Subject: 'Seven Days in East Timor'

Australian Broadcasting Corp. PM News, Friday, February 18, 2000 6:30

Seven Days in East Timor

MARK COLVIN: One Australian Parliamentarian who's had plenty of time to reflect on East Timor's future is the former Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer. Mr Fischer released a book today, 'Seven Days in East Timor', and he joined me in the studio earlier.

Looking back on those seven days you spent there and looking forward now, do you think that the extraordinary bloodshed that the election unleashed was worth it in the great sweep of history?

TIM FISCHER: Well the book examines what alternatives might have existed, and had the Armed Forces gone in from other countries there would have been no ballot. And as Kofi Annan says himself, the response was in almost record time with the arrival of General Cosgrove and Interfet.

I do examine this in the book, which proceeds go to charity, but I think East Timor has made its choice. A ballot which had absolute accuracy and integrity, and that's a core legal justification for an independent nation which has, I think, a bright future if it remains united.

MARK COLVIN: Well let's look at some of the alternatives in terms of what happened in the months leading up to the election. You were the Deputy Prime Minister and in Four Corners that was aired this week it appears that there was a great deal of information coming to Australia which indicated exactly what was going to happen.

Should we not … first of all, should we not have acted publicly more … in a different way from the way Australia did?

TIM FISCHER: Well I don't breach my Official Secrets Act oath. I would say what's on the public record and that is, as Minister Downer has said, yes - there were warnings. Immediately after the announcement of the results of the ballot would be an extremely difficult time. That's on the public record to some extent before, and certainly afterwards. But again the question must be asked - what could have been done about it?

I mean the militia, in my opening paragraphs I wrote a statement which I record in the book: 'Before you enjoy the results of a UN and Australian deceit, I will totally destroy you first until the last. Did you think you could have freedom without sacrifice?'

That's the sort of warning that was around.

MARK COLVIN: Let me put it to you that the Four Corners painted a picture, and quite a detailed picture, of a Foreign Affairs and Defence establishment which kept hearing those messages, messages very like that, but wanted to discount them.

TIM FISCHER: The judgment on that will be made by others in the … with the advantage of access to more of the material and able to write publicly about that material, and that has to go through a period of release of that material. I would argue that Australia got it about right at every stage, but if a John Howard letter had gone one year earlier it would have meant a break of diplomatic relations and would have been torn up. If the John Howard letter it would have been ignored.

It was a very narrow window of opportunity and it was worth it, and above all else those Australians posted to East Timor have worked damn hard in all their capacities before the 20th of September and after with Interfet to make the process happen and to save lives.

COMPERE: Well, one area where it is fairly clear that we may well have misjudged things is that the Americans had very considerable influence and probably more than anybody might have thought and that they were prepared to use it. Again in the Four Corners it appears that we were choking off the flow of information to the United States that might have caused them to use that influence earlier.

TIM FISCHER: Well I was a Member of the National Security Committee up until the 20th of July and I ceased to have that contact as I left the Cabinet and the front bench and more to be said, that I will say, that the initial reaction of the United States was very disappointing. Most inadequate and almost flippant.

MARK COLVIN: But was this a fully informed reaction?

TIM FISCHER: They have 101 ways of knowing what's going on. Whether they're getting a flow of information from one particular ally or not they will go their own direct way and to say that the White House or the US Administration was not informed I think would be wrong.

MARK COLVIN: But it is said that in Washington that Clinton and Stanley Roth put a great deal of credence into what they were told by the Australians. Australia was regarded as a particularly good source of information.

TIM FISCHER: It's a credit to the Prime Minister that he also said to the US that there was a troubled circumstance applying, that Australia accepted that it had to be ready to respond to the situation, and that we would seek support for the US. What made me angry is that it's now also a matter of pubic record there was a delay in that response, and it was an underwhelming initial response from our great ally, the United States of America.

MARK COLVIN: So the blame is the opposite to what Four Corners was suggesting?

TIM FISCHER: I would contend that … I think there will be more examination made of this but at the end of the day the ballot took place in extraordinary circumstances. The … er, more peaceful on the day of the ballot than had been dared to imagine and perhaps that led to people thinking on the optimistic front that if the ballot went so well, perhaps the announcement of the result would be accepted. That was not to be the case. These were judgments to be made on the basis of all the information.

But within days of that, a piece of paper issued from Jakarta, the International force went in and full marks to the job done by General Cosgrove and their team in restoring peace and order.

MARK COLVIN: Do you think that the newly outlined withdrawal plan, the idea that the United Nations should be out by the end of this year is realistic? Do you think that that's enough?

TIM FISCHER: I'm concerned about that timetable. I'm not in the best position to make judgments. What I learnt in the few days I was up there, working with some very brave people and observing the proceedings, is if the East Timorese remain united, they can rewrite history books, they can quickly establish an independent nation with a vigorous small economy utilising their organic agriculture, utilising Timor gap revenue and tourism and the like.

But if this unity occurs in the ranks of the East Timorese, Independent here in the ranks of East Timorese more generally, that will be a disaster.

MARK COLVIN: Tim Fischer, and when I asked him about the plan for the UN to be out by the end of this year I should have said the end of next year.

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