in part to justify Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, is enlightening for how unsophisticated yet powerful this group could be. Similarly of interest is the discussion of the 1980 government banning of a book that included sensitive classified documents on East Timor, giving another example of the lengths the Australian government was willing to go to in order to restrict public knowledge about East Timor. Fernandes also covers an important but often unmentioned meeting in February 1999 between senior Australian and US officials. In transcripts of the meeting the Australians are seen arguing against the need for an international peacekeeping force, despite such a force being seen as necessary by the US to prevent violence.

The evidence assembled by Fernandes paints a sorrowful picture of successive Australian governments who were unable to let go of bad policy even as it collapsed around them. Typical of this was Howard's letter to Indonesia's President Habibie at the end of 1998 which, it has been claimed, set in motion the move by Habibie towards the referendum. Fernandes wisely shows up the lie that this is; Howard had written to Habibie in an effort to encourage a substantive compromise—such as significant autonomy for East Timor within Indonesia—to relieve the political pressure so that the question of independence could be delayed to some future date. Habibie was moving faster than the Australians expected, and in early 1999 announced that East Timor would be given a chance to either vote for autonomy within Indonesia, or full independence.

The first three chapters are important in setting up Chapter Four, aptly named 'Love in the nick of time', which in turn carries the books central claims. For Fernandes, military planning had been based on an assumption of the evacuation of Australians should the referendum result in wide-spread violence. Never intended as an intervention, the sudden change in planning only came in the opening stages of September when the Australian government first began to realise that an international presence would be required. To make this argument, military reports and audits are drawn on to show that basic logistics such as food, body armour, transport and language-training had been left to the very last moment. Such an argument suggests that Australian policy makers had been so tightly wedded to the relationship with Indonesia that they were convinced that the Indonesian military would surely secure an appropriate result in the referendum.

As ad hoc as the intervention may have been, Fernandes argues that the actual change in policy occurred as a result of the growing protests in Australia. He draws particular attention to the pressure that was being applied to Australian-US relations as 'the Australian public was starting to ask why the US response was so feeble.' Of course we are not privy to all the details of the planning for the intervention, but nor is there enough evidence to support the claim by Fernandes to the extent he does. The concern for the Australian-US alliance could have only been one amongst many across a band of domestic and international interests that the Australian Government needed to consider quickly. Even at its height, the protests calling for an intervention in East Timor were far less consequential for the Australian-US alliance than the recent protests against the war in Iraq, let alone the anti-Vietnam War and anti-nuclear movements of previous decades, none of which changed the fundamentals of Australian-US relations.

More speculation by Fernandes may have helped, including reading the intervention back into the national-security interests that had long framed Australia's policy on East Timor. Once the Timorese had actually voted for independence, it could be seen that the Australian government decided it was better to lead and control events in what was fast becoming an inevitable need for an international military presence. Equally, while Indonesia had long been seen as a source of stability in the region, from 1996 onwards political unrest had sharply increased across a great deal of the country. Would it not be better that the Australians moved in to control this conflict rather than risk its escalation and spread at a time when Jakarta was already in a weakened state?

While Reluctant Saviour is a short book, a brief mention of the role of the East Timorese would have helped readers to understand that it was they who created the conditions for their independence. With this, the irony of the book's title may have been more obvious. Nevertheless, Reluctant Saviour is an authoritative addition to a subject matter that continues to draw intense public interest.

Reviewer: Damian Grenfell, RMIT University


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