Subject: AFR/E.Timor: Look back in anger

Australian Financial Review September 13, 2000

Look back in anger

By Geoffrey Barker

Just a year ago Australian troops landed in East Timor to stop the orgy of murder and destruction unleashed by Indonesian forces hell-bent on wrecking the former Portuguese colony as it moved towards independence from Indonesia.

Their arrival was a dramatic climax to Australia's tortured diplomatic encounter with Indonesia over East Timor - an encounter that has made East Timor one of the most protracted, difficult and divisive issues in the nation's foreign relations.

It has left Australia with a poisonous legacy inherited from the Whitlam and Fraser governments 25 years ago when the Soeharto regime moved to incorporate East Timor into Indonesia following the collapse of the Portuguese administration.

Indeed, the situation facing Australia today is precisely what those policies sought to avoid: Australian troops are in harm's way in East Timor, Australia's relations with Indonesia are seriously damaged, and Australia faces the prospect of an economically impoverished and politically unstable micro-State on its northern doorstep.

Yesterday's early release by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of 484 key documents entitled Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of Portuguese East Timor seems an attempt by the Federal Government to acknowledge that legacy, to clear the wreckage of the past, and to move on.

Compulsively readable, the documents trace the development of East Timor policy from the breakdown of the Portuguese administration in 1974 to Australia's de facto recognition of Indonesia's takeover in 1978. They confirm that the policies were untenable, driven by a narrow conception of pragmatic realism and national interest, and characterised by diplomatic and political tendencies to appeasement, duplicity and hypocrisy.

Defenders of the policies will argue this judgement is too harsh: that at least until the collapse of the Soeharto Government after the 1997 Asian financial meltdown, Australian diplomacy had reduced the East Timor problem to a mostly manageable irritant in Australian-Indonesian relations for nearly 25 years.

But the price in human suffering in East (and West) Timor has been, and continues to be, appalling. So has the cost to Indonesia's pride, reputation and economy. And Australia has done itself domestic and international harm by embracing policies that sought to subordinate Australian national values to a dubious conception of "realist" national interest.

The documents, in fact, reveal little dramatically new about key events, including Gough Whitlam's two meetings with President Soeharto in September 1974 and April 1975, the policy shifts that followed the election of the Fraser Government in November 1975, the deaths of the five Australian-based journalists at Balibo during Indonesia's first major sweep into East Timor in October 1975, the invasion itself in December 1975, and subsequent developments in the United Nations and Australian policy.

But they do show in great detail how completely Australian policy was dominated by Australia's ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, who argued persistently that Australia faced a choice between what he called "Wilsonian idealism or Kissingerian realism".

"The former is more proper and principled but the longer-term national interest may well better be served by the latter," he wrote.

Woolcott's view, adopted by governments, was that long-term national interest demanded that Australia should support Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor even if Canberra had qualms about Jakarta's use of force. Although Australian policy also declared support for an act of self-determination by the East Timorese to decide their future, Woolcott's view was that this should be seen as of secondary importance. In a letter to Whitlam he warned against Australia "impaling ourselves on the hook of self-determination".

His position reflected the diplomatic dilemma of how national interest is to be balanced against national values. Although Woolcott had no doubts that national interest trumped national values, the dilemma was summed up astutely by Australian's ambassador to Lisbon at the time, Frank Cooper.

Discussing possible Australian recognition of Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor by force, Cooper wrote: "If the Government now decides to recognise what it has previously condemned, the question people will ask is not whether we can live with it but whether we can live with ourselves."

Cooper's comment goes to the heart of the policy failure. First, it was contradictory: Australia could not consistently support incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia and a genuine act of self-determination by the East Timorese. (What if they chose independence?) Second, it was hypocritical: publicly, Australia was calling for self-determination; privately, it was accepting incorporation. Third, it was so deeply at odds with significant Australian opinion and values that it became and remains an issue of major national contention.

One of the few politicians to emerge with enduring credit is the former Labor Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Don Willessee, who disagreed with Whitlam's acceptance of the Woolcott line and who wrote to Woolcott saying that any Indonesian action that subverted a genuine act of self-determination in East Timor would make it difficult for Australia to maintain close co-operative relations with Indonesia.

