Troubled East Timor; Disclosures in Australia

A little more than five years ago one of the world's least known conflicts -- and, relatively speaking, one of the bloodiest in modern times -- was unleashed when Indonesia's armed forces launched a military assault on Dili, the capital of the remote Portuguese colony of East Timor. A collection of classified Australian documents, which was recently published in this country (and immediately became the subject of controversy and court action), shows beyond doubt that Jakarta's closest Western friends, including the United States, Britain, and Australia, were well acquainted with Indonesia's plans to undermine the Timorese independence movement and if necessary to bring about "integratin" by means of armed force.

To a number of key Western diplomatic representatives in Jakarta, the Timorese right to self-determination should not, in this case, be taken seriously. Hence the British ambassador advised his government in mid-1975 that it was in British interests for Indonesia to absorb East Timor as quickly and as "unobtrusively" as possible. Furthermore, should the issue get into the United Nations, Britain should avoid opposing Indonesia.

The newly disclosed material also confirms then US Ambassador Newsom's accommodating attitude. He is quoted as saying that events should be allowed to take their course. Indeed, he apparently commented cynically that, if Indonesia were to use military force in order to annex East Timor, it was to be hoped that they would act "effectively, quickly and not use our equipment." The Australian ambassador, for his part, urged then Prime Minister Whitlam notm to send a letter to President Suharto, calling on Indonesia not to intervene, because such a letter would not have been welcomed. Ambassador Woolcott, in an extraordinary submission to his government, went on to urge that "if and when Indonesia does intervene [Australia should] act in a way which would be designed to minimize the public impact in Australia and show privately understanding to Indonesia of their problems."

In the light of these conniving attitudes, which were held by those countries with great influence in Indonesia and, more importantly, with close informal links with the hawkish generals behind the move to annex East Timor, the decolonization process in the remote Portuguese colony was doomed to a tragic end from the very outset. It would also surprise no one to learn that these generals were, in September 1975, finally able to persuade a reluctant President Suharto to agree to military intervention, on the grounds that Indonesia's most important Western friends, as well as the ASEAN states, fully understood its aspirations and could be relied on to dampen down international reaction. And so it has turned out.

After an initial ripple of international reaction and outrage, which culminated in a half- hearted attempt to intervene by the Security Council, and a series of resolutions, world interest in the Timor situation soon began to falter, with most of the Western community quickly coming to terms with the "reality" of Indonesia's naked act of annexation. In spite of persistent reports of senseless killing and brutal behavior by the invaders, Westerners could almost always be relied on to emphasize their "understanding" of Indonesian motives and actions. Thus those of us two sought to draw international attention to the grim humanitarian consequences of the annexation and occupation of East Timor have usually encountered disinterest, disbelief, or plain cynicism among officials in Washington and Canberra. But so much information has now emerged from a number of sources about what has happened in the former colony that officials can no longer easily ignore the facts or discredit the sources.

However, no government representative in Washington or Canberra would dare admit the stark truth about this sorry episode: that Australia and the United States, who some 30 years earlier were at the forefront of the idealists who sought to frame new humane rules for international bahavior, acquiesced to, and at times actually encouraged, one of the ugliest contraventions of those rules in modern times.

Based on this writer's recent research it is clear that the full horror of the Timor tragedy is far from told. For example, according to information from a very well-placed and concerned Indonesian source the population of the province, which was about 680,000 in 1975, is now less than 400,000, many thousand having perished as a direct result of the Indonesian strategy of seeking to starve the Timorese resistance into submission. It is not surprising therefore that disquiet about the whole affair continues in the United States, in Western Europe, and in Australia.

Thanks largely to the work of international relief agencies the food and health situation in Timor is now much improved, but other aspects of human rights present a serious problem. Most Western and Asian powers would now like us to forget about East Timor and to leave the future of its people to Indonesian good will, but given the events of the past five years, to cast the Timorese to this fate would be nothing less than an act of irresponsible abandonment. There are alternatives that would give the surviving Timorese a say in their future and it is still not too late for those who share in the responsibility for this tragic affair to exploit them.

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