|Subject: SMH/E.Timor: Politics of betrayal
(+SMH editorial: The price of betrayal )
also: The price of betrayal
Sydney Morning Herald September 13, 2000
Features & Arts
Politics of betrayal
Just-released Foreign Affairs documents show how Australia encouraged Indonesia to grab East Timor by its own early complicity in plans for the takeover, writes Hamish McDonald.
A LITTLE more than two months after Portuguese army officers ousted Lisbon's doddery fascist regime on April 25, 1974, Australia's ambassador in Jakarta, Robert Furlonger, sent a breathless dispatch to Canberra. His first secretary, Jan Arriens, had just been told that plans would soon be submitted to President Soeharto for a "clandestine operation" in Portuguese Timor to ensure it opted for incorporation into Indonesia.
The information had come from Harry Tjan Silalahi, a leading figure in the Soeharto regime's shadowy Special Operations group, known as Opsus. Tjan said the idea had occurred to him after talking to Peter Wilenski, the principal private secretary to the then Australian prime minister, Gough Whitlam.
"Tjan's extreme frankness indicates the Indonesians are confident we would favour an independent Portuguese Timor as little as they do," Furlonger wrote on July 3, 1974, adding that Tjan seemed to have gained this impression from Wilenski.
Opsus, formed around Soeharto's most trusted intelligence adviser, Lieutenant-General Ali Murtopo, had secretly negotiated with the British to undercut previous president Sukarno's "confrontation" with Malaysia, helped orchestrate the bloody backlash against the Indonesian Communist Party after the 1965 coup, manipulated a pro-Indonesian decision in Western New Guinea's "act of free choice" in 1969, and engineered a pro-regime outcome in Soeharto's first elections in 1971.
But Furlonger ended his dispatch with a worrying thought: "We are, in effect, being consulted. They clearly expect a response from our side: a failure to do so will be taken ... as tacit agreement."
And so began one of the busiest crises in Australian diplomacy, resulting in Canberra's biggest foreign policy blunder: effectively encouraging the military takeover of a small neighbouring territory, involving perhaps 100,000 unnatural deaths in its population of about 650,000. And all for a result that had to be unwound 25 years later with a perhaps indefinite commitment of Australian troops, and a "blowback" into West Timor that may yet undermine Indonesia's fragile democracy and unity.
Initially Canberra was keeping its options open. Graham Feakes, head of the South Asia division in Foreign Affairs, wrote back to Furlonger on July 26, 1974, noting that Australia could not be associated with Indonesian covert action, and suggesting that Jakarta be reminded Australia was publicly committed to self-determination for Portuguese Timor.
Furlonger wrote on July 30 to ask if Canberra was now "more neutral" about the result of a Timor plebiscite, where previously it had preferred union with Indonesia. "Could the Prime Minister not say that he shares the assessment that it would be in the interests of the region that Portuguese Timor unite with Indonesia? He could ... qualify this by saying that ... self-determination cannot be ignored ..."
However, Furlonger was worried Soeharto might refer to "covert activities" at a coming meeting with Whitlam in September, in which case Whitlam "would have no option but to say 'no', as he could never be on the record as having even tacitly acquiesced ..."
Furlonger said he would send Arriens back to Tjan, to make sure this was understood, and that Australia was not pledging to take a diplomatic initiative while the Indonesians "did the dirty work". But he also noted that Opsus was well prepared for its covert campaign, and that time could be short before Portugal pulled out.
The department, headed by career diplomat Alan Renouf and reporting to the foreign minister, Don Willesee, was not yet sold on the embassy's preference.
In its brief for Whitlam before the meeting, it mentioned that Opsus was planning a "covert political operation" to persuade the East Timorese to accept absorption into Indonesia. Tjan had been asked to advise Soeharto not to start the operation before Whitlam's visit.
The department advised Whitlam to tell Soeharto that Australia noted Indonesia's "strategic concerns" about Portuguese Timor allowing in hostile outside powers. But the brief stressed Australia's commitment to self-determination and its belief that an imposed solution would ultimately be destabilising.
Combined with the official record of what Whitlam said to Soeharto in the September 1974 meetings in Central Java, this supports Renouf's later assertion that Whitlam dumped this advice, and leaned strongly to the Jakarta embassy line.
