Subject: SMH: How fearful Australia deserted East Timor

Sydney Morning Herald

How fearful Australia deserted East Timor

Tony Stephens

January 1, 2007

JUST three months after Indonesia invaded East Timor 30 years ago, the Australian government of the prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, was covertly supporting the tiny colony's complete integration into its giant neighbour, according to cabinet documents from 1976, released today.

The 1976 cabinet papers, released under the rule that keeps them secret for 30 years, show that while the foreign minister, Andrew Peacock, was saying publicly Indonesian forces should withdraw and there should be a genuine act of self-determination, Australia's defence chiefs were taking a realpolitik view.

A defence committee report of February 5 noted that although Indonesia was unlikely to take military action against Australia or Papua New Guinea, "Indonesia is a power with long-term potential for a significant assault against Australia".

The report went on: "Attempts to deny Indonesia its objective and to secure its co-operation in a military withdrawal from East Timor and in a genuine act of self-determination are therefore likely to meet intractable political and practical difficulties and ultimately to prove futile."

Paradoxically, more than two decades years later, in 1998, a member of that original Coalition ministry, the Prime Minister, John Howard, was a key player in ensuring East Timor gained independence in a referendum.

The 1976 committee comprised Sir Arthur Tange, the head of the Defence Department, General Sir Francis Hassett, the chief of staff of the defence forces, Alan Renouf, the head of foreign affairs, and Gordon Jockel, the director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation. They said Australia could object to the use of force, but it was in the nation's best interests to keep a low profile over the issue. And they warned against supporting Fretilin's "hard-core leadership", who had links with "radical international elements".

Privately, the government accepted East Timor's integration with Indonesia as a fait accompli. A strategic defence review in September argued: "As the alternative is an essentially weak state, open to outside interference, the defence interest is served by East Timor's incorporation in Indonesia."

Peacock had recommended to cabinet in February that the government continue to criticise the use of force, "ask for the withdrawal of Indonesian forces" and "ask (with little hope) for a genuine process of self-determination". His submissions paper said: "Indonesian forces are already well on their way to integrating East Timor into Indonesia. The tragedy is that integration might have been achieved in more peaceful ways but that is now history.

"There is no tangible Australian national interest, e.g. trade or security, directly involved in East Timor. If anything, the strategic preference would be for integration … Australia's capacity to alter the course of events in Timor was limited and is now very limited indeed."

The defence papers will not resolve debate over perhaps the most painful Australian exercise in foreign affairs since World War II, until the country's involvement in Iraq. Most of the relevant records were released in 2000, following public pressure and with the support of Gough Whitlam.

Critics claim Whitlam gave Indonesia's president Soeharto a "green light" to take over the former Portuguese colony by force. Whitlam's own records go back to correspondence between Antonio Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, and Robert Menzies, where Menzies does not appear to counter Salazar's contention that East Timor was economically and politically non-viable.

Files from meetings between Whitlam and Soeharto show Whitlam's two basic points were that Timor should become part of Indonesia but that "this should happen in accordance with the properly expressed wishes of the people …"

One question is whether Whitlam pushed hard enough for an act of self-determination. Peacock's paper criticises the Whitlam option as realpolitik. Yet the Fraser-Peacock line appears little different.

Peacock rejected the option of cutting off economic and military aid and withdrawing the ambassador, arguing: "While such steps would be publicly applauded by some sections of opinion in Australia, the damage which would be caused to the relationship with Indonesia rules them out."

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