issue 253 - March 1994
The darkest page
The East Timorese saved many Australian lives – and perhaps even Australia itself –
when the Japanese occupied Timor during World War Two. James Dunn describes how,
when the chance came to repay the debt, the Australian Government chose to do nothing.
It is now widely acknowledged that the Timorese people have suffered a cruel injustice, to which the international community failed to respond. Few are familiar, however, with the anatomy of this act of rape, the result of a sordid conspiracy by a group of Indonesian generals. Perhaps even fewer may be aware that it was aided and abetted by the Australian and US Govern-ments who knew what was transpiring, and yet did nothing to obstruct what was ultimately to become a tragedy of genocidal proportions.
The saga began almost 20 years ago when the Lisbon coup of April 1974 toppled the old Salazarist order in Portugal. At first conditions seemed conducive to the emergence of a Timorese Republic. Indonesia had repeatedly denied any claim to the Portuguese colony, on occasion stressing the people’s right to self-determination. The country was too poor to attract much interest from the outside world. But this backwardness did not deter the optimism of the Timorese themselves. And with the territory’s fertile valleys and the promise of rich oil deposits their optimism was not unfounded.
The presence of Australia immediately to the south was a comfort to the Timorese nationalists. An expectation of Australian support was founded on the Timorese experience during the Second World War. That war had little meaning to them, not least because Portugal was neutral, but thanks to Australia’s intervention the colony was to become a theatre of the Pacific war – and one of its worst victims. Unstinting Timorese support led to a successful rearguard campaign, which may well have prevented an invasion of Australia. The human cost of the Timorese involvement was staggering. More than 10 per cent of the population perished at the hands of the Japanese.
The notion that Australia would discharge its wartime debt and assist the birth of an independent East Timor was firmly in the minds of most Timorese leaders. Furthermore, in 1974 Australia was under the inspiring leadership of that great reformer, Edward Gough Whitlam. Whitlam’s close relationship with President Suharto suggested that Australian views would carry weight in Jakarta.
The conspiracy to forcibly integrate East Timor had its beginnings in mid-1974, and involved a group of influential Indonesian generals, including Ali Murtopo, Benny Murdani and Yoga Sugama. Their motives, as confided to Western contacts, was that a republic of East Timor would become a base for communist insurgency. The immediate aftermath of the US withdrawal from Vietnam was indeed a time of nervousness in Jakarta, but a more serious concern was on their agenda. It was feared that the emergence of an independent East Timor would act as a stimulant to other separatist movements in the eastern islands of the Republic, where Javanese dominance is resented.
The plotters, however, were not insensitive to possible international complications. Their planning was based on a calculated assumption that East Timor’s annexation would not be challenged by the international community – if it were accommodated by Australia and the US. As events unfolded it turned out to be a shrewd calculation. At the end of 1974 a covert intelligence operation code-named Operasi Komodo (after the large lizard that lives on the island of Alor), with the aim of neutralizing the Timorese independence movement, was set up in Jakarta. Exploiting a weakened Portuguese administration, in 1975 demoralized by a deep political crisis in Lisbon, Indonesian agents were to succeed in creating divisions, distrust and eventually conflict between the major Timorese political parties, Fretilin and UDT, both of which favoured independence. In August a brief civil war resulted, with Fretilin quickly overpowering its opponents and emerging as a kind of de facto administration of East Timor, the Portuguese having withdrawn to the offshore island of Atauro.
The Indonesian response was direct military intervention in the form of covert operations, designed to create the impression that the civil war continued. One of these operations led to the killing of six newsmen from Australia, who were virtually executed by a force led by Colonel (now Major-General) Dading Kalbuardi, following an attack on the town of Balibo. The Balibo affair should have led to a major crisis in Australian-Indonesian relations. Instead it merely exposed the level of Australian accommodation. Information from intelligence sources disclosed to Canberra within 24 hours of the incident that Indonesians were responsible for the killing. But it moved neither Mr Whitlam nor his successor, Malcolm Fraser, even to protest to Indonesia. For the Indonesian generals, who had halted their operation in the expectation of an international incident, it was the green light for a major assault.
By August 1974 the Whitlam Government had decided that the best solution to East Timor’s future was for the territory to be integrated into Indonesia. Its view soon became known to the architects of Operasi Komodo, and was conveyed to President Suharto by Whitlam himself at their Wonosobo meeting in September 1974. Australian intelligence agencies and diplomats – as well as the Americans with whom they shared their information – were able to monitor the progress of Indonesian military preparations to assault East Timor. Each step towards annexation was known to officials in Washington and Canberra. They were also aware of President Suharto’s reluctance to allow the invasion, a reluctance that could have been exploited to prevent the invasion. But, to use the words in one ambassador’s cable, they ‘chose to let events take their course’.
The invasion of Dili was therefore not a surprise attack. While Australia gave half-hearted support to the UN resolution, within a year Prime Minister Fraser was to announce that the time had come to ‘put East Timor behind us’. And putting Timor ‘behind us’ meant ignoring, or even discrediting the reports of gross human-rights violations which regularly came out of the territory, usually from Church sources. In practice the Suharto Government was shielded by the West from international probing while Indonesian forces set about subjugating the people of East Timor. In January 1978, undeterred by persistent reports of Indonesian atrocities in a territory from which the International Red Cross was excluded, Australia recognized Indonesian de facto control. The Opposition Labour Party protested, but within a year of its election victory the Hawke Government endorsed Australia’s support for integration.
Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, has demonstrated even less compassion for Timorese. To Keating it is an affair of the past, which he now tries to talk off the international agenda. The killings at Santa Cruz in November 1991 were an ‘aberration’, and Jakarta’s reaction a ‘responsible’ one. During his recent visit to Washington the Prime Minister took to urging US congressmen to soften their criticisms of human-rights abuses in Indonesia.
But for many Australians this sorry tale of accommodation of the rape of a small neighbouring state is the darkest page of our history.
James Dunn is a foreign affairs columnist who lives in Morya, New South Wales, and has followed events in East Timor closely for many years. Prior to 1975 he was the Australian Consul in East Timor.
T E S T I M O N Y
And there I was, alive
We went to Timor and brought nothing but misery on those poor people. That is all they ever got out of helping us – misery.
And there I was, alive because of them! In 1942 we were just a handful of men, short of everything and fighting an all-conquering enemy. We were the only unit from the Philippines, Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies which didn’t surrender and survived, and only because of their help. We were living off them. We arrived in Timor with plenty of ammunition but only one month’s ration and we were there for twelve! They didn’t sit down and say, ‘The fight’s between you and the Japanese. You paddle your own canoe.’ If they hadn’t given food to us we’d have had to take it, because we had no money at the start and we weren’t going to starve, and once you start to grab, abuses creep in. This is true of every army in the world. It wouldn’t have stopped at taking food, there’d be taking money and women and anything else going. Once we’d started those sort of relations we wouldn’t have lasted a month because they’d have informed on us and you couldn’t blame them.
The government has never really acknowledge our debt to the Timorese from the War. Governments are pretty unreliable, you can’t leave your conscience with them. In 1975 everyone behaved very badly. I thought it was an absolute disgrace. No one seemed to care about the Timorese. About all they got out of it was that we put a monument to them at a place called Dare, on the heights overlooking Dili.
We donated so much and the government put in some money and built a memorial in the form of a pool and a shelter for the natives as they travel in and out from the bazaars. I’d say now it would be more like a memorial to betrayal, seeing what’s happened to the Timorese with Indonesia and we’ve done nothing to help them.
From Michele Turner, Telling – East Timor: Personal Testimonies 1942-1992, New South Wales University Press, 1992.