Subject: Our East Timor legacy

The Sydney Morning Herald.

Our East Timor legacy

November 23, 2008

Indonesia's B.J. Habibie went further than what John Howard sought - offering independence, writes Paul Daley.

THERE has been a lot of disagreement recently about just who said what to whom in serious policy and political discussions over the course of the last government.

While we'll have to wait 30 years for the release of the cabinet papers to get to the bottom of some arguments, other matters that preoccupied the Howard government are not so subject to the vagaries of revisionism.

Take East Timor. In an interview for the ABC's The Howard Years, the former prime minister explains how he wrote to Indonesian president B.J. Habibie on December 19, 1998, to tell him Australia was backing self-determination for East Timor. Howard says what we already knew: not only did Habibie agree but he went further and voiced his support for an independent East Timor.

"It is true that none of us had envisaged that's what Dr Habibie would've done," Howard says. "Dr Habibie went further but the direction in which he travelled was the same direction that was requested in the letter. It's just that he went much further. He was 20 miles instead of five."

Habibie did catch Australia off-guard when, in January 1999, brandishing Howard's letter, he said East Timor would be given a choice between independence and autonomy. Before this, Habibie had been promoting "special status" for East Timor - code for autonomy within Indonesia.

What may not be entirely clear from the ABC interview with Howard is that East Timor remaining part of Indonesia was actually Australia's favoured position, too.

A recent paper by Dr Clinton Fernandes, published in the Kokoda Foundation's journal, Security Challenges, makes this plain. It quotes the government's then upper house leader, senator Robert Hill, telling a Senate committee hearing on February 11, 1999: "The prime minister has come to the conclusion that an autonomous East Timor within Indonesia, at least for the time being, would be the better option."

The timing of Hill's comment is important because he made it two months after Howard sent his letter to Habibie and a month after the Indonesian president stated his new position.

Fernandes is a senior lecturer in strategic studies at the Australian Defence Force Academy and the author of two books on Australian-Indonesian relations. At the time of the East Timor crisis, he was principal analyst for the Australian Intelligence Corps.

He is a controversial figure in the East Timor debate. In 2000 he was named on a search warrant along with journalists in relation to leaked intelligence information. But his academic work is forensic, tapping sources that provide insight into the internecine manoeuvrings preceding the deployment of the Australian-led INTERFET (International Force for East Timor) force.

Kevin Rudd doesn't escape Fernandes's pen either. In 1997, Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Laurie Brereton, changed the party's platform from one of bipartisanship on East Timor to recognising the Indonesian colony's "right of self-determination".

Backbencher Rudd was, says Fernandes, one of the "defenders of the old policy" on Timor. He writes that Rudd tried to convince others in Labor that Brereton's approach was wrong - a fact that pleased the Indonesian government, which invited him to East Timor.

"Rudd co-ordinated his visit to East Timor with the Indonesian government, the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and [then foreign minister, Alexander] Downer's office. Just hours before getting on the plane, Rudd called Brereton to inform him of the trip. This call took place only after the Howard government had started briefing members of the press gallery, meaning that Rudd had manoeuvred with the government against his own party's spokesperson."

On leaving Federal Parliament recently, Downer said: "I spent nearly 12 years as the foreign minister of Australia and during that period I helped to free the people of East Timor and I would single that out as my greatest achievement."

Certainly Downer can take some credit. But the facts also remain that from early 1999, when it was clear East Timor was heading towards a self-determination that would displease the Indonesian military enormously, the US pushed and prodded Australia much of the way.

The pressure began official to official and ended, it is understood, with one of the most senior figures in the Clinton administration directly pressuring Howard.

The awakening for the US - whose Congress had always been much more active on East Timorese human rights than Australia's Parliament - was, as Fernandes points out, an article in the International Herald Tribune by Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior adviser to former president Habibie.

"Indonesia's 500,000-strong military cannot be relied on to do the job [of securing the autonomy ballot] because it is not regarded as neutral," she wrote in February 1999.

Alarm bells rang in the US State Department. But unfortunately Howard and Downer were giving Jakarta the benefit of the doubt amid endless Australian intelligence reports showing the Indonesian military was orchestrating militia violence against ordinary East Timorese to discourage a vote for independence.

What happened next is not a matter for dispute because the records were leaked.

A US assistant secretary of state, Stanley Roth, met the then head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to say that a full-scale peacekeeping effort was inevitable and that Australia's position of keeping peace at arm's length was defeatist.

Australia eventually led the way in East Timor. But only after significant pressure to do so.


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