Subject: Age: Guilty as charged: the Timor verdict

Note The text of the report can be found at:

The Age 
Wednesday 20 December 2000

Guilty as charged: the Timor verdict


Largely unnoticed among the publicity splash produced by the release of the Defence White Paper, another significant parliamentary report recently entered the public domain. The Senate committee inquiry into Australia's East Timor diplomacy presented its final report, a history of a dark episode in our foreign policy.

Commissioned in late 1998, the inquiry was extended after the post-ballot violence that engulfed East Timor in September 1999. Its report records how successive Australian governments appeased Indonesia at the expense of East Timor's peace and independence.

Among its most interesting findings, the committee reports:

Gough Whitlam believes that only after the 1991 Dili massacre did it become apparent that "the Indonesian military had overplayed their hand" in East Timor. Remarkably, he seems unaware that the killings between 1975 and 1978 constitute the worst massacres as a proportion of a population since the Holocaust. Or he is aware but doesn't think this signifies the Indonesian military "overplaying" its hand.

The committee couldn't understand why Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy secretary John Dauth told it in May 1999 that the militias in East Timor were armed and organised by local commanders outside the Indonesia military's chain of command, when, according to Professor Des Ball, "from the end of 1998, intelligence intercepts produced by the Defence Signals Directorate were providing a very accurate, precise and detailed picture of the relationship between particular commanders of the Indonesian Army and militia leaders in East Timor". Dauth's plea that DFAT was too overwhelmed by reports at the time to arrive at such a conclusion, failed to convince the committee, which was angry with DFAT's reluctance to provide it with more definitive information.

John Howard's letter to President Habibie in December 1998 suggesting a new dispensation for East Timor was prompted by a survey of elite Timorese opinion that, unsurprisingly, found overwhelming support for independence. The results of the survey, by DFAT, were shared with Jakarta but have been withheld from the Australian people, including the Senate committee.

Former foreign minister Gareth Evans' argument that there was no foundation to the claim that the Whitlam government had known from the outset - via intelligence sources - that five journalists had been murdered at Balibo in 1975 has been discredited by the research of Ball and Hamish McDonald. Whitlam, who had tried to reconcile the East Timorese right to self-determination with his preference for the territory's incorporation into Indonesia, left the clear impression, in the committee's words, that "the outcome was more important than the process".

Former ambassador Tony Kevin told the committee that Canberra was largely responsible for the referendum and its aftermath, and had no right to put at risk the lives of so many East Timorese. In reply, the committee said Kevin ascribed "too much responsibility to the Australian government and its advisers in the process". Nor did any Timorese witnesses raise these concerns with the committee. Even after InterFET troops arrived in East Timor it was "impossible to find a single person there who wished the ballot had never happened".

Overall, the committee was critical that "since the mid-1970s, there has been a thread running through East Timor policies of Australian governments of all political persuasions: that greater emphasis be placed on relations with Indonesia at the expense of East Timor".

The committee found that "until the latter part of 1999, all governments have publicly played down reports of human rights abuses in the territory. They were prepared to accept Indonesian Government assurances and explanations, and support them, even in the face of other contradictory evidence".

When the prospect of violence was reported before the independence ballot, "the Australian Government, at least publicly, did not associate the (Indonesian military), other than `rogue elements', with the militias, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, including the government's own intelligence information".

In summary, "despite the disingenuous approach taken by Australia towards East Timor over the period of the Indonesian occupation, it remained a thorn in the side of successive Australian governments".

It was a thorn well deserved.

Dan Flitton is an associate lecturer in international relations at Deakin University. E-mail:

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