Subject: AU: Howard didn't want Timor free

The Australian

Michael Costello: Howard didn't want Timor free


PRIME Minister John Howard has always recognised history and its interpretation as a potent political weapon. Thus Howard appropriated from historian Geoffrey Blainey the phrase "the black-armband view of history", which he used to great effect to undermine Aboriginal native title, the concept of the stolen generations and much of the rationale of the reconciliation movement for his political ends.

Even more powerfully, he uses this phrase to imply a lack of patriotism on the part of those who think that as a people we should not only celebrate the good in our past but also acknowledge and learn from the bad. Howard uses the black-armband line the way the hardline Right in the US slurs Democrats as belonging to the "Blame America First Party". Ugly but effective.

So at a time when an Indonesian president is visiting Australia and a new security pact between the two countries is being discussed, it's worthwhile to recall a few facts about Howard, ex-president Suharto, East Timor and Indonesia. After all, government spin in recent years has been that those rotten Labor types cuddled up cravenly to Suharto and left East Timor for dead, and that it took Howard to stand up to the tyrant and bring freedom to the East Timorese.

Let's start at the beginning. While in Opposition, Howard continually criticised the Hawke and Keating governments for not being close enough to Indonesia and placing too much importance on human rights and East Timor. When Howard became Prime Minister, one of his first trips overseas was to Indonesia. During that visit, what did he have to say about Suharto, about the security agreement between Australia and Indonesia negotiated by Paul Keating and Suharto, about the defence relationship, about human rights, about East Timor's self-determination?

Howard had nothing but praise for Suharto. In his official banquet speech, he described Indonesia's 30 years under Suharto as being of great benefit to Australia, saying that "so much of this is due to your personal leadership, Mr President". In a subsequent speech, Howard said that during 30 years of great turmoil, Indonesia "has been held together during that period of time by a very skilled and sensitive national leader". To the press, he described Suharto as friendly, engaging, engaged, highly intelligent, very interested and very knowledgeable.

As regards the security agreement and our defence relationship, Howard said: "The agreement has my Government's strong support", and he told Suharto of Australia's readiness to develop further the defence relationship.

What about human rights and East Timor? Howard mentioned neither in his official speech. He told the press that he had told Suharto that Indonesia had to expect agitation about these issues by the Australian press and public, but that he had reassured the president this debate in Australia "should not be allowed to damage or affect or to upset the relationship between our two countries."

He said he had told Suharto that Australia recognised Indonesia's legal sovereignty over East Timor but that there might be value in discussions about the East Timorese having greater control over their ownaffairs.

Howard repeated similar sentiments about East Timor in his famous letter of December 19, 1998, to the new Indonesian president, B.J. Habibie. Early in his letter Howard wrote: "I want to emphasise that Australia's support for Indonesia's sovereignty is unchanged. It has been a longstanding Australian position that the interests of Australia, Indonesia and East Timor are best served by East Timor remaining part of Indonesia." And as regards the question of autonomy, Howard said: "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."

In other words, Howard's whole proposal was designed to maintain and reinforce Indonesia's continuing incorporation of East Timor.

The highly erratic Habibie acted in character. When the then Australian ambassador to Indonesia, John McCarthy, took the email version of the letter to Habibie, the president dismissed Howard's proposal out of hand. Howard's signed original letter was received some days later by the embassy and, in accordance with diplomatic protocol, it was sent to Habibie's office for the record. On seeing the original signed text, Habibie changed his mind. Indeed, he went much further and much faster than Howard ever imagined or wanted - calling for an early act of self-determination.

The truth is that if Howard is the liberator of East Timor, he is the accidental liberator. It was not what he wanted, nor what he proposed, but he and Australia were swept up in the vortex of events let loose by Habibie's change of mind - and he played it to the hilt for domestic political advantage in Australia.

Why does this matter? Because history always matters. The story of our past informs our political present and shapes its future. Keating understood that well. So does Howard. That is why he never ceases to tell his version of that story.

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