Subject: IPS: Whitlam Ducks Queries on ET Views


January 4, 2005 5:08pm English IPS News Advertisement

by Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Jan. 4, 2005 (IPS/GIN) -- Despite his reputation as a progressive social thinker, former Australian Labor Party prime minister Gough Whitlam -- according to just declassified documents -- refused to criticise the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian military in December 1975 or the subsequent brutal treatment of its population.

Thirty-year-old secret papers released by the National Archives on New Year's Day showed that the Australian cabinet had no discussions on East Timor before Whitlam decided it should be incorporated into Indonesia.

Asked at a briefing whether he had any regrets about his policy towards then Indonesian president Suharto in view of the treatment of the East Timorese between 1974 and 1999, Whitlam was unapologetic.

"There are misrepresentations as to what I said to Suharto," he insisted.

Whitlam, who is revered by many as one of the great Australian social reformers, has doggedly refused to acknowledge that he erred in his support for Suharto or ignored East Timor's right to self-determination.

This is despite numerous government documents and accounts from journalists and former diplomats pointing to Australian complicity in the invasion and the subsequent killings and famines that may have killed as many as 200,000 East Timorese or one-third of the population at the time..

Whitlam has been widely accused of giving Suharto prior approval for the invasion and then remaining silent when the military unleashed a rule of terror.

"I saw him twice, once in Java (Indonesia) in 1974 and once in Townsville (Australia) in 1975 and I'm very happy for any of the documents to be released. One of the things that I point out is that the interpreter who was with me on those occasions denies completely that the green light was given to Indonesia to invade East Timor," Whitlam said.

After the September 1974 meeting between Whitlam and Suharto, Australian officials briefed journalists and informed them that the two had agreed that East Timor was best incorporated into Indonesia. Whitlam told the Australian press at the time that "an independent Timor would be an unviable state".

The then Australian ambassador in Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, sent a cable to Canberra in 1975 in which he foreshadowed Indonesia's plans to take over East Timor.

"We should leave events to take their course... and act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show private understanding to Indonesia of their problems... I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about," he wrote.

At the National Archives briefing, Whitlam reacted angrily when asked if at his 1974 meeting with Suharto he stated that his preference was that East Timor's future lay with Indonesia and that this should be achieved by way of an act of self-determination rather than through an invasion.

"There was no discussion of preferences. I did say that one had to consider the people in the territory itself," Whitlam said.

When interrupted by a journalist wanting Whitlam to address what was said at his 1974 meeting with Suharto, contrary to a January 1963 briefing note by then Australian consul in East Timor, James Dunn, and support for Indonesia from an earlier conservative government, he responded angrily again.

"You doubt that was their decision? ... No let me read Dunn's report," he insisted.

Dunn, who later became an outspoken critic of Australia's preference for turning a blind eye to the invasion and subsequent human rights abuses by the Indonesian military, found little support for independence at the time.

"The Portuguese in Timor have little real support from the indigenous population who, if given the opportunity, will probably favour a change in the status of their territory," he wrote in the 1963 briefing note.

"In these circumstances there would be some pressure towards the setting up of an independent state but the majority would probably favour Indonesian rule as the alternative to the continuation of Portuguese rule," added Dunn.

The following month the then conservative prime minister, Robert Menzies, and his cabinet colleagues opted to support Indonesia's territorial ambitions deciding that "no practicable alternative to eventual Indonesian sovereignty over Portuguese Timor presented itself".

For his part Dunn accepts responsibility for his initial briefing note.

"If that's what I wrote I have to accept it but I doubt Gough cited my more critical 1974 briefing when he was prime minister," he said.

Whitlam, in fact, did not.

Nor, Dunn argues, was Whitlam presenting his initial briefing in context. "When I first went there I could find little support for the idea of Timor as an independent nation, which is what I reflected ... The situation changed rapidly later that decade both for the Timorese and for Australia," he said.

By the end of his posting in late 1964 Dunn said opinion had begun to shift in favour of independence -- a trend that accelerated right to the 1990s. In late August 1999, East Timor voted in a U.N.-sponsored referendum to break away from Indonesia, setting off a wave of violence by pro-Jakarta militants and Indonesian security forces, which killed an untold number and caused hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring West Timor.

In May 2002, after a two-year period of interim administration by the United Nations, East Timor became the world's newest nation.

Dunn recalled the period leading to East Timor's independence.

"There was the growth in support for independence by many small nations separating from their previous colonial rulers as well as the emergence of human rights law. The U.N. convention on civil and political rights, for example, placed the right to self-determination at the forefront," he said.

Dunn explains Whitlam's failure to support East Timor as an aversion to small states "which he didn't think were viable".

Back to January menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from