Subject: GLW: Documents assert `we can't block Jakarta'

Green Left Weekly, Issue #423 October 4, 2000

EAST TIMOR: Documents assert `we can't block Jakarta' By Max Lane

The release of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) documents on East Timor for the period 1974-76 has provoked former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and former Australian ambassador to Indonesia Richard Woolcott to try to defend their abandonment of democratic principles in relation to East Timor.

Whitlam's pathetic defence in the September 21 Melbourne Age consisted of a string of attacks on other politicians for doing more or less the same things he did. He reminded readers that he told Jakarta that Australia did not necessarily agree that East Timor should be integrated into Indonesia.

“The 1974-76 documents on East Timor, released this month, show Australia did take principled positions on self-determination and the use of force”, was what Woolcott told the September 25 Age in his own defence.

While it is true that the documents show that politicians and diplomats repeatedly told Jakarta that the Australian government could not condone the integration of East Timor into Indonesia by force, the intention of these statements was not to block such action by Indonesia. The intention was to ensure that the Australian government had stated its disapproval for the record, so as to manage public disquiet at home.

Australian government policy was succinctly summed up in a minute written by Woolcott, dated September 24, 1974, five months after the revolution in Portugal — a time when the future of Portuguese Timor began to be discussed more intensively: “It is worth recording — for limited distribution only — that the Prime Minister [Whitlam] put his views on this subject frankly in the following way: `I am in favour of incorporation [of East Timor into Indonesia] but obeisance has to be made to self-determination. I do not want it [East Timor] incorporated in a way which will create argument in Australia which would make people more critical of Indonesia'.”

The same policy was restated in a secret cable to Australia's Jakarta embassy, dated August 25, 1975, where Woolcott was ambassador: “Discussions with the Prime Minister [Whitlam] indicate that in his view we should not, repeat not, be in a position where we could be held to be approving in advance Indonesian intervention without a Portuguese request or in effect giving a signal to undertake it. On the other hand, we should equally not wish to be made responsible for blocking Indonesian intervention if the Indonesians for their own reasons have decided they must undertake it.”

However, Whitlam's discussions with Suharto had been seen by the dictatorship as approval. In a DFAT submission to foreign minister Don Willesee in October 1974, DFAT bureaucrat GB Feakes advised that the head of Suharto's black operations outfit, OPSUS, General Ali Murtopo “told our ambassador in Lisbon on October 14 that Australian support for the idea of incorporation had helped Indonesia crystallise its own thinking”.

A DFAT minute on October 15, 1975, at a time when Jakarta's intentions were even clearer, stated: “We should be able to seek Indonesian understanding of our wish to express disquiet [at Indonesian military action]. We would not be doing anything physically to prevent Indonesia from doing whatever it might believe it has to do. We would simply be asking the Indonesians to allow us publicly to disassociate ourselves from Indonesian military intervention.”

Throughout 1974 and 1975, Australian government policy was based on the knowledge that the Suharto dictatorship had decided that, one way or another, East Timor would be integrated into Indonesia. This was confirmed to the Australian embassy in Jakarta many times by Harry Tjan, an OPSUS operative based in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). As early as September 1974, Tjan began providing details of Jakarta's subversive activities in East Timor.

From then on, Australia's policy had two strands: first, supporting East Timor's integration into Indonesia and, second, “minimising argument” in Australia by continually repeating support for the East Timorese people's right to self-determination.

Not a `party principal'

Underlying the first policy was the government's adoption of a position that Australia was “not a party principal” to the situation in Portuguese Timor and that it should minimise its involvement there. The Whitlam Labor government and DFAT officials maintained this stance right up until, and after, the invasion on December 7, 1975.

As Portugal was in political crisis and was withdrawing from its colonies, Canberra's position amounted to leaving the East Timor at the mercy of Jakarta, and isolating the East Timorese national liberation movement.

The “not a party principal” stance resulted in many decisions, recorded in the DFAT documents, that included: not initiating any action in the United Nations; not opening a consulate in Dili; (unsuccessfully) opposing a visit by a Australian parliamentary delegation to East Timor; not providing development aid; not initiating any meetings between East Timorese, Indonesian and Portuguese parties in any way or at any time; and not receiving East Timorese foreign affairs spokesperson Jose Ramos Horta during his first visit to Australia in 1974.

Formal Australian government “representations” to Jakarta continued to refer to “self-determination”, and even to alternative scenarios to integration itself. But the embassy was told repeatedly by Tjan and others that “Australia's views did not matter”. What Indonesian officials were concerned about was not what Australian officials said in their private representations but what concrete diplomatic or political steps the Australian government would take.

Canberra's policy in practice was to keep both the UN and Australia out of diplomatic moves in relation to East Timor and thus avoid the danger of obstructing Indonesia's plans.

Foreign minister Don Willesee, for example, wrote to Whitlam in December 1974 arguing against a parliamentary delegation visit to East Timor. A part of the explanation read: “Not only Horta but some other Timorese leaders are looking to Australia to provide some kind of balance to Indonesia. Australian reticence could only disappoint them, while denying us the opportunity of influencing the Timorese leaders away from harmful courses of action. Nevertheless, on balance, Australian interests would be best served by remaining politically detached.”

