Howard's new lies on East Timor

By Jon Lamb

During August and September, Australian and international media outlets ran numerous articles, opinion pieces and commentaries marking the 10 years since the people of East Timor voted for an end to the 24-year-long Indonesian military occupation. On August 30, 1999, 98% of registered voters participated in a United Nations-sponsored referendum. Nearly 80% voted for independence, in defiance of a relentless campaign of terror by the Indonesian military (TNI) and TNI-sponsored militia gangs.

In September 1999, massive protests in Australia and Portugal, along with solidarity protests in North America, Europe and parts of Asia made a decisive impact in ensuring the result of the UN-referendum was implemented. In last month’s media commentary there was little mention of this mass campaign or the hard work of solidarity committees and activists over the previous 24 years.

Media coverage

If you were to believe some of the media coverage, such as that carried in the September 5–6 Australian, the independence of East Timor came about through the efforts of the Australian government under the leadership of then-Prime Minister John Howard. According to extracts printed from the book The March of Patriots by the Australian’s “editor-at-large” Paul Kelly, Howard (and foreign minister Alexander Downer) “secretly’’ supported independence for East Timor from late 1998. Kelly declares that “in early 1999, Howard and his foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer recognised that an independent East Timor was likely and they worked to achieve the result’’. This claim is presumably based on remarks made to Kelly by Howard, as Kelly provides no documented sources for it.

Of course, Kelly turns reality on its head. There was, at the time, no more an inconvenient foreign relations situation for the Howard government than the tireless determination of the East Timorese to continue to demand their national independence. This determination became more emboldened following the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia in May 1998, precipitated by a dire financial crisis and a growing and vibrant pro-democracy movement led by students and other youth radicals. The phony offer of greater autonomy for East Timor proposed by the caretaker president Habibie was received with derision and widely rejected within East Timor.

Damien Kingsbury, associate professor at Deakin University and researcher on East Timorese politics and society, refuted Kelly’s claims in an opinion piece posted on Crikey.com on September 8. Referring to the Kelly article as a “self-authored puff piece”, Kingsbury noted: “By late 1998, Indonesia had already been involved in discussions with Portugal and the UN about moving towards some sort of resolution to the East Timor issue, and the Indonesian army had begun forming its anti-independence militias from that time. Howard’s letter to ... Habibie in December 1998 suggesting a protracted process of resolution was intended to ensure that Australia was no longer seen to be unquestioningly endorsing East Timor’s incorporation into Indonesia at a time when Indonesia no longer held such a view.

“Howard’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, publicly accepted Indonesia’s patently false denials about the militias, despite intelligence briefs to the contrary. In a discussion between DFAT[Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] secretary Ashton Calvert and senior US envoy Stanley Roth, Roth said that a full-scale peace-keeping operation in East Timor was necessary. Calvert, acting on government orders, refused. Roth later said Australia’s policy of keeping the peace-keeping option at ‘arms length was essentially defeatist.’

“Howard also opposed having official Australian observers to the ballot, and only accepted the need for a small parliamentary delegation at the last moment, and after the creation of a politically independent Australian NGO observer group.

“Australian Defence Forces were similarly told not to prepare for involvement in East Timor, including no logistic support for the ballot or to send military observers. It did, however, plan to extract Australian civilians if and when the situation deteriorated. Yet just two weeks ahead of the ballot, Downer told Australian observers in the courtyard of Dili’s Resende Inn that they should not expect assistance if the security situation deteriorated further. The message was clear: do not stay. That was the same message being sent at that time by the militias, who wanted no witnesses to their carnage.

“At this time, the Australian government was acting against — and denying the content of — a flood of since leaked intelligence showing the Indonesian army was working to derail the ballot. The Howard government’s position on East Timor was, in public, that it should remain as part of Indonesia and, in private, that it would do nothing to hinder that outcome.”

