Subject: SMH: What Australia lost in Timor

Sydney Morning Herald

What Australia lost in Timor

March 8 2003

Comfortable with his stance on East Timor ... Richard Woolcott. Photo: Andrew Taylor

John Howard may regard intervention in East Timor as Australia's "most positive and noble act" in 20 years, but our most senior former diplomat sees only needless damage to relations with Indonesia and unnecessary suffering for the East Timorese.

It was the East Asian economic crisis of 1997 that projected East Timor back into the spotlight. B.J. Habibie had become the third president of Indonesia in May of 1998 after widespread demonstrations and the resignation of President Soeharto. He was mercurial, intelligent and unpredictable. He believed it was his destiny to lead Indonesia, but I always regarded him as an interim president.

Habibie wanted to solve the East Timor problem, about which he knew very little. In June 1998 he announced that Indonesia was ready to consider a special status for East Timor. This meant autonomy and was a major change in policy.

At a fateful cabinet meeting on January 27, 1999, Habibie brandished a letter sent by the Prime Minister, John Howard, the previous month suggesting that, after a period of autonomy, there should be an act of self-determination in East Timor.

Habibie considered it illogical for Indonesia to go on subsidising a costly autonomy which might well lead to independence. He had said privately to colleagues: "Why do we have this problem when we have a mountain of other problems? Do we get any oil? No. Do we get gold? No. All we get is rocks. If the East Timorese are ungrateful after what we have done for them, why should we hang on?"

So Habibie told his cabinet that Indonesia should move straight to a choice between autonomy and independence for East Timor. Surprisingly, the only dissenting voice was the foreign minister, Ali Alatas, who felt that such precipitous action was dangerous - not least for the East Timorese, who were ill prepared for independence.

Alatas apparently received no support. The economic ministers were glad to be rid of the cost. Some of Habibie's stronger Islamic ministers were happy "to be rid of 600,000 Catholics", as one put it. The minister for defence, General Wiranto, reportedly agreed with Habibie's decision on condition that there was no suggestion that the 1975 intervention in East Timor by the armed forces was wrong. He would not oppose Habibie, in the belief that Habibie's policy would fail, as would his attempt to be elected president. This would keep Wiranto's own political ambitions alive.

That such a major decision could be taken without full consideration and with such limited discussion by an impatient, erratic interim president can only be regarded as irresponsible.

The East Timorese resistance leaders, Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, and the head of the Catholic Church in East Timor, Bishop Carlos Bello, had all said as late as 1997 that a viable independence in East Timor required a preparatory period of five to 10 years' autonomy. Most South-East Asian leaders shared this view and were concerned about the sudden rush to a vote in East Timor. Some believed it was unwise for Howard to have written his letter which, given Habibie's temperament and that he was a temporary president, elicited the reaction it did.

Had my advice been sought, I would have suggested that countries which could have influenced Habibie (the Unites States, Germany, Japan, the other ASEAN countries and Australia) should have immediately urged him to change course. Habibie could have been pressed to offer not a vote on autonomy that would, in effect, be a vote for early independence, but a period of autonomy for, say, five years during which the cost of administering East Timor would be borne by Indonesia's major aid donors.

This may have prevented the spiteful devastation after the UN vote in August 1999 and would have been much less costly to donors, including Australia, than the UN Assistance Mission to East Timor (UNAMET), followed by the force led by Australia to restore order (INTERFET), the UN force which replaced it, and the repairs to infrastructure damaged in the violence of September 1999.

It was not in Australia's or South-East Asia's interest in 1975 for an unstable, left-wing, independent East Timor to appear. This may also be true of 2003. But interests can be identified and defined more readily than they can be advanced or achieved.

The practical realities that Australia and South-East Asia faced by late 1998 were quite different from those of 1975. The Cold War was behind us; Vietnam, so feared by ASEAN countries after the US defeat there, had become a member of the organisation; East Timorese leaders, in particular Gusmao and Horta, had been highly effective advocates of East Timor's right to self-determination; and Indonesia had completely failed to win over the East Timorese people (despite considerable investment in infrastructure and education) in a way not anticipated in 1975.

The Howard Government saw in Habibie's interim presidency an opportunity to redress what many Australians considered to be the hardships inflicted on the East Timorese and the denial of a proper act of self-determination since Indonesia's incorporation of the former Portuguese colony in 1976. The way for an Australian initiative was opened by Habibie's wish to relieve Indonesia of a continuing and costly problem that was damaging his country's international standing and his belief that he could strengthen his chances of becoming Indonesia's democratically elected president in 1999 by offering the East Timorese a chance to determine their own future. The Howard Government believed it could engineer a regional diplomatic success.

The Government also had a domestic political agenda. The Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, Laurie Brereton, had made a strong statement in August 1998 criticising the East Timor policy of Australian governments, especially the Whitlam administration. This was a factor in the Government's decision to announce a changed policy. It also suited the Government to promote the theory that the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments had behaved immorally and improperly in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s.

Howard donned the mantle of a belated supporter of self-determination in East Timor and of what he is prone to call true Australian values. Howard has described Australia's involvement in East Timor since 1998, including his leading role, as "the most positive and noble act by Australia in ... international relations in the last 20 years".

Most South-East Asian leaders have a different perspective. For example, Malaysia's mild-mannered deputy prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, has said publicly that the Australian Government was "not sensitive to South-East Asian feelings". The senior minister in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, has said it was imprudent for a prime minister to write a letter in the terms Howard did to an erratic and temporary president. I have encountered similar views at senior levels on visits to Thailand and the Philippines.

