Saturday 21 July 2001
The tumultuous events of 1999 in East Timor veered between triumph and tragedy. Australia undoubtedly assisted the East Timorese in moving to independence from Indonesia. Undoubtedly, too, Australia made mistakes, some of which may have contributed to the heavy loss of life and suffering of East Timorese before and after their vote for independence on August 30, 1999. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who this week launched an official account, East Timor in Transition: 1998-2000, risked confirming a view of it as self-justifying history by his eagerness to rebut his accusers yet gloss over mistakes. Yet the book does offer insights into the complex challenges that confronted Australia and, tellingly, into the limits of its influence.
First, the book observes that Prime Minister John Howard’s December 1998 letter to then Indonesian president B.J.Habibie, in which Canberra first advocated self-determination for East Timor, suggested a process of some years. Australia could not be held to have rushed Dr Habibie into setting a recklessly early date. But it was then swayed by fear of losing a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”, in Mr Downer’s words. Second, the book makes clear both the firmness of Indonesia’s refusal to accept foreign peacekeepers before the ballot and the related insecurity of Dr Habibie’s leadership. The success of InterFET suggests Canberra had a contingency plan, which worked once the outcome of the vote and global outrage at subsequent violence swept aside political obstacles.
Yet the book raises another issue of broader concern to Australians: what Mr Downer and his colleagues said publicly differed from what they knew and acted on privately. From early in 1999 the government had detailed knowledge of Indonesian military involvement in the East Timor militