Australian politics, society & culture

Truth, Death & Diplomacy in East Timor

A Commission’s Report Confirms Australian Duplicity & Cowardice

Mark Aarons

Medium length read5100 words
 

Beside a hot and dusty airstrip at East Timor’s Baucau Airport I switched on my ancient ABC tape recorder and began to interview a little-known nationalist leader by the name of José Ramos Horta, one of the youthful figures of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin). It was March 1975 and I had spent the previous ten days travelling with Horta through the rugged mountains of East Timor. When I asked this man, who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize and become his country’s first foreign minister, how he would summarise his party’s policy, he said without hesitation: “Independence is a fundamental right of every nation in the world. Nobody should ask a slave if he wants to be free or not. So the position of Fretilin is quite clear: independence or death.”

April 2006
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As the recent report of East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation demonstrates, his country got both.

The 2500-page report was handed to both the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, earlier this year, coinciding with Prime Minister John Howard’s efforts to repair our damaged relationship with Jakarta. The major damage had occurred when, under massive public pressure, Howard led the international intervention to stop the carnage in East Timor following the August 1999 independence vote – an act that the Prime Minister once described as one of his three “greatest achievements”.

Thus ended twenty-five years of Australian appeasement of Indonesian aggression against East Timor.

The report’s release was long delayed by East Timor’s president and former resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao, whose actions reflected his government’s anxiety about the damage it might cause to relations with Indonesia. Despite – or perhaps because of – its extensive findings against Indonesia, America and Australia, the report has since sunk without trace and without any official Australian response.

The report yet again turns the spotlight on Australia. First, it lays bare our official record of duplicity and cowardice in relation to East Timor. Secondly, it raises important questions about the past forty years of Australian diplomacy towards the Soeharto regime, and about our future relations with Indonesia. Thirdly, it is a devastating indictment of the politicians, diplomats, journalists and intellectuals who are generally known as the ‘Jakarta lobby’.

The Commission’s report does not express the findings of a properly constituted court of law, following a fair trial of the accused. There has never been an opportunity to conduct such a trial. But the report’s findings are highly persuasive. The seven East Timorese commissioners responsible for the report were appointed by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in East Timor, the late Sergio Viera de Mello. They were supported by a staff of 270, including senior UN advisers and experts on international law.

The report was prepared after painstaking investigations, including interviews with more than eight thousand victims and witnesses and examination of thousands of pages of official documents. The evidence was gathered after East Timor’s independence, when the witnesses faced no threat from the departed Indonesian security forces. It is hence the only inquiry into the many repressive operations of the Indonesian army in which witnesses could freely speak of their experiences without fear of serious reprisals.

On the basis of this unprecedented access to Jakarta’s victims, the report found the Republic of Indonesia, its armed forces and security apparatus, and its civilian administration in East Timor responsible for a staggering list of grave violations of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions and the Regulations annexed to the Fourth Hague Convention. It concluded that many of these violations amounted to serious crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The report details a series of Indonesian mass killings; concludes that Jakarta made a conscious decision to use starvation against the civilian population, resulting in the deaths of at least 100,000 and as many as 180,000 out of a population of about 650,000; and finds that arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual slavery, deportations and public executions were routine. These are surely among the worst of the many mass crimes of the modern period.

The calculated poisoning of crops and water supplies and the wanton destruction of implements and farm animals recall the English-induced Irish famine, or Stalin’s Ukrainian famine. The concentration camps where civilians were confined with grossly insufficient food, shelter and medical treatment invite other comparisons, as does Indonesia’s obstinate refusal to permit international aid organisations to render assistance when it was most needed.

The details of mass executions of East Timorese civilians are harrowing. The Indonesians executed thousands of non-combatants, including proxy punishment of civilians for the resistance of others. Other actions included public beheadings, severing of body parts while the victims were still alive, public executions of married couples, and the parading of corpses and body parts to create a climate of mass terror. The Commission concluded these were both crimes against humanity and war crimes, as were the mass rape and sexual enslavement of women and children.