But the triumph of the Woolcott approach is revealed in a letter from Foreign Affairs assistant secretary Lance Joseph to another diplomat who had reported that the Indonesians were concerned about the accuracy of the official Australian record of views expressed by President Soeharto at his Townsville meeting with Whitlam.

Joseph wrote that the Indonesians had most likely seen the "sanitised version" of the record. He went on: "... for presentational purposes it was felt important in the sanitised version to highlight Australia's commitment to self-determination in a way which is not reflected in the exhaustive record".

In other words, what Australia emphasised in its "sanitised" records was quite different to what it emphasised in private conversations.

After the fall of the Whitlam Government, Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock sought to project a position more principled than the Labor policy. Woolcott caustically noted that Peacock had "reached or was close to the limits of having his cake and eating it with Indonesia".

Despite Peacock's puffing and posturing, in 1978 he ultimately gave de facto recognition to Indonesia's annexation of East Timor.

It seems clear that Indonesia outmanoeuvred Australia diplomatically in the lead-up to its invasion of East Timor by keeping the Australian Embassy informed in great detail of its plans. Harry Tjan Silalahi of the Indonesian Centre for Strategic and International Studies and General Benny Moerdani provided so much inside information to diplomats that it is reasonable to ask whether Australia's prior knowledge left it with few options but to acquiesce or be exposed as complicit. Indeed, the depth of that knowledge exposes the extent of Australia's tacit acceptance of Indonesia's actions.

There was, it is true, some scepticism about Tjan's information. "You wish to be sure that what Tjan says to us is Indonesian Government policy. So do we," says one cable from Jakarta to Canberra. "We do sometimes get the impression here that Harry is being deliberately outrageous," says another.

Despite this caution, it seems surprising that barely a month before the Indonesian invasion Woolcott cabled Canberra: "I still do not think the President will agree to outright invasion, although the pressure on him to do so is continuing to increase."

Only Willessee, it seems, asked the Department whether it was in Australia's interests to continue to receive Tjan's information, fearing that Australia was being put in a position of conniving at the planned military intervention. He was told: "The information we are receiving from Tjan and Moerdani is invaluable. It very often gives us an insight into Indonesian thinking before the decisions are made ..."

About 60 documents cover the still uncertain circumstances surrounding the deaths of the five Australian-based newsmen killed at Balibo. Although the documents protect intelligence assessments, it is clear that the Government judged from intelligence assessments within 48 hours that at least four journalists were killed on October 16, 1975.

Despite almost daily inquiries Australian diplomats in Jakarta found it impossible to receive confirmation and details of the deaths until November 12, when Lieutenant-General Yoga Sugama handed Woolcott documents, photographic equipment and four boxes of unidentifiable human remains. "They are behaving in a very Javanese, touchy and unhelpful way on the journalists," Woolcott wrote on November 6.

Canberra's sensitivities over the deaths is revealed in the response of Department Secretary Alan Renouf to a cable from Jakarta describing the deaths as "a sad and dreadful development" which could have "serious consequences and inflame Australian public opinion". Renouf said this language was "inappropriate and unacceptable and is resented here".

Woolcott accepted full responsibility.

A glaring example of Australian diplomatic hypocrisy is revealed in the documents covering the debate over whether Australia should attend a meeting in Dili in June 1976 at which Indonesia planned to demonstrate the legitimacy of its takeover by having selected local representatives "verify" that they really did want to be integrated.

Despite Woolcott's enthusiasm, Peacock decided not to attend. The public reason was that the procedures would not "match up to the standards which would be generally acceptable in Australia". The deeper reason, acknowledged in the documents, was that the Government did not want to have to offer "eyewitness commentary" critical of Indonesia on a process which it knew would be a sham. (In the end, it relied on a report prepared by a New Zealand diplomat.)

Of course, the tragedy of East Timor's incorporation into Indonesia for 23 years before the fall of the Soeharto regime cannot be sheeted home to Australian policy. Portugal's collapse and its disorderly flight from its colonies is well described in the documents. So is Indonesia's concern that its security might be compromised by the emergence of an independent East Timor.

But so is Australia's refusal to allow any place for values and its connivance at the Indonesian invasion because of a narrow conception of the national interest that has come back to haunt Australia since the collapse of the Soeharto regime.

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