Ultimately, this approach meant that the situation would only be resolved through a direct confrontation between the Timorese liberation front, Fretilin, and the dictatorship in Indonesia. As the Australian government knew that Jakarta had decided for integration and that Fretilin was committed to independence, neither Woolcott nor Whitlam can avoid responsibility for the invasion.

Whitlam and Woolcott at the time, as well as now, tried to blame Fretilin for Indonesia's invasion. They argued that Fretilin did not want to work with the other parties, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) and Apodeti, the pro-Indonesian party. (This position was later reiterated by Andrew Peacock when he became foreign minister in Malcolm Fraser's Coalition government.)

But documents recording the briefings by Tjan to the embassy, especially in 1975, show clearly that Woolcott knew that Apodeti and UDT were under the influence of Jakarta.

Whitlam and Woolcott also criticised Fretilin's declaration of independence on November 28, 1975, as a refusal to come to an accommodation with its “powerful neighbour”. In other words, the decision of the dictatorship taken in early 1974 to integrate East Timor was accepted and independence for East Timor was illegitimate.

Woolcott regularly argued that relations with Jakarta should not be held hostage to the issue of self determination. In fact, the policy of the Whitlam government and DFAT was that support for the principle of self-determination should be held hostage to good relations with the dictatorship in Jakarta.


In Woolcott's September 25 Age article he again asserted that “incorporation had become inevitable by 1975”. All the documents indicate that Whitlam and DFAT's view was also that incorporation was always inevitable.

In one sense, it was — not because the dictatorship in Jakarta had made a firm decision, but because both Jakarta and Canberra had decided it should be so. In Australia, both the federal Coalition parties and the ALP adopted the same position.

What motivated the Whitlam Labor government, and later the Fraser Coalition government, to so consistently support incorporation? The documents do not deal with this question in any depth.

There is the occasional reference to the fact that it would be easier to negotiate the Timor Gap seabed boundary with Jakarta than with either Lisbon or an independent Dili. There are some documents which refer to the danger of intervention by other “powers”, but the Australian government also frequently told Jakarta that there was little danger of interference in East Timor's affairs from either the Soviet Union or China.

The assertion that appears like a mantra throughout the cables, records of conversation, letters, memorandum and minutes is that not standing in the way of Suharto's plans for Timor was essential for the “Australian national interest”.

In a minute dated October 15, 1975, discussing the nature of Fretilin, the head of the Indonesia section of DFAT, M. Curtin, put down on paper why “Indonesian fears [about developments in East Timor] are not entirely without basis”.

Curtin wrote: “The Indonesians believe that the region simply cannot afford the luxury of an independent East Timor. If an independent and politically radicalised East Timor were to make a go of it, with political and economic help not to Indonesia's liking, it would certainly be something for discontented Indonesians to look to.”

For Whitlam, Woolcott, Fraser and Peacock, and later Labor Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, helping the Suharto dictatorship maintain “stability” (i.e. oppression) in Indonesia was always the main priority. The Australian embassy boasted about its close relations with Harry Tjan and OPSUS, the outfit that formulated repressive policy in Indonesia.

Failure to act

At any time after the revolution in Portugal, the Australian government could have taken steps that would have ruled out Jakarta's invasion by Jakarta.

An Australian government proposal at the UN for a UN-supervised referendum or another form of UN-sponsored decolonisation process would have immediately internationalised the issue of East Timor and limited Jakarta's options.

The early recognition of the East Timorese political parties, Fretilin and UDT, as necessary participants in UN initiatives would have likewise restricted Jakarta. Clear offers of practical support for a self-determination referendum or a similar process would have helped ensure it took place — as it eventually did.

The reason none of these steps were taken was because both Labor and the Coalition identified Australia's “national interest” with preserving the dictatorship in Indonesia, rather than helping an “independent and politically radicalised East Timor” which might offer an example to “discontented Indonesians”.

Long before East Timor emerged as a problem for Australia's rulers, the philosophical basis for Australian government policy was set out in a secret despatch from Australian ambassador Furlonger in January 1973: “The New Order in Indonesia is vastly better than the other likely alternatives with which we were faced with in 1965 (or, if development fails, could be faced with in the future) ... However, Australia's main interest is an Indonesia experiencing reasonable economic growth and a benign and stable government and pursuing policies of good relations with its neighbours. The Suharto government fulfills these criteria.”

For the Australian governments, both Labor and Coalition, in East Timor they had to choose between the Suharto dictatorship and Fretilin. Despite the fact that DFAT officials reported that Fretilin's credentials “as the legitimate representative of the people of Portuguese Timor” are “potentially strong”, all Australian governments, from Whitlam's to the present Howard government, opted for Suharto — until the Indonesian people swept him away.

Whitlam was, and remains, an apologist for one of the most murderous dictators of the 20th century. As one of the top DFAT officials reminded Whitlam in a note one month before the invasion: “The government has in fact gone to considerable lengths to resist domestic pressures that it should intervene politically in Portuguese Timor out of deference to our wish not to complicate any further Indonesia's problems.”

[Max Lane is chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor. Visit the ASIET web site at <>.]

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