Torture methods included the usual beatings, whippings, burning of and electric shocks to genitalia, pulling out of fingernails and toenails, and torturing of prisoners’ families (including children) in front of them. There were some unique Indonesian inventions, including placing lizards with sharp claws and teeth on prisoners and goading them to bite body parts, and forcing prisoners to eat small, live lizards and dirty socks.

The Commission’s report was extensively reported by the Australian in January this year after it was leaked to journalist Sian Powell. Over ten days, Powell wrote six articles detailing key aspects of the Commission’s findings. (Although the report has not yet been officially released, it is available in full on several websites, such as that of the International Center for Transitional Justice: http://www.ictj.org/en/news/features/846.html/.) Inexplicably, other sections of the Australian media did not give the report the comprehensive coverage warranted by such an independent, extensive and objective analysis of what, after all, had been a major story for more than thirty years.

More revealing, however, has been the absence over the past few months of any fundamental reappraisal by the Jakarta lobby of Australia’s forty-year-old Indonesia policy.

The Commission made an unequivocal finding that Indonesia’s invasion was a clear violation of international law regulating the use of armed force. Put bluntly, it was a grab for land and resources, and an act of naked aggression. This finding seems unremarkable at one level; it was a persistent criticism levelled by East Timor’s supporters after 1975, and numerous international law professors have since made the same point. Yet their arguments were invariably greeted by the Jakarta lobby with a shrug and Realpolitik assertions that we would all simply have to accept the situation.

As the former Labor Foreign Minister Gareth Evans once infamously commented, “the world is a pretty unfair place … littered over the course of the decades with examples of acquisitions [of territory] by force which have proved to be irreversible.” Yet Evans is not known to have constructed apologias for any other acts of aggression and territorial aggrandisement.

One of the Commission’s key findings has been especially under-reported. According to the Commission, Australia contributed significantly to denying the East Timorese their right to self-determination, both before and after the Indonesian invasion. It especially indicts the government of Gough Whitlam for tilting sharply in Indonesia’s favour during 1974 and 1975 rather than playing the role of honest broker, and for justifying this position on the grounds that it was more important to maintain good relations with Indonesia.

The Commission’s conclusion is damning, noting that Whitlam’s government “took this position even though it violated Australia’s obligations under international law to support the right of the East Timorese people to self-determination”. It also concludes that had the government done more to pursue East Timor’s right to self-determination, this might well have averted the Indonesian invasion.

The report finds that Australian policy was heavily influenced by a belief that a better outcome could be achieved in negotiating with Indonesia – rather than with Portugal or an independent East Timor – over the maritime boundary with East Timor. Although the rich oil and gas reserves lying in this region are not mentioned specifically, it is clear what lies behind the Commission’s finding on this matter.

The Fraser and Hawke governments are also subjected to highly adverse findings. In particular, Malcolm Fraser is criticised (without being named) for the implicit de jure recognition he extended to Indonesia’s illegal incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia in 1979 when he began negotiations over the maritime boundary. Hawke (again without being named) is singled out for his unequivocal de jure recognition of incorporation in 1985, and for the 1989 Timor Gap Zone of Cooperation Treaty with Indonesia that defined the maritime boundary in Australia’s favour and, ultimately, much against the interests of today’s independent East Timor.

Most damning of all, perhaps, is the Commission’s conclusion that successive Australian governments provided economic and military assistance to Indonesia and advocated the Indonesian position in international forums. These constituted, in effect, material and moral assistance, without which Indonesian policy might not have been as successful in either its military operations in East Timor, or in its international diplomacy.

It is a tribute to the Australian’s journalistic robustness that it devoted so much space to Sian Powell’s scoop. But its editorial stance was vintage Jakarta-lobby fare, as demonstrated by its headline: “FOCUS ON THE FUTURE: East Timor is wise not to seek revenge for crimes past.” This implies that pursuit of those responsible for these crimes would involve “revenge”, not justice. And, just as outrageously, that it is up to victims to decide whether justice is to be pursued.

