Australia & East Timor: Senate Passes Judgement
Commissioned in late 1998, the Committee's investigation was extended following the post-ballot violence that engulfed East Timor in September 1999. Having received 101 submissions and considered evidence from over one hundred witnesses in hearings around the country, the report publicly records the story of successive Australian governments which appeased Indonesia at the expense of East Timor's peace and independence. Highlights include:
Although former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam tried to reconcile the right of the East Timorese to self-determination with his preference for the territory's incorporation into Indonesia before the 1975 invasion, he left the clear impression, in the Committee's words, that "the outcome was more important than the process". In Jakarta it was also felt that Australia favoured Indonesia's invasion of East Timor. According to Ali Alatas, a senior official in Indonesia's foreign ministry at the time - and later to become foreign minister - Whitlam "did not show [his] stance of opposition" when he was told "what we were doing" on East Timor.
Mr Whitlam believes that only after the 1991 Dili massacre did it become apparent that "the Indonesian military had overplayed their hand" in East Timor. Remarkably, he seems unaware that the killings between 1975-8 constitute perhaps the worst massacre relative to a population since the Holocaust. Or, he is aware but doesn't think this signifies the Indonesian military "overplaying" its hand.
The Committee couldn't understand why Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) Deputy Secretary John Dauth, told them in May 1999 that the militias in East Timor were armed and organised by local commanders outside the Indonesian military's chain of command when according to Professor Des Ball, "from the end of 1998, intelligence intercepts produced by the Defence Signals Directorate were providing a very accurate, precise and detailed pictureŠ of the relationship between particular commanders of the Indonesian Army and militia leaders in East Timor..". Unsurprisingly, Mr Dauth's plea that DFAT was so overwhelmed by reports at the time to arrive at such a conclusion, failed to convince the Committee, which was angry with DFAT's reluctance to provide it with more definitive information on the subject.
Prime Minister Howard's letter to President Habibie in December 1998 suggesting a new dispensation for East Timor was prompted by a survey of elite opinion in East Timor which, unsurprisingly, found overwhelming support for independence. The results of the survey, conducted by DFAT, were shared with Jakarta but have been withheld from the Australian people, including the Senate Committee.
The Committee noted that former foreign minister Gareth Evans's argument that there was no foundation to the claim that the Whitlam government had known from the outset - via intelligence sources - that five journalists had been murdered at Balibo has been discredited by the research of Des Ball and Hamish McDonald in their book, Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra. It also described Evans's claim that the East Timorese could have a proper act of self-determination within the framework of Indonesian sovereignty as "never a likely scenario".
Former Ambassador Tony Kevin told the Committee that Canberra was largely responsible for the referendum and its aftermath, and had no right to put at risk the lives of so many East Timorese. In reply, the Committee said Mr Kevin ascribed "too much responsibility to the Australian Government and its advisers in the process". Nor did any Timorese witnesses raise these concerns with the Committee, and even after INTERFET troops arrived in East Timor it was "impossible to find a single person there who wished the ballot had never happened".
the Senate Committee was found that "since the mid-1970s, there has been a
thread running through East Timor policies of Australian Governments of all
political persuasions; that greater emphasis be placed on relations with
Indonesia at the expense of East Timor". The Committee found that
"until the latter part of 1999, all governments have publicly played down
reports of human rights abuses in the territory. They were prepared to accept
Indonesian Government assurances and explanations, and support them, even in the
face of other contradictory evidence".
When the prospect of violence was reported prior to the independence ballot, "the Australian Government, at least publicly, did not associate the (Indonesian military), other than 'rogue elements' with the militias, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, including the Government's own intelligence information". In summary, "despite the disingenuous approach taken by Australia towards East Timor over the period of the Indonesian occupation, it remained a thorn in the side of successive Australian Governments". Indeed.
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian and International Studies