SAlt’s rewriting of history

Curiously, it is not just the conservative pages and airwaves of the establishment media that get this period of history and struggle wrong. In an editorial piece titled “10 years of hell: the legacy of Australian intervention in Timor”, the September edition of Socialist Alternative (SAlt)’s magazine claimed: “By the time the [August 30, 1999] ballot took place, the Howard government was preparing for the future. Australia now declared that it was neutral regarding the vote’s outcome, opened discussions with the East Timorese leadership about arrangements for independence, and began making preparations for a military intervention.” It further claimed that the Howard government’s “decision to intervene was actually taken before the demonstrations [in Australia] got underway. Popular demands for intervention succeeded only in providing a left-wing cover for Howard’s militarism.” Just as with Kelly’s article, the facts about the events of the time are completely distorted, though for SAlt the rewriting of history is driven by the need to defend the position they took at the time of opposing the mass campaign for Australian troop deployment to stop the TNI-organised slaughter in East Timor.

At the time, and ever since, SAlt refused to accept that the mass campaign, led by other socialist groups, unions, solidarity groups, church and human rights organisations (here in Australia and internationally), forced the Howard government to act to stop the slaughter when it was steadfastly opposed to any such intervention. SAlt and some other left groups argued that under no circumstances should working people call upon, let alone mobilise to force, imperialist governments to use their troops to act in the interests of working people. To do so, they claim, is to sow illusions in imperialist governments. While a mass campaign took to the streets pressuring the Howard government to act, against the long-held and strategic ties between Canberra and the TNI, members of SAlt and some other left groups finger-waved from the sidelines.

With respect to one of the specific claims presented by Socialist Alternative — and which they more-or-less share with Howard apologist Kelly — was it true that the Howard government was planning to intervene militarily prior to the demonstrations and, if so, what evidence is there to support this? SAlt provide none. They cannot, because it was exactly the opposite of what the Howard government position was and what it was prepared to do.

There is extensive documentation available that the Howard government, throughout 1998-99, was providing cover for the covert plans and activity of the TNI and its militia gangs, the purpose of which was to derail the UN referendum. Downer repeated ad nauseum that the violence was the result, not of a TNI plan, but “rogue elements”, while also parroting Indonesian government warnings that civil war would break out and that security for the ballot must rest in the hands of the Indonesian military and police.

Role of demonstrations

Much of this is covered in the 2004 book Reluctant Saviour written by Clinton Fernandes, the Australian Defence Force’s principal intelligence officer in and adviser on East Timor in 1999. In his book, Fernandes also describes how the Australian government decided to intervene after mass demonstrations made it politically untenable not to do so. Prior to these demonstrations, there were no advanced logistical preparations, there were no advanced strategic or tactical policy proposals and there were no pre-arranged agreements or prior discussions with the Indonesian government or TNI. The only plan of action in place was the possible evacuation of Australian civilians in the event the situation worsened and their safety could not be guaranteed.

Fernandes concluded the chapter discussing the intervention: “It is important to dispel illusions about how and why the troops were sent in. They were not sent in because of the goodwill of the Australian government, but because of massive protests that increased rapidly in both size and fury. Protests such as these, which threaten even more serious action, are significant to politicians, because they signal deep and wide support within the broader community that has been created over many years.

“The Indonesian military forcibly deported tens of thousands of East Timorese to West Timor and elsewhere in Indonesia within two weeks. In another two weeks, it would have ethnically cleansed more than half of the population of East Timor. This campaign would have resulted in the decimation of the productive base of East Timorese society and the annihilation of almost the entire leadership of the national liberation movement. The Howard government’s plan fitted in with this strategy by removing foreign witnesses. Instead, the government was forced to turn against an ally it had supported even after the victory of the independence forces had been announced.”

In Australia, the demonstrations escalated in size from a few hundred to more than 30,000 each in Sydney and Melbourne within just six days. According to Max Lane, a long-time solidarity activist and former chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor, which helped organise the protests, “These mobilisations were not only driven by a sense of solidarity with the East Timorese people but also with intense and growing anger at the Australian government’s inaction. This was an anger that had accumulated for more than two decades, as successive Australian governments collaborated with Jakarta’s illegal occupation of East Timor. It was reflected in the phenomena of protests taking place in towns and centres across Australia where there had rarely been any political actions on any issue.”