Such a stance is entirely contrary to the fundamental premises of Australian and international law. It would be a travesty if the Australian family of a murder victim, or a victim of rape, had to decide whether the police, prosecutors and judiciary should pursue their case. The Australian’s stance is both absurd and offensive. The principle involved is very simple: crimes have been committed; a prima facie case needs to be established against the perpetrators; and if a case can be established then the rule of law dictates that guilt or innocence be established by a duly constituted court.

So what is different about the case of East Timor? For example, why does the Australian quite rightly pursue Nazi war criminals from more than sixty years ago (Lajos Polgar and Karoly Zentai) and criminals from the Balkans war of the 1990s (Dragan Vasiljkovi), and then editorialise that more recent Indonesian criminals should effectively go free because it “is often best to acknowledge past wrongs, while leaving them unavenged”?

The Australian’s editorial argued that “East Timor is desperately poor and incapable of defending itself. Dili needs to be on good terms with Jakarta and has nothing to gain, and a great deal to lose, by denouncing Indonesia.” In other words, the victim should be beholden, even cower, to the perpetrator. Would the Australian’s editorialist advocate that a rape victim who is poor and cannot defend herself stay on good terms with her tormentor, especially if he is wealthy and influential?

There is, however, an even more fundamental principle at stake: why should anyone pick and choose which grave violations of international law should be pursued and which should not? The West has put considerable effort, for example, into convincing the Cambodian government to establish a tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge members whose crimes were contemporaneous with Indonesia’s in East Timor.

I hope I am wrong, but I suspect that the Jakarta lobby agrees with the Australian’s editorialist. If I am correct, I think its members breathed a collective sigh of relief when the East Timorese leadership received the report’s findings so quiescently. They would prefer Indonesia’s crimes to be buried, along with their own shameful record.

 

In March 1975, I was despatched to East Timor by the ABC. It is impossible to fully understand a country in a ten-day visit, but my impressions were in accord with many others who travelled widely in East Timor at that time.

First, it was clear that the pro-independence urban elites had established effective grassroots organisations among the peasantry. It was also clear that Indonesia was already engaged in subversive operations to destabilise East Timor and prepare it for forcible takeover. Indonesian radio broadcasts threatened violence to those opposed to Jakarta. Later it was revealed that they were part of black operations called Operasi Komodo (Operation Dragon).

It was equally apparent that the East Timorese, from villagers to the town intelligentsia, would not accept a new colonial master, and would fight to defend their right to independence. As Jose Ramos Horta stated, “No one should ask a slave if he wants to be free.” Even uneducated peasants would endorse this in practice after the December 1975 invasion.

It is now beyond dispute that Western governments knew about the invasion and the brutality that followed. In this, Australian intelligence played a pivotal role. The closure of the resistance’s official two-way radio link by the Fraser government significantly assisted Jakarta, casting doubt on the resistance’s broadcasts because they were received by illegal radio operators who were hounded by ASIO and the Federal Police, assisted by our signals intelligence agency, the Defence Signals Directorate. (After helping to establish the first, rudimentary radio links, which were soon broken up by the government, I brought a large amount of money into the country to fund a more sophisticated operation.)

Thirty years later, it is striking that the truth of these broadcasts is essentially confirmed by the Commission’s report. Over the years that the resistance sent out its reports, there were also many incorrect claims and much propaganda, especially of an ideological nature. But any fair-minded reader who reviews the Commission’s report and the original resistance statements will be amazed by the accuracy of the on-the-ground reports in light of the subsequent meticulous investigation.

The radio broadcasts ceased when Indonesia briefly crushed the resistance at the end of 1978 and captured the transmitters. However, this did not stop the flow of fundamentally accurate information, whether in the form of resistance publications, journalists’ accounts, an Amnesty International report or books such as James Dunn’s Timor: A People Betrayed and Carmel Budiardjo’s and Liem Soei Liong’s The War Against East Timor, which analysed Indonesian military strategy using a captured counter-insurgency manual.