The Howard Government believes that thanks to its decisive action and East Timor's independence in May last year it has achieved a diplomatic triumph. I accept that Howard and the Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, believed that what they did was right in the circumstances as they interpreted them. But the road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions.

The likelihood of the widely predicted violence which erupted in September 1999 was unfortunately overlooked. Our style was also offensive to many in our neighbourhood, although it struck a responsive chord in sections of the Australian community. We chose to take the lead, to force the pace and to issue ultimatums. In Indonesia and the wider region, and to some extent in Australia, our style was seen as excessively assertive, jingoistic and triumphalist. The Government would have been more effective and generated less animosity if it had been less prominent, more persuasive, less insistent on taking the lead and less demanding in pursuing its objectives.

In the afterglow of what it regards as a success in righting a wrong, the Government must live with the consequences of its policy. The most obvious is an independent East Timor to our immediate north, an outcome each of Howard's and Downer's predecessors since Menzies in 1963 hoped to avoid. But independence is what the majority of the people of East Timor wanted and what many Australians supported. While it may not be in our national interest, East Timor's independence is a reality to which the region must now adjust.

The second major consequence is that our relationship with Indonesia has been substantially damaged and may take years to repair. While some of the anger is due to Indonesia looking for scapegoats for problems largely of its own making in East Timor, a large section of the Indonesian community is alienated from Australia and a large section of the Australian community likewise from Indonesia. As an Indonesian minister said to me last year about Australia: "We are neighbours; we have to work together. But we don't trust you and we don't much like you now." It is simply not in Australia's interest to have such a troubled relationship with our largest and closest neighbour.

Australians are seen as having had an excessive and unbalanced focus on East Timor. To other countries, including Japan, China and the nations of ASEAN, as well as India, Pakistan and even the US, the paramount issue in the region is the successful transition in Indonesia to a more stable, moderate, representative government, the recovery of the Indonesian economy and a willingness to deal with extremist Islamist organisations.

Despite the moral outrage in Australia over the shocking events in East Timor in early September 1999, the reality is that East Timor is seen in the wider scheme of developments in Asia as a secondary issue compared with the future of Indonesia. One of our continuing problems is the extent to which our policy towards Indonesia has been, and still is, observed through the prism of East Timor.

Another consequence is that Australia faces an indefinite period of substantially increased expenditure to support and aid an independent East Timor. We have a moral obligation to do so, having made ourselves a party principal. At best we may see in the future an economically struggling, quasi-democratic state with a benign relationship with its large neighbour, Indonesia. There is, however, a danger that we could find ourselves supporting indefinitely a factionalised, unstable mini-state characterised by chronic dependency and ongoing problems with its large neighbour.

I hope not. Otherwise we will see that evangelical altruism can have a high price tag, without necessarily achieving the hoped-for results, as the US has found in Haiti. A senior member of the Bush Administration has already made this analogy. He told me in Washington in July 2000: "East Timor will be your Haiti." Australians can only hope he is wrong.

I DID not meet Xanana Gusmao until July 2000. We got on surprisingly well, given the very different attitudes we'd adopted in the '70s when I was ambassador to Indonesia and he was in the hills above Dili fighting as an insurgent against the incorporation of East Timor in Indonesia. The reason was that I had been arguing in public after September 1999 that the issue was how best to accommodate an independent East Timor in the existing South-East Asian and South-West Pacific regional architecture.

Gusmao said he was pleased to hear these views from a former senior diplomat who had in the past accepted the incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia. Gusmao is flexible, forgiving and magnanimous. Having fought against Indonesian forces, he nevertheless recognised that Indonesia would be of critical importance to an independent East Timor's future. Over a private lunch in Jakarta in June, 2001, he, Ali Alatas and I discussed the need for East Timor and Indonesia to heal the wounds of the past and look to the future.

I visit Indonesia regularly and know Megawati Soekarnoputri. In March 2001, when she was still vice-president, I told her I was aware that she had not welcomed the separation of East Timor from Indonesia or the way it had occurred, but it was a reality. She agreed that Australia, Indonesia and an independent East Timor needed to co-operate closely to ensure a sound mutual relationship. I also suggested it would be important symbolically if Megawati were to receive Gusmao and Horta.

In the event, Megawati received Gusmao shortly after she became President in July 2001. East Timor formally celebrated its independence in Dili on May 20, 2002. Megawati, despite strong political opposition in the Indonesian Parliament, wisely attended. The symbolism of Gusmao and Megawati, arms raised and hands clasped, being cheered by the East Timorese gave some grounds for optimism.

Life and time

1952-67 - Various diplomatic postings

1967-70 - High Commissioner to Ghana

1973-74 - First assistant secretary and deputy secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs

1975-78 - Ambassador to Indonesia

1978-82 - Ambassador to the Philippines

1982-88 - Australian ambassador to the UN

1983-88 - Chairman, NY Group, Antarctic Treaty Parties

1985-86 - Australian representative on the UN Security Council

1988-92 - Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

1989 - Paul Keating's special envoy on APEC

1992-98 - Chairman, Australia-Indonesia Institute

1996 - John Howard's special envoy to Malaysia

Richard Woolcott has also been an adviser to Australian prime ministers, from Menzies to Hawke, on overseas missions.

Richard Woolcott was ambassador to Indonesia at the time of Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor. His diplomatic career spanned the second half of the 20th century. This is an edited excerpt from his autobiography, The Hot Seat, $45, to be published by HarperCollins on March 15.

This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/


Back to March menu
February

World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from http://www.v3inc.com/