No famine threat in Timor, claims Australia's Whitlam
Canberra — There is no imminent threat of famine in East Timor, according to former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who recently returned from the small Indonesian-held island.
Mr. Whitlam also reported there is now little armed resistance to the Indonesian military.
Mr. Whitlam's conclusions were backed by Peter Hastings, the foreign editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. Mr. Hastings, one of Australia's best known journalists writing on Asia, joined Whitlam on a four-day tour of East Timor.
Indonesia's invitation for the visit followed an upsurge of controversy in Australia and elsewhere over the East Timor food situation. Catholic church sources on the island recently asserted that the Indonesian military had disrupted agriculture and raised the prospect of future food shortages by drafting farmers to help fight guerrilla rebels.
Since Indonesia's 1975 invasion and annexation of the former Portuguese colony off Australia's northern coast, human rights advocates and politicians in Australia, the United States, and Portugal have spotlighted famine, plight of refugees unable to leave, and alleged human rights abuses there. The US State Department's human rights report cites the allegations of killing and arrest but says they are difficult to confirm or to deny.
The visit by two men often seen as friendly to Indonesia was arranged by the Indonesian Center for Strategic and International Studies, an officially oriented think tank. Before visiting Timor, both men were briefed by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who visited the island just before the Australian pair.
Both Hastings and Whitlam criticized Msgr. da Costa Lopes, the apostolicadministrator on the island. Da Costa Lopes was the source of last month's warnings that a future food shortage is possible because of disruption of farming.
Still, for the most part the Whitlam, Hastings conclusions addressed improvements in the current food situation in East Timor, rather than da Costa's warning of a future food shortage.
But Hastings claimed da Costa was the source of reports that hundreds were dying daily on Atauro Island, although da Costa had not visited the island. Whitlam and Hastings visited Atauro Island and said they found nothing to support the rumors.
Hastings said he and Whitlam met da Costa Lopes, and da Costa conceded threat of famine could be avoided by the 1,000 tons of corn promised by Australian sources.
But Hastings added Indonesia's annoyance at publication of da Costa Lopes' famine reports had led it to refuse the Australian aid.
In later articles Hastings wrote his delegation found no signs of famine in the centers that were badly affected by food shortages several years ago.
''There are certainly pockets of population short of food in a desperately poor island with poor communications.There is also a perennial risk of severe food shortage leading to famine in the first three months of every year.
''But there is no doubt that the situation has improved immeasurably since my last visit in September 1978.
''That is also the opinion of the top-level ICRC (Red Cross) team that spent a fortnight in East Timor prior to our arrival.
But in Australia Bob Whan, executive director of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, rejected Whitlam's assurances about the situation in East Timor.
Mr. Whan said the council did not regard Whitlam as an independent observer because he ''had been an apologist for the Indonesian government.''
Whan was a backbench Labor MP when Whytlam was prime minister from 1972 to 1975. Many Australian Labor MPs still accuse the Whitlam government of failing to warn Indonesia in 1975 against taking East Timor by force.