Such accounts were denounced by the Jakarta lobby as “pro-Fretilin propaganda”. Yet, as the Commission’s report now makes clear, these denunciations were the real propaganda.

 

In 1982, East Timor’s Apostolic Administrator, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, warned the world of impending famine following a brutal 1981 Indonesian offensive in which hundreds of civilians were massacred and food production severely disrupted.

He was soon attacked by BA Santamaria, the anti-communist president of the National Civic Council, who in a March 1982 Newsweekly editorial claimed that the “motives of Msgr. da Costa Lopes in sending the information concerning an impending famine resulting from Indonesian military operations remain incomprehensible”. Lopes’s detractors also included Gough Whitlam (who called him “mendacious”) and Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Hastings.

The injustice of Santamaria’s attack on the Apostolic Administrator also extended to the reputable aid agency Australian Catholic Relief (ACR), which was funded by ordinary Catholics through the Lenten collection known as Project Compassion. According to the Newsweekly editorial, ACR, by reporting Lopes’s claims, was responsible for Indonesia’s decision to block one thousand tonnes of Australian food aid for East Timor. The editorial concluded that the “Indonesian Government chose – understandably enough – to interpret these reports as a continuation of long-standing Australian attacks upon its administration, and was unwilling to accept charity from those who had attributed gross violations of basic human rights to its administration”. In other words, no violations had occurred.

For Santamaria, it was as simple as that. Except that the Commission’s report now demonstrates he was wrong. From July to September 1981, Indonesia conducted a massive military operation in East Timor, just as Lopes had claimed and ACR reported. Opersasi Keamanan (Operation Security) forcibly recruited between 60,000 and 120,000 civilians, including children as young as ten, and forced one group to walk from east to west while another walked in the opposite direction. The resulting ‘fence of legs’ operation (as it was called) was intended to flush out resistance fighters and, most importantly, Fretilin leader Xanana Gusmao.

The Commission determined that at the end of the operation, between one hundred and five hundred resistance fighters and civilians were massacred, including many women and children. One eyewitness described how unarmed civilians were tied up and stabbed to death, including a pregnant woman.

The civilians conscripted into Operasi Keamanan were not fed properly and many died marching through the rugged countryside. The operation occurred during the traditional planting season, so crops could not be sown. As a consequence, food production was highly disrupted and starvation widespread, just as Lopes and ACR had reported.

How did the Jakarta lobby respond to the Indonesian presence? Over time, the proposition that the East Timorese should welcome Indonesian development of their country became a mantra. It was recited by government ministers, diplomats, academics and journalists, who dismissed claims of Indonesia’s crimes and extolled the country for supposedly lifting East Timor out of poverty and backwardness.

 

The right-wing magazine Quadrant also played a prominent part in the Jakarta lobby. The current editor, Padraic McGuinness, was among those actively whitewashing Indonesian atrocities. As editor of the Australian Financial Review, in late 1982 McGuinness went on a helicopter guided tour of East Timor, assuring his readers that the Indonesian military commander imposed no “restrictions on landing anywhere we liked”. With characteristic modesty, McGuinness proclaimed himself to be “an outside observer without an axe to grind”, and then plunged a polemical dagger into the hearts of the East Timorese by asserting emphatically “that East Timor is in reasonably good shape”.

Like the “useful idiots” who toured the Ukraine in the 1930s and concluded there was no official Soviet policy of famine, McGuinness had no doubts: “There is no famine. There is no starvation. There is no prospect of starvation. Fretilin is a spent force of a few guerillas in the hills who are descending to burn houses and terrorise the local population.” Any “dangerous food shortages” were caused by drought. All this he learned from his helicopter joy-ride.

McGuinness has never resiled from his unequivocal position. In December 1994, he repeated it, writing that there “have been frequent allegations of famine, imposed by the Indonesians. While there have been periods of drought and hunger, genuine famine is not supported by the evidence.”

