Subject: Terrorism and Timor: A spurious connection

Terrorism and Timor: A spurious connection

by Clint Fernandes

In March 1999, Australia's foreign minister Alexander Downer tried to explain why he was opposed to an international peacekeeping presence in East Timor. He said:

"We hope that there won't be a need for a peacekeeping force because if you need a peacekeeping force, you need a peace to keep and peace first has to be negotiated and we hope that when the peace is negotiated it will be a peaceful peace that won't require a peacekeeping force".

As verbal gymnastics go, this manoeuvre was the Triple Weasel. But Downer was merely reflecting the policy of the Howard government at the time, which was to preserve Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor. When the Indonesian military launched a campaign of state-sponsored terror, the Howard government assisted it by evacuating foreign observers, ensuring there would be no witnesses to the ethnic cleansing. However, its efforts were foiled by a tidal wave of public outrage. It was therefore forced to reverse its policy, beg the international community for diplomatic assistance and deploy troops into East Timor.

Lately, however, there have been claims that Australia is being targeted by terrorists not because of the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, but because of the liberation of East Timor. The star witness here is one Osama Bin Laden, who has alleged that Australian forces "landed on East Timor which is part of the Islamic world". This would come as a surprise to most Indonesians who - unlike Bin Laden - have access to a map. Indeed, some of their cabinet ministers were members of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals who argued that East Timor had nothing in common with the rest of Indonesia.

Bin Laden's statements, made two years after the liberation of East Timor, were no more than a rhetorical ploy to strike a chord in Southeast Asia. On 26 October 2004, the then-Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation acknowledged that Bin Laden's statements were sheer opportunism:

"Bin Laden's first known reference to East Timor in November 2001 was designed to strike a chord in South East Asia, especially Indonesia, and his subsequent references to Afghanistan and Iraq must be seen in terms of al-Qa'ida propaganda and recruitment purposes".

Attempts to link Terrorism and Timor should be seen for what they are: a rhetorical ploy to justify the subjugation of Iraq. Then again, perhaps Bin laden is not the only one capable of opportunism.

Dr. Clinton Fernandes is a historian and author of Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the independence of East Timor (Scribe, 2004). He is currently a Visiting Fellow in International Relations at the Australian National University. These are his views.


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