Lane also told Direct Action that, “Both the US and Australian governments were willing to accept the implementation of the scorched earth policy and the mass deportations from East Timor. Perhaps — but only perhaps — they may have later insisted on East Timor’s independence, after the damage was done. But it is also conceivable that they may have accepted the Indonesian government’s and military’s lies about facts on the ground, that East Timor was undergoing a civil war. Above all else, it was the mass protests in Sydney, Melbourne and Lisbon that forced Canberra and Washington to suddenly move to end the TNI-backed massacres.”

The rise of this mass movement in Australia in support of the East Timorese independence struggle forced Canberra to end its support for the TNI’s supposed provision of public security in East Timor. The arrival of the Interfet troops secured the referendum result, the departure of the TNI and the cessation of the violence. SAlt’s claim in its article that “Popular demands for intervention succeeded only in providing a left-wing cover for Howard’s militarism”, supposedly weakening public opposition to this militarism, is refuted by its observation, in the same article, that in the lead-up to the March 2003 US-UK-Australian invasion of Iraq there was “strong popular opposition” which “placed a limit on Australia’s involvement and contributed to Howard’s increasing unpopularity”.

East Timor since independence

After a three-year UN-supervised transition period, East Timor became an independent nation-state in September 2002. Today, East Timorese victims of the TNI’s war crimes and gross human rights abuses are still waiting for real justice and compensation. East Timor is still one of the poorest nations in the world, despite some recent limited improvements in the economy and social conditions. The UN-administered transitional period proved to be overly bureaucratic and often simply a gravy-train for foreign career diplomats and teams of over-paid foreign consultants.

When the East Timorese took full control of national administration in May 2002, they inherited an administration with many problems and the combined distortions of the previous UN administration and the Indonesian military occupation. These problems became obvious very early in the functioning of the new parliament and government and the approach taken by the East Timorese political elite to solve these. Ultimately, a significant factor which blocked the resolution of these problems was the unwillingness of the East Timorese political elite to mobilise its greatest resource — the East Timorese people — during and since the UN transitional period to enforce greater accountability, transparency and democratisation. The sense of identification among the masses with the national liberation struggle weakened and social cohesion and solidarity began to quickly erode. This is the background to the political and social crisis that unfolded in 2006.

But these social and economic problems in East Timor have also been compounded by the miserly and predatory acts of the Australian imperialist state, typified by its theft of tens of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue obtained illegally from the Timor Sea. East Timor’s rich oil and gas reserves were the main strategic motivation for successive Australian governments supporting the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. The East Timorese leadership prior to the 1999 referendum had spelt out very clearly that it would not accept the Timor Gap treaty that existed between Australia and Indonesia and demanded that the maritime boundary between Australia and East Timor be established according to the principles of international law. The Australian government position was to bully and cajole East Timor, declaring it “ungrateful” for wanting to control its own resources. The issue has still not been resolved and Canberra continues to receive millions of dollars each day in royalties and company taxes that rightfully belong to the people of East Timor.

With the Australian Federal Police announcement on September 8 that it has commenced investigations into the murders of the Balibo 5 journalists, the time has come for some real justice for the East Timorese people. Just as in 1999, winning real justice for the people of East Timor will take a solidarity movement campaigning on the streets, in workplaces and universities against the policies and actions of the Australian government and big business. The solidarity movement is obviously not of the strength that it was in 1999, but there still remains an enormous amount of empathy and support for the East Timorese people in Australia and internationally. The next few years will be a big test for East Timor and the challenge in Australia remains to pressure the Australian government to compensate the East Timorese people fully for Canberra’s aiding and abetting of the Indonesian military invasion and occupation. Concerted public pressure is required to force the Rudd government to support an international war crimes tribunal and to end Australia’s theft of East Timor’s oil and gas revenues.