Subject: The Age: Not guilty on Timor? Explain this then

The Age [Melbourne] Monday 12 March 2001

Not guilty on Timor? Explain this then


Amnesia and hubris can be a heady mix for former government ministers intent on securing their political legacies before historians do it for them. So when, from the bureaucratic epicentre of Brussels, Gareth Evans "absolutely rejects" the suggestion "that we had anything to answer for morally or otherwise over the way we handled the Indonesia-East Timor relationship" (as he did on The Age Features page last Monday), the implied invitation to test his claim is too tempting to refuse.

Five questions are sufficient to place Evans' assertion that the Hawke and Keating governments "did as much as we possibly could to advance the East Timor cause within the environment as we faced it with the cards that we had" in its proper context.

1. Why did you oppose the right of the East Timorese to an act of self-determination?

In fact you went much further and gave legitimacy to the invasion by explicitly recognising Indonesia's illegal incorporation of East Timor - unlike the United Nations and most of the international community. You didn't have to, and it's difficult to see how this would "advance the East Timor cause". Why did you go out of your way to argue that Indonesia's takeover of East Timor was "irreversible" and that "it's quite quixotic to think otherwise" (The Age, 27/6/1994).

You repeatedly claim that Canberra has always supported the right of the East Timorese to self-determination, but don't mention that this was rendered meaningless by the insistence this right must be exercised within the confines of Indonesia's sovereign control of the territory.

2. Why did your government routinely exculpate Jakarta for its human rights abuses?

For example, in 1991 you described the latest in a long list of atrocities in East Timor as "aberrant local behavior" by Indonesia's armed forces (repeated in the Herald Sun, 12/3/1995), and even berated the editorial board of The New York Times for its unhealthy preoccupation with Suharto's human rights record (The Australian Financial Review, 24/11/1994). How did this help the East Timorese?

According to your foreign policy tome, Jakarta's mistake in 1975 was that its "military moved with less-than-decent haste to take the place of the hastily departed Portuguese colonists", the problem apparently being the speed of their arrival, which was embarrassing, rather than their crime of aggression or subsequent crimes against humanity (Gareth Evans & Bruce Grant, Australia's Foreign Relations, MUP, 1995, p.200).

3. Why did Australia have to train Kopassus officers, widely known for their brutality and disregard for basic human rights?

Closer ties between Australia's armed forces and Indonesia's (TNI), in the form of joint training exercises and the secretly negotiated 1995 Australia-Indonesia Security Agreement, clearly gave Australia no influence whatsoever over the behavior of TNI in 1999, when they and their militia proxies razed East Timor. What precisely did these joint military arrangements do for the people of East Timor, and for the ethics of your foreign policy?

4. Why was it necessary to conceal the negotiation of the 1995 Australia-Indonesia Security Agreement from the parliament and the people?

At the time, your justification for the secrecy was remarkably honest. You said it was "difficult to do things in a fishbowl" (The Australian, 21/12/1995) and went on to claim the treaty "was discussed in private, as these things often need to be if you are to have a sensible process of negotiation and if it's not to be thrown off the rails by people getting very excited about things before it's appropriate" (The Age, 18/12/1995). Your leader (Paul Keating) was even more frank: "If there had been a more public process, there probably wouldn't have been a treaty" (The Australian Financial Review, 19/12/1995).

You both conceded that if the public had participated in the decision-making process it would not have supported the agreement - even though it is popular consent that ultimately confers legitimacy on government policy. This is a remarkable admission for democratically elected officials to make.

5. Why did you award the former Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas an Order of Australia?

Alatas not only endorsed your book on its flyleaf. There is now mounting evidence that he funded the rampaging militias out of his foreign ministry budget. Any regrets for awarding him the gong?

Scott Burchill lectures in international relations at Deakin University. E-mail:

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