Subject: Australia's sorry record in Timor

The Age [Melbourne] Thursday 30 December 1999


Big-noting obscures our sorry record in Timor

"... the story of Australia at the moment is a story of immense achievement, of great strength and enormous pride. I don't think the country has stood taller in the chanceries of the world than it does at the present time."

- John Howard, Millennium Fund speech, 30 November. WHO freed East Timor? Was it President B.J. Habibie, who granted the Timorese a vote on either autonomy within Indonesia or independence?

Was it Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, the military leader and political strategist who for years led a tiny guerrilla army, unaided by the rest of the world, and grew to international stature while in a Jakarta prison cell?

Maybe it was Bishop Carlos Belo, undaunted by years of intimidation from Jakarta, who refused to be silenced by the diplomatic pragmatists of the Vatican and the patronising disdain of foreign governments.

What about Jose Ramos Horta, the tireless diplomat, unbroken by 24 years of international indifference?

Or the Timorese people - did they free themselves with their endurance, their refusal to accept the unacceptable, their defiance of terror?

And what about the international support groups and activists, who continued to lobby hostile governments and media "experts", only to be told they were fighting a lost cause. Did they help free East Timor?

Not according to John Howard. He claims the honor for himself. While from the Timorese leadership, Gusmao in particular, we have profound magnanimity in victory, from the Prime Minister we have hubris and military triumphalism.

In his Millennium Fund speech he said this year had been "incredibly intensive" for him and his Government. There had been tax and industrial relations reform, and "above all the achievement of bringing to the people of East Timor the freedom that they had voted for". So freedom is something "we" have given to the Timorese. Even by the normal Australian standards of political hyperbole, this is a breathtaking claim, indicating that Paul Keating's wishful thinking in relation to Indonesia has been supplanted by Howard's delusions of grandeur.

Howard and the Australian people can take some pride in the performance of the Australian troops in East Timor. Their landing on 20 September was fraught with danger. There was ample scope for a clash with ill-disciplined and demoralised Indonesian troops.

Those who have seen at close hand the behavior of the Australian troops have been impressed with their restrained toughness, their discipline and the decency and humanity that have won them an easy rapport with the local people.

It is not the fault of the troops that, by the time they arrived, the damage had been done. The country was wrecked, its people scattered, an unknown number murdered, more than 100,000 forced into exile. The troops have helped atone for what Howard has described as "25 years of over-accommodation of Indonesia by governments on both sides of politics in this country".

But he lets the coalition off lightly, preferring to point the finger at Keating's alleged obsequiousness. The historical record, however, suggests that, had Suharto not fallen and had Habibie not offered a referendum, the coalition's East Timor policy would have remained trapped in the template of over-accommodation with Indonesia, a template established not by Keating but by the coalition.

The worst excesses of Indonesian rule in East Timor took place between 1975 and 1984, during which time the coalition was mostly in power. Malcolm Fraser was the caretaker Prime Minister when the Indonesians invaded in December 1975, and was confirmed in office six days later.

The Fraser years coincided with Timor's darkest moments. There was famine, massacre, aerial bombardment, napalm. Australia was either silent, or pretended not to know what was happening. When evidence of the humanitarian disaster was compelling, it sought to discredit the witnesses or play down the extent of the horrors.

Canberra was not just a passive outsider. It took legal action to sever the radio link between the Timorese resistance and Darwin - the only avenue for telling the world of the calamity that was taking place. Cutting the link helped frustrate United Nations efforts to mediate.

The coalition, with Howard playing a ministerial role, blocked efforts by Darwin activists to get medical and other relief aid into the territory.

Maybe it's too much to expect humility and introspection from our political leaders, but there is no acknowledgement from Canberra that we could have done more to prevent this year's horrors in Timor. It is not just hindsight to point to the obviously orchestrated campaign of intimidation in the months leading up to the 30 August ballot.

Instead, Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer put their faith in the Jakarta generals and spoke only of "rogue" elements in the military.

Downer has matched Howard, adding blimpish militaristic rhetoric to the solipsism that seems to be a characteristic of our foreign ministers. He claims that this year Australia was tested in a manner not seen since the end of World War II. He overlooks Korea and Vietnam, not to mention East Timor in 1975, when the real test was applied.

It was Laurie Brereton, not Howard and Downer, who broke the bipartisan pattern of over-accommodation with Jakarta on East Timor. As Opposition foreign affairs spokesman, he repudiated his own party's sorry record. Downer's response was derision, taking delight in and endorsing Jakarta's refusal in May to grant Brereton a visa to visit East Timor.

On the eve of the departure of Australian troops for East Timor, Howard invoked what he said was Australia's "great military tradition, which has never sought to impose the will of this country on others, but only to defend what is right".

In the context of East Timor, his remarks were particularly inappropriate, given that in 1941 Australia imposed its troops on the then-neutral Portuguese colony, an action that guaranteed a Japanese invasion and brought on to the Timorese years of war and famine.

Our leaders' comments confirm that big-noting remains an enduring feature of our military tradition. Having spurned the black armband view of Australian history, we now have the slouch hat view.

Tom Hyland is foreign editor of The Age. E-mail:

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