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Subject: Age: Last Flight Out of Dili (review)

The Age

Reviewer: Tom Hyland

Last Flight Out of Dili

By David Scott

Pluto Press, $34.95

Sometimes in international affairs, miracles do happen. In late November 1975, with the Indonesian invasion just over a week away, David Scott was among a handful of Australians who witnessed the sad, defiant swearing-in ceremony of the cabinet of the doomed Democratic Republic of East Timor.

He spent only two days in Dili before taking the last flight out, acting on Indonesian warnings that he "would be done away with" if he stayed. He felt ashamed and humiliated to be leaving, but the threats were real. An Australian who did stay, journalist Roger East, was murdered on the day of the invasion.

So began Scott's career as an accidental, and in many ways unlikely, activist in what seemed a hopeless cause. It was a career that culminated when Scott went back to East Timor in May 2002 to join the crowds at East Timor's independence celebrations.

It was here he posed the question that his memoirs help to answer: "How did this miracle happen, that a cause viewed as totally lost was triumphant?"

Scott's memoirs are the story of a principled man's small part in an epic struggle - against crushing odds - by a tiny nation abandoned and betrayed by Australia.

Scott was an accidental activist in that he became committed to the cause of Timorese rights by chance, when he was sent by the Australian Council for Overseas Aid to assess East Timor's needs in the wake of the collapse of Portuguese power. At the time, Indonesia was engaged in a covert campaign to subvert the territory. Scott was shocked by the killing of five Australian-based newsmen during that campaign and impressed by the Timorese leaders he met. His felt his brief visit gave him a unique responsibility.

He was also an unlikely activist. He served in the Australian Navy during World War II, is a former executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, founding director of Community Aid Abroad, former president of the Australian Council for Social Service and former chairman of the Victorian Land Conservation Council - unlikely qualifications for an activist in a cause that powerful critics in the Australian establishment dismissed as the obsession of naive left-wing bleeding-hearts acting against the national interest.

The real battle for East Timor's freedom was fought by the Timorese themselves. But, as Jose Ramos Horta acknowledged when he recently launched these memoirs, foreign support networks played a crucial role in keeping the issue alive and in pressuring governments to act when the Indonesian military sought to abort the 1999 vote for independence.

Scott gives a unique and informed insight into the role of Australian-based support groups, being involved from the start. Just as the Timorese guerillas faced overwhelming odds on the battlefield, in a way so too did the slender network of foreign activists.

In Australia, the full weight of political, diplomatic and even academic institutions was ranged against them. Coalition and Labor governments were equally hostile. Darwin-based radios that kept open the only link between East Timor and the rest of the world were closed down. The Australian Navy halted an attempt to ship medical supplies to the territory. The "Jakarta lobby" of diplomats and academics patronised the activists as a troublesome anti-Indonesian fringe that was impeding Australia's engagement with Asia.

Looking back at these concerted efforts by the powerful to enforce acceptance of the orthodoxy, Scott notes: "Perhaps there is something to be learned in 2005 as 'perception management' reaches new depths."

Scott's story does not gloss over the divisions that impeded the work of the foreign solidarity groups. Like the Timorese resistance movement itself, the foreign networks were riven by potentially fatal factionalism. Scott acknowledges the commitment of Australian Communists to the cause, particularly in the early days. But he reveals how damaging that commitment could be when ideology divided the movement and put lives at risk.

At times, sections of the movement, like Fretilin itself, "were more concerned with ideological and symbolic issues and objectives than with the lived realities that underlay them".

In September 1976, Scott, through Community Aid Abroad, helped fund activists trying to break the Indonesian blockade by sending a fishing boat loaded with medical supplies to the territory. The mission was clearly illegal but Scott says he had no scruples about breaking the law in the interests of a beleaguered people.

For their efforts, the activists were detained at gunpoint by edgy Australian sailors and charged - allegedly at the instigation of then prime minister Malcolm Fraser - with attempting to smuggle medicines. Farcical gun-running charges were laid for good measure. All the charges were subsequently dismissed on appeal.

The charges were laid under the Customs Act. At the time, the man responsible for enforcing that act was John Howard, a junior minister in the Fraser government.

Two decades later, Howard sent the Australian military to East Timor to secure the independence its people had voted for. Maybe that's another miracle in the Timor story.

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