Subject: The Australian: Battle for East Timor fought in Canberra's Corridors

The Australian: Battle for East Timor fought in Canberra's Corridors

The new film Balibo tells only part of the story of the Indonesian invasion, writes Paul Monk

August 21, 2009

Article from: The Australian

ROBERT Connolly's film Balibo graphically reconstructs the murder by Indonesian special forces, on October 16, 1975, of Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters because they had tried to capture on film Indonesia's covert invasion of East Timor.

It does this through the story of Roger East, another Australian journalist who, having gone to find out what had happened to the Balibo five, was himself summarily shot by Indonesian soldiers on the docks in Dili on December 7, 1975, in the first hours of Indonesia's conventional invasion of East Timor.

Neither the Indonesian nor the Australian government has been keen to see this story publicly aired. But what the film misses is that the battle for East Timor was waged for many years in the corridors of Canberra.

There has been a long and complex debate within Australian government circles since the 1940s about how to come to terms with Indonesian nationalism and the ambition of the Javanese to control the entire archipelago that had made up the Dutch East Indies.

Canberra opted to support Indonesian nationalists against the Dutch in 1948 but for two decades after that struggled to come to terms with Sukarno, his loose alliance with the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and his tendency to resort to force during territorial disputes. When Suharto rose to power in 1965-66, destroying the PKI and overthrowing Sukarno, there was enormous relief in Canberra. Thereafter, there was a strong disposition to work with Suharto, a feeling that was reciprocated in Jakarta.

Crucial to Canberra's perceptions of what scope it had for containing Indonesian territorial ambitions was the case of Dutch New Guinea (Papua). A secret study by Army Intelligence in 1958 advised that Australia's national interest would be best served by inducing the Dutch to co-operate in developing New Guinea and giving the whole of it independence eventually, as a unified and economically viable Melanesian state.

Robert Menzies agreed. The Dutch, however, were ambivalent. Sukarno was truculent, and in 1961 Washington and London urged Canberra to accede to Sukarno's determination to annex Papua. Menzies and his advisers were vexed but felt they had no effective choice left.

This set the stage for thinking about Portuguese Timor. It was far less well endowed than Dutch New Guinea and governed even more negligently. It seemed highly likely that Sukarno would seek to annex it in due course. Significantly, just as the Dutch New Guinea issue came to a head in December 1961, the Indians invaded Goa, the 451-year-old Portuguese enclave in India.

The fighting was over within 36 hours, with 14 Indian and 31 Portuguese fatalities. The precedent seemed clear. Canberra had to think through what its position would be as regards Portuguese Timor.

In early 1962 Arthur Tange, secretary of external (foreign) affairs, asked Gordon Jockel to write a study paper on the question. Jockel recommended that Australia openly press for the development and self-determination of Portuguese Timor; that it raise this matter in the UN to head off Indonesian ambitions; that it make clear to Jakarta that incorporation was not inevitable and that Australia would not be an accomplice to any Indonesian exercise of realpolitik in the matter. None of this was done, in part because Tange and his minister, Garfield Barwick, were looking for ways in which Australia might acquiesce in the passage of Portuguese Timor to Indonesia, as it was about to do in the case of Dutch New Guinea.

Gough Whitlam inherited this tacit policy history and took the Barwick line. This was all the more so because, from 1966 Canberra had decided to throw in its lot with Suharto as its least bad option in regard to the future of Indonesia. Whitlam's thinking was further affected by several things that precipitated the case in 1974-75. A left-wing coup in Portugal brought Marxists to power in 1974 and they urged leftist forces in the country's colonies to take them over.

Indonesian intelligence officers approached the Australian embassy in early July 1974, requesting support for an Indonesian takeover of Portuguese Timor. In late 1974 and early 1975, the wars in Indochina reached their denouement with the communists seizing South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The debate in Canberra in these circumstances was nuanced and fascinating. Tange was then secretary of defence and Jockel director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation. Against the explicit advice of Foreign Affairs and the strongly expressed views of senior defence officials, Whitlam took the Barwick line. But he did not wish to publicly espouse it and seems to have expected that a Goa outcome would occur, as did Indonesia's military planners.

Whitlam and the Indonesians were seriously in error on this score.

At a meeting of senior officials with secretary of foreign affairs Alan Renouf in December 1974, Michael Cook and Jockel, in particular, made clear that there would be protracted and bloody fighting if Indonesia sought to annex the territory and that Canberra urgently needed to rethink its policy.

The Barwick-Whitlam approach would lead to "a running sore for Indonesia", so integration was "not a winnable goal", as Cook phrased it; and independence would have to be looked at in the long run.

But the prime minister wanted to see incorporation, Richard Woolcott responded, and he had "escape clauses if necessary".

Those escape clauses were his refusal to openly support the use of force by Indonesia. He did, however, privately tell Suharto in April 1975 that if push came to shove he would give priority to the relationship with Jakarta over the right of the Timorese to self-determination.

Jakarta then prepared a covert invasion in the mistaken belief that it could quickly overrun Fretilin, raise a false flag in Dili and occupy the territory under that cover.

Australian intelligence kept a close and anxious watch on the situation and, at Woolcott's urging, sought todeflect Australian public opinion from interest in or concern about thematter.

But such interest and concern went all the way back to World WarII and was not to be deflected.

It was into this vortex that the five journalists stepped, in mid-October 1975. The rest, as they say, is history. But only a small, all-too-human part of that history is captured in Balibo.

Paul Monk is the author of Secret Intelligence and Escape Clauses: Australia and the Indonesian Annexation of East Timor, 1963-1976, published in Critical Asian Studies Vol.33, No.2 (2001).


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