In a March 1999 article, just before East Timor’s overwhelming vote for independence, he put his credibility on the line, claiming that even “after 25 years it is not at all sure that Fretilin, or total independence, would command the support of a majority of East Timorese.” In August, almost 80% of East Timorese voted for independence, despite massive Indonesian intimidation and violence. In the election two years later, Fretilin gained more than 57% of the vote.

In an August 2000 article, another apologist for Indonesia over the years, Gerard Henderson, chose to highlight Fretilin’s crimes and ignore Indonesia’s. He also claimed that the 1999 violence was the work of “pro-Indonesian East Timorese militias, with the support of sections of the Indonesian Army” and that it was only “rogue sections of the Indonesian Army” who continued to support the militias.

This version of events has now been thoroughly debunked by the Commission. Even in early 1999, there were persistent, reliable reports that responsibility for the militias went right to the top. The Commission’s report confirms that General Wiranto, commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces, was in charge of the militias, which were conceived, recruited, funded, armed and trained by Jakarta. The Indonesian army undertook joint operations with the militias, jointly perpetrated mass killings and other serious violations, integrated them into their security command, and did not prevent or punish their numerous crimes.

Since the 1999 independence vote, there has been a notable silence from most of those who whitewashed Jakarta’s crimes. To his credit, Gareth Evans issued the closest thing to an apology that his ego would permit. Other former Australian politicians and diplomats such as Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bill Hayden and Richard Woolcott have equally shameful records on East Timor. Academics such as Heinz Arndt, and journalists and media commentators – including Henderson, Peter Rodgers and Peter Hastings – share this record. Then there is Padraic McGuinness, who used Orwellian doublespeak to dismiss Jakarta’s crimes as “propaganda”.

In each of these cases, a powerful argument exists for a deep self-analysis. Yet there seems almost no prospect of that happening, for it would also require a re-examination of the foundations of Australian diplomacy towards Indonesia since Soeharto came to power in 1965. It would mean acknowledging the Jakarta lobby was wrong about Soeharto per se. For the issues go deeper than East Timor: they extend to whether or not we will rebuild a relationship with Jakarta based on the falsehoods of the past forty years.

In July 1994, Gerard Henderson wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that “Indonesia remains an authoritarian state. But in spite of prevailing restrictions of free expression, it is certainly not totalitarian.” This statement summed up the hopeful consensus of the Jakarta lobby. It was false then, it was false three decades earlier and remains especially false today as more and more evidence of the true nature of Soeharto’s ‘New Order’ regime has emerged over the intervening years.

There can be no dispute that Soeharto was responsible for mass killings in Indonesia in the months after the coup d’état of October 1965. Indonesian communists certainly engaged in their own atrocities at this time, but Soeharto, supported by the West in many practical and moral ways, carried out massacres that resulted in at least half a million, and perhaps two million, murders in 1965 and 1966.

In other words, the ‘New Order’ was born in bloodshed and developed rapidly into a totalitarian dictatorship of mass control, which systematically imprisoned and tortured its own people and executed political prisoners many years (sometimes decades) after their original incarceration. It sustained terror against its own citizens in Aceh, and against those it sought to forcibly conquer in West Papua and East Timor. Hundreds of thousands of people were either imprisoned or stigmatised in such a way as to effectively make them ‘non-persons’. Elections were manipulated to achieve massive votes for Soeharto’s party. A widespread secret-police apparatus was established to suppress all dissent, if necessary by force, and periodically the army and security services indulged in orgies of mass killing and repression.

The strange aspect of this history was that, rather than shrinking from the monster they had created, the Western nations embraced it as a most important regional partner. If it had been a leftist regime behaving in this way, the Jakarta lobby would undoubtedly have been united and loud in their moral condemnation.

 

In March 2006, Australia’s Ambassador to the US, Dennis Richardson, attacked those calling for a proper act of self-determination for West Papua. At a US–Indonesia business lunch, Richardson outlined the Howard government’s policy: “Papua is part of the sovereign territory of Indonesia and always has been. As far as Australia is concerned, Papua is an integral part of Indonesia.”

