Subject: AU: Partiality mars Downer's Timor defence

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also: Don Greenless: Timor role put under gentle grill

The Australian Editorial: Partiality mars Downer's Timor defence

July 18, 2001

A DEFENSIVE Alexander Downer undoubtedly has his eyes on the history books with the publication of the Government's apologia for its handling of the East Timor crisis. But East Timor in Transition 1998-2000, the official Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade account of the tumultuous period and Australia's role in mediating the crisis, deserves more than cursory dismissal. This is not merely a political tract designed to justify the minister and the department's conduct in the face of criticism they did not do enough to prevent devastation and violence ­ or that we did too much.

The book, prepared by former members of DFAT's East Timor desk, offers some answers to three key questions about Australia's conduct: did John Howard's infamous December 1998 letter to then Indonesian president B.J. Habibie urging a process of self-determination force an independence vote too early; how much did Australia know of the links between the Indonesian military and the East Timorese militia; and could Australia have forced a peacekeeping mission before violence ensued?

The book argues persuasively that the Prime Minister and Mr Downer could not have foreseen Dr Habibie's rapid move towards a ballot on independence. The Australian Government took a decision to make a substantial shift in East Timor policy, and urge an act of self-determination at some time in the future. It did not advise Dr Habibie, who cited Mr Howard's letter as a motivating factor, to radically narrow the timeframe. This was, as the book correctly notes, at odds with both Mr Howard's views and those of East Timorese leaders. And there was little Australia and other critics could do.

A more contentious issue is the extent to which Australia was aware of the Indonesian military's backing of the militia build-up in East Timor. The book reveals that contrary to some public statements at the time, Mr Downer and other officials did have detailed knowledge of the links from early 1999. But, the book argues, it was impossible to determine the extent and nature of the military's collusion with the militia, or the extent to which their actions were sanctioned, or ordered by Jakarta.

Mr Downer and others deserve to be questioned for downplaying the problems publicly, and perhaps even dissembling, while being aware of them privately. Yet at the diplomatic and military level and in Dili, as the book shows, Australia was working furiously to persuade Indonesia to rein in the military, despite their frequent denials of collusion. There is some merit to Mr Downer's argument that revealing more publicly would have jeopardised communications with the Indonesians and not necessarily have helped prevent violence. Mr Downer could, however, have handled the public presentation better. World opinion was hardening against Jakarta and Australia could have been more forthright in attacking the military's backing of violence.

The book offers a similar defence of the Government's position on peacekeepers. Faced with Indonesia's refusal to accept foreign forces, and in the absence of UN support, there was indeed little the Howard Government could practically do to force Jakarta's hand.

The 314-page book reveals, above all, that Mr Downer and his bureaucrats remain highly sensitive about the assessment of the impact of the East Timor crisis on longer-term relations between Australia and Indonesia.

With Abdurrahman Wahid's recent visit there has been a marked thaw. But only history will tell if Alexander Downer will be remembered as the foreign minister who resolved Australia's intractable East Timor problem.

Don Greenless: Timor role put under gentle grill

By Don Greenlees, Jakarta Correspondent

July 18, 2001

SEATED in a conference room of the Sheraton Nusa Dua Hotel in Bali, an agitated Indonesian president B. J. Habibie thumped his fist on the table. "We will not have any foreign troops. You have got to understand that. I can't allow foreign troops into Indonesia," he said.

In front of him was John Howard, who had just repeated a request to allow foreign peacekeepers to go to East Timor, exasperating Habibie.

The date was April 27, 1999. It was 10 days after pro-Indonesia militia had rampaged through Dili, killing independence supporters, and 20 days after they killed up to 60 people in a Catholic church.

Efforts to convince Habibie and other powers in Indonesia, especially the armed forces, of the need for peacekeepers failed and the East Timorese who voted for independence later paid the price.

The issue of whether the international community pressed Indonesia hard enough to allow foreign troops to protect the 1999 referendum in East Timor continues to vex the debate about the territory's passage to independence.

If Indonesia had been forced to accept foreign peacekeepers, the argument goes, then the destruction and violence that followed the vote in favour of independence could have been averted.

Various leaked Australian government assessments have reinforced the view that our politicians knew a lot more about linkages between the Indonesian army and the militia than they let on in public. But fears about jeopardising relations with Jakarta prompted them not to divulge the information or press too hard for foreign intervention.

These accusations have clearly wounded the Government, in particular those ministers with direct oversight of Australian policy. Faced with the possibility of a return to Opposition, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer sought to ensure his place in history by ordering his department to carry out the unusual exercise of preparing a book on the East Timor saga.

East Timor in Transition 1998-2000: An Australian Policy Challenge was launched in Canberra yesterday. In commissioning the book, Downer ensured the authors, officials in the department, had extensive access to relevant cables and other assessments.

The risk for a foreign minister in ordering such a book is that a positive account is treated as self-justification or a cover-up and a negative account makes him look bad or irritates foreign governments. Either way, he stands to lose.

The essence of this book is its explanation of contentious aspects of Australia's role. Two stand out: lobbying for a peacekeeping force to go in before the referendum and the December 1998 letter from the Prime Minister to Habibie urging him to agree to self-determination, but only after an interregnum of some years.

On the first issue, the book makes a detailed case that Australia and other players, Portugal and the UN included, on numerous occasions pressed hard for peacekeepers but met stubborn resistance from Indonesia.

This claim is borne out by the record. The above-mentioned incident in Bali involving Howard and Habibie, although not described so colourfully in the book, is one case in point. Australia's ambassador in Jakarta, John McCarthy, had asked Habibie the same question as early as the previous December and been told bluntly: "I can't do that."

Explaining Habibie's reluctance, his foreign policy adviser Dewi Fortuna Anwar says Habibie would have been "crucified" if he had agreed.

"What he was doing was just making clear to Howard where he stood and the limits of where he could go," she says in an interview for a forthcoming book co-written by The Australian's Robert Garran and me.

Indonesia would almost certainly have cancelled the referendum rather than accede to pressure for foreign troops. And despite the high price paid, independence leaders have made it clear they would rather the flawed referendum they had than no referendum at all.

On the issue of the Howard letter, the Government's self-justification has led to a more selective review of history. The book asserts the Howard letter was aimed at breaking a logjam in negotiations between Indonesia and Portugal over an autonomy package. In fact, it did more than this. It inadvertently contributed to Habibie's reckless decision to have an immediate referendum without consulting key Indonesian or international parties.

But Portuguese, UN and Indonesian ministers and officials who participated in the so-called tripartite talks are unanimous there were good prospects of a deal on the content of the autonomy package when the Howard letter went to Habibie.

At best, this would have made the Howard letter premature. If there was a logjam to break up, it was over the issue of whether autonomy was an interim or permanent solution to the issue of sovereignty.

That matter was only going to arise once the autonomy package had been finalised. Habibie, his ministers and officials were already contemplating how to tackle that issue. There are signs they would have given ground when the time came, regardless of the Howard letter.

Perhaps a bigger motivation for Downer in proposing the letter to the Prime Minister was anxiety about keeping apace with changes to Labor Party policy and ensuring Australia was not left on the sidelines internationally.

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