Whitlam told Soeharto that Portuguese Timor was "too small to be independent" and its independence would be "unwelcome" to Indonesia, Australia and regional countries because it would invite attention from outside the region. The record goes on: "The Prime Minister noted that, for the domestic audience in Australia, incorporation into Indonesia should appear to be a natural process arising from the wishes of its people." There was no mention of covert action.
Whitlam later made his position much clearer to Richard Woolcott, a deputy secretary in Foreign Affairs, who relayed it in a minute to Renouf on September 24. "I am in favour of incorporation but obeisance has to be made to self-determination," Woolcott quoted Whitlam as saying.
The Indonesians seemed confident Whitlam was on side. By October 1974, Ali Murtopo's key staff members, Harry Tjan Silalahi and Yusuf Wanandi (then referred to in embassy cable traffic by his former name, Lim Bian Kie), were blunt in their discussions with embassy officials at their Jakarta base, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
On October 16, Furlonger reported Lim's belief that Portuguese and United Nations activity would lead to a referendum in Portuguese Timor towards the middle of 1976 - time enough for Indonesia to do all it could to influence the situation. By 1976, Indonesia would be able to gauge the likely outcome of a plebiscite.
"If it was clear that the territory would not vote for incorporation into Indonesia, Lim said that the use of force could not be ruled out," Furlonger reported, noting that Tjan had agreed. "He spoke of the possibility of fomenting disorder in Portuguese Timor and of the Indonesian forces stepping in to salvage the situation at the request of certain sections of the population."
Furlonger had said this would put Australia in a difficult position, and asked if Indonesia could not live with an independent East Timor and aim to turn it into a "satellite" state. "Lim indicated that the latter was not a real alternative for the Indonesians."
Over the following months, the embassy advised consistently that Soeharto would not be diverted from the aim of incorporation, that Indonesian attitudes were "hardening", that the Opsus covert campaign was well under way and that the Indonesian armed forces were preparing for the contingency of intervention.
The department inserted periodic cautions about self-determination but overall tried to maintain what division head Feakes called a position of "studied detachment" on Portuguese Timor, limiting contact with the emerging Timorese political parties (in particular, disparaging Fretilin's Jose Ramos Horta) and holding off reopening Australia's consulate in Dili.
In February 1975, the then defence minister, Lance Barnard, put his department's objection to the Jakarta embassy's insistence that Indonesia could not be persuaded to live with an independent East Timor, even with Jakarta and Canberra jointly providing heavy political and economic support for the tiny state.
In reply, the South-East Asia branch head in Foreign Affairs, Lance Joseph, indicated he was swayed by this line. He pointed out that Jakarta did not need to think in pre-emptive terms: if, later, Jakarta's nightmare of a hostile Marxist regime did emerge, it could "take out Portuguese Timor at any time".
But this policy was never seriously attempted, and Canberra never pulled up the Indonesians on their covert operation.
Woolcott arrived in Jakarta as ambassador in March 1975 with immense policy clout, having served as a deputy secretary in Foreign Affairs and having travelled with Whitlam on most of his foreign trips.
The record of Whitlam's second meeting with Soeharto in Townsville in April that year shows Whitlam barely giving self-determination a mention and bagging his domestic critics on the Timor issue. Crucially, he told Soeharto that Australia's Timor policy would be guided by the principle that relations with Indonesia were paramount.
After Townsville, Woolcott directly challenged his minister, Don Willesee, on differences between his approach to Portuguese Timor and Whitlam's.
In a letter to Willesee on April 17, Woolcott pointed out that the foreign minister tended to place the emphasis on a proper act of self-determination, and noted that if this resulted in incorporation into Indonesia, Willesee would "accept" it. But in Townsville, Whitlam believed the logic of the situation was that East Timor should join Indonesia and Australia would "welcome" it. Whitlam believed that continued public emphasis on self-determination would increase the pressures for independence.
Another example of the way policy was drifting from self-determination is in a letter South-East Asia branch head Joseph wrote on June 30 to the Jakarta embassy's No2, Malcolm Dan, who had said the Indonesians were unhappy with the Australian record of the Townsville talks.
What the Indonesians had been shown, said Joseph, was most likely "the sanitised version ... For presentational purposes, it was felt important in the sanitised version to highlight Australia's commitment to self-determination in a way which is not reflected in the exhaustive record".