This is a distorted version of history, ignoring the fact that West Papua had not been Indonesian at all for the twenty years after it came into existence in 1949. It was, in fact, only integrated into Indonesia as the result of a sham vote in 1969. The US believed that 90% of West Papuans were against integration, yet the international community, including Australia, not only accepted this sham act of self-determination, but has ever since turned a blind eye to the history of Indonesian mass killings, torture and arbitrary detentions in the territory.

Ambassador Richardson, however, highlighted “the positive developments in Indonesia” and suggested that the old Indonesia “no longer exists”. The major problem with Richardson’s defence of Yudhoyono’s Indonesia is that it has taken almost no action against Soeharto’s officers, whose crimes in East Timor have permanently stained Indonesia’s international reputation. Many have been promoted to new posts in West Papua, where they have organised militias based on the East Timor model.

A US State Department report released the day before Richardson gave his speech noted that killings, torture and intimidation of West Papuan dissidents are still rife. The techniques reported bear a striking similarity to Soeharto’s mass terror campaigns in Indonesia, East Timor and West Papua.

As I write, the West Papuans’ simmering anger about the Freeport mine and Indonesian repression has spilled over into widespread demonstrations. In mid-March, a 3000-strong rally led to further killings and mass arrests. In film footage reminiscent of the 1991 Dili massacre, Indonesian police apparently fired into the huge crowd and exposed the truth of Jakarta’s rule. Little seems to have changed under Yudhoyono, although an Indonesian police spokesman assured the world that only rubber bullets had been used against the demonstrators: “If we used live bullets, they would all be dead.”

The Jakarta lobby’s current stance on West Papua is summarised by the Australian’s January 2006 editorial on East Timor quoted above. Noting that 43 West Papuans who had recently arrived in Australia should be accepted if they meet the criteria to be declared asylum seekers, the editorial declared: “But there is no case for the Australian Government sticking its bib into Indonesia’s business and accepting them as freedom fighters while we accept its long-established sovereignty over West Papua.”

The problem with this approach is that it continues to base Australia’s relationship with Indonesia on falsehood. Any rational person wants a strong bond with Indonesia, because we cannot change our geography. We need to co-operate against the threats of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, but we should ensure that this is not at the expense of our basic values. Recognising illegal invasions and sham polls, and ignoring persistent human rights violations, is no basis for a lasting relationship or for long-term regional stability.

There is no simple answer to this problem, which is why we can no longer cling to the propositions advanced persistently by the Jakarta lobby for the past forty years. Australia needs to reconsider the sham vote that saw West Papua gobbled up by Indonesia. We should not fear separatist tendencies in the archipelago any more than Europe needed to fear the break-up of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. Yes, there may be problems in such a dissolution, but in the longer term the recognition of the right of small nations to self-determination would build more solid foundations for Australian diplomacy and regional stability. There is much in common between Javanese-dominated Indonesia and the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, and we should learn that lesson.

Australia should also encourage Indonesia to examine its past crimes against its own citizens. No nation can go forward without acknowledging past mistakes. But Indonesian society has not even come to terms with the 1965 massacres, let alone those in West Papua and East Timor. Indonesia should have an honest public debate so that it can move on. Elementary principles of justice demand that those responsible be held accountable, but the truth is also a prerequisite for progress.

Australia needs to have a stable security relationship with Jakarta, but its relationship with the Indonesian Armed Forces should be neither unquestioning nor acquiescent. We should not co-operate with the mass killers of East Timor, Aceh and West Papua. Co-operation should depend upon reform.

And what of the Jakarta lobby? Its members surely deserve to be excluded from all future policy formulation. Perhaps they might individually rehabilitate themselves over time by publishing historical reappraisals and putting forward fresh ideas about how Australia might conduct its vitally important relationship with its giant northern neighbour. Unless they do this, however, they should never be listened to again.

Mark Aarons

Mark Aarons is the author of The Family File and War Criminals Welcome: Australia, a Sanctuary for War Criminals Since 1945. From 1996 to 2006 he was a senior adviser to the NSW Labor government.
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