Subject: Timor: A Challenge to Australia
James Dunn, Sydney Morning Herald 25 February
Date: Thu, 25 Feb 1999 21:49:39 -0500
From: "James Dunn" <>

With the visit of our Foreign Minister to Jakarta Australia is in effect burying a Timor policy, which has been embedded in the political culture of coalition and Labor governments for a generation. Not only are there profound moral reasons why we should become actively involved; the alternative would mean accepting the settlement by outside powers of a problem we helped create - with Portugal, the UN, the US and the EU playing the key roles. Because of its strategic position an independent East Timor will be of sensitive importance to Australia, and we now have an opportunity to help it emerge into the best possible relationship with Indonesia.

At last, thanks to the work of both Alexander Downer and Laurie Brereton, Australia is now placed to face the realties of this drastic change in our foreign policy. It is now recognised that independence is the inevitable end for the former Portuguese colony, and that it is in our national interest to play a leading role in smoothing the way towards that end. It is a direction that even Prime Minister Howard, who is no innovator in foreign policy, has come to appreciate by declaring a Timor settlement the top foreign affairs priority for his government.

What is important at this critical point is that the Government get its assumptions right. East Timor is heading for independent nationhood, notwithstanding persistent reports of strong opposition to independence. Also, with some well-deserved outside help, the East Timorese have the means to establish a stable and prosperous nation, one that is more likely than not to develop harmonious relations with Indonesia. An independent Timor is not likely to complicate our relations with Indonesia, if the trend in Jakarta towards a democratic format continues.

We have heard a lot about the mounting risk of civil war in East Timor - between those in favour and against independence - but this matter needs to be put into perspective. True, there is some civil unrest, but it does not pose the threat of a civil war, in the sense of conflict between the two parts of a divided nation. The recent emergence of an aggressive pro-integration movement should be seen as a calculated rear-guard action, led by those relatively few Timorese who have become part of Indonesian rule. They include the present Governor, Abilio Soares, whose appointment was promoted by the now discredited General Prabowo, and Joao Tavares, whose support for Indonesia's military intervention goes back to 1975, when he accompanied the invading forces into Balibo, to be rewarded with a senior administrative post.

This pro-integration group is being encouraged by many of the thousands of Indonesians who moved into East Timor after the invasion, and now enjoy privileges and relative prosperity. They are also being encouraged, as well as armed, by sections of ABRI, perhaps as a local initiative. Many military officers currently hold administrative positions in the kabupaten, or districts, of East Timor, and some are actively encouraging the pro-integration movement. Therefore, with the military either behind them, or looking the other way, and with the support of some of East Timor's top officials, the pro-integration lobby has been able to create an exaggerated impression of its support; not to speak of fears that civil conflict is bound to follow a precipitate Indonesian withdrawal.

On the question of leadership the East Timorese have important assets at this critical point in their history. They have at least four impressive leaders - Xanana Gusmao, Bishop Belo, Jose Ramos Horta and Mario Carrascalao - all of whom are moderates. They are committed to an orderly transition, and to a process of conciliation, between rival Timorese groups, as well as with Indonesia.

In order to support the new leadership, to calm the situation in East Timor, and to determine accurately East Timorese aspirations, the formation of an international Timor mission, preferably a UN force with advisory and observer functions, as well as a small military component, should be a priority. That the Portuguese maintained law and order with only 1,000 troops, so a large military presence is not necessary. It should then be possible to disarm both the Falintil armed resistance and the much more numerous militia groups, and to reduce substantially the ABRI presence.

The cost of supporting East Timor's shift to independence has been exaggerated. East Timor is a small country, with modest needs, and Australia will be only one of the contributing countries, with most of the funding coming from Portugal, the EU, the US, and other countries. Of these, Australia is in the best position to reap the eventual economic benefits of East Timor's development, because of Darwin's proximity. In the long term Timor has good prospects for a self-sustaining economy. Not only will it benefit from the Gap oil exploitation; Timor has excellent tourist attractions, a beautiful island endowed with historic sites reminding one of Portugal's pioneering role in the explorations that to the foundation of today's Australia.

An independent East Timor is necessary to expunge the humiliation and horrors of a past that cost the lives of more than a quarter of the population. The essential dilemma, however, is not about the end, but about how to get there without creating new problems for Australian foreign policy, not to speak of the long-suffering Timorese. There will be a modest financial cost, but not to meet the challenge would, in the long term, be infinitely more expensive.

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