The crisis in Timor intensified over 1975, with the territory's two biggest parties, Fretilin and UDT, entering and then breaking a coalition, and Portugal increasingly disposed to speedy decolonisation.
Australia's embassy in Jakarta said on July 10 that a "final policy decision" had been taken by Indonesia to incorporate East Timor one way or another. On July 21, Malcolm Dan stressed Tjan's unrivalled connections to key Indonesian officials running Timor operations, including Ali Murtopo, and the military intelligence chief, Major-General Benny Murdani.
From the department, Joseph said he did not disagree "but we do sometimes get the impression here that Harry [Tjan] is being deliberately outrageous." In a separate note, Feakes said Australia had to react to what Tjan had said in case it looked like it was acquiescing. "The historical record would have looked bad," Feakes told his superiors.
To this point, Australia had been turning a blind eye to the Opsus campaign of political subversion. On August 10, 1975, however, the conservative UDT staged a coup in Dili, claiming to be preventing a takeover by the "communist" Fretilin and Portuguese sympathisers. The embassy quoted "very delicate sources" suggesting Indonesian intelligence agents were colluding with UDT (much later borne out by both UDT and Indonesian accounts).
The Fretilin counterattack created chaos in Dili, and drove the UDT westwards to the Indonesian border. The issue of immediate intervention by Indonesia was a live one, possibly even at Lisbon's request. On August 26, Whitlam told the Indonesian ambassador, Major-General Her Tasning, that Canberra would not seek to "exercise a veto" on Indonesia responding to such a request, and that all assurances given in Townsville still stood.
But Soeharto did not authorise intervention then, when the world might have excused it, because his spiritual guru, Lieutenant-General Sujono Humardani, had had a vision that East Timor would "fall" into Indonesia's lap.
Instead, Soeharto authorised covert military support for the UDT remnants and the small pro-Indonesian party, Apodeti, as the embassy outlined in early September.
As the covert military campaign proceeded, leading to the large-scale attack on Balibo and Maliana on October 15-16 in which five Australian-based TV newsmen were killed (see story opposite), the embassy was given advance warning, which was passed on to Canberra promptly.
In Foreign Affairs, some senior officials had doubts about where this was taking Australia. "The Indonesians have, shrewdly, compromised us by making sure that we know their plans for covert intervention in some detail," wrote Geoffrey Miller, head of the executive branch, on September 12. As Australia had not given a green light to overt intervention the previous month, Miller asked if could it still not urge Indonesia to consider a Fretilin-controlled East Timor less of a problem than imposing another solution.
Miller's warning, ignored higher up, might well have seemed justified by the runaround the Jakarta embassy got when trying to confirm the Balibo deaths, and the petulant response by Indonesian officials to the protests and trade union bans in Australia over the all-too-obvious "covert" campaign.
But even after Balibo, when Tjan and others reduced the flow of information to the embassy, the cost of complicity did not seem too high. As was already known from leaked cables, Woolcott had successfully argued against foreign minister Willesee expressing knowledge of Indonesian military intervention in his October 30 statement to Parliament.
The cables show the Jakarta embassy getting a series of warnings from the Indonesian Defence Ministry and Opsus in the week before the December 7, 1975, attack on Dili, which allowed the evacuation of Australian nationals.
Woolcott had tried in previous days to get the caretaker Fraser Government (which had replaced Whitlam's after the November 11 dismissal) to accept that the issue would now be settled initially by force. On December 3, he reminded Feakes that, according to Tjan and Lim of Opsus, the new foreign minister, Andrew Peacock, had told them in September that a Liberal government would "not criticise" an Indonesian intervention that was supported by other South-East Asian nations, but simply bag Whitlam for "inaction".
The ambassador leavened this Indonesian blackmail with some flattery: if it was a choice between Indonesia and Fretilin, "as a political realist with racing connections, I imagine Mr Peacock will not be interested in putting his [Australia's] money on a 50 to 1 outsider in a two-horse race".
But when Australia did try to have it both ways, by voting in a UN committee for a resolution calling for Indonesia to withdraw, the reaction was predictable. (This was even though the Australian ambassador at the UN, Ralph Harry, said that during the committee debate "our immediate diplomatic problem and task has been to do what we can to reduce the pressure on the Indonesians").
The vote was called "disastrous" by Tjan of Opsus, and a "double-cross" by General Murdani. Much later, Tjan even claimed to the Jakarta embassy's political counsellor, Allan Taylor, that Australia had "planted the idea" that East Timor should be part of Indonesia.
The rest of the story in this selection is a scramble, driven strongly by Woolcott's advice, to get back on side with Soeharto's Indonesia. The alternative of strongly contesting Indonesia's fears of an independent state in East Timor was never seriously put at the highest level.
While the embassy was adamant Soeharto could not be swayed, many cables show him in a much weaker position in 1974-76 than in later years: beset by health problems, the crisis in the state oil company Pertamina, and internal criticism of his regime.
What would have happened if Whitlam had followed his Foreign Affairs Department's advice in September 1974 - and stuck to the principles on which it was based - will remain one of the great conjectures in Australian diplomatic history.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of East Timor, 1974-76, Melbourne University Press, published yesterday. RRP $43.95 (paperback), $65.95 (hardcover).
------------------------------------------------ Sydney Morning herald Sepetmber 13, 2000
The price of betrayal
The hefty volume of Foreign Affairs documents relating to Australian policy towards Indonesia's takeover of East Timor makes fascinating but dispiriting reading. While the public record is still not complete - these papers cover the period from 1974 to the end of June 1976 and do not include intelligence material - the Federal Government and the Foreign Affairs Department deserve marks for releasing so much evidence about an inglorious episode in Australian diplomacy. Cynics are, of course, entitled to ask whether the Government would have been so open, even belatedly, had not Labor been in power during most of this period.
The documents underline the old, sad truth that diplomacy is seldom driven by moral imperatives. When perceived national interests are at stake, considerations of decency and humanity tend to enter the foreign policy equation only when a government fears domestic outrage if the truth gets out. Recorded in these pages is a story of the complicity of some influential Australians, and the timidity of others, during the lead-up to, and after, the annexation by Indonesia of a vulnerable, desperately poor territory to which it had no historic or legal claim. The people of East Timor are still paying the price of that betrayal 25 years later. So are Australian taxpayers, and they are likely to go on paying for years to come. This is what comes of making the mistake of believing that appeasing a bullying government is the same thing as befriending a nation.
The documents reveal that Foreign Affairs chiefs knew from July 1974, about two months after the anti-fascist revolution in Portugal, that Indonesia was considering covert action to ensure the East Timorese opted to become part of Indonesia. They provide evidence of cynicism and indifference to the real wishes of the territory's people on the part of some Australian diplomats and, allegedly, of the then prime minister, Mr Gough Whitlam.
That realpolitik was the order of the day is clear from a minute by Mr Richard Woolcott, then a Deputy Secretary in Foreign Affairs, to his departmental chief, Mr Alan Renouf, in September 1974. He quoted Mr Whitlam as saying: "I am in favour of incorporation [of Portuguese Timor into Indonesia] but obeisance has to be made to self-determination. I want it incorporated but I do not want this done in a way which will create argument in Australia which would make people more critical of Indonesia." In June 1975 a senior Foreign Affairs official wrote to an officer in the Jakarta embassy that an Australian record of talks held in Townsville in April between Mr Whitlam and Mr Soeharto about which the Indonesians were unhappy was probably "the sanitised version". For "presentational purposes" this version highlighted Australia's commitment to self-determination "in a way which is not reflected in the exhaustive record".
In fairness, not everyone in the department was as in favour of accommodating the Indonesians as were Mr Whitlam or the Jakarta embassy. A briefing paper prepared for Mr Whitlam prior to his earlier meeting with President Soeharto in September 1974 advised him to stress Australia's commitment to self-determination and to warn that imposing a solution against the wishes of the East Timorese would destabilise the region. Prophetic words which apparently went unheeded.
On the tragic deaths of five Australian-based newsmen at Balibo in October 1975, the volume adds little to what had been revealed. But the episode brings no credit to the Foreign Affairs Department. It clearly knew when and where the Indonesians would attack, and that Australians were regarded with hostility. On the basis of this record, Foreign Affairs did nothing to ensure that Australian and other foreign aid workers and journalists were warned specifically of their peril.
Overall, it is a sorry tale. The moral is not that Australia was wrong quarter of a century ago, or that it is wrong now, to seek a close, co-operative relationship with its largest neighbour, but that it should never be at the price of compromising fundamental national values and selling out a helpless people. Old betrayals have a tendency to come back to bite the betrayers. History is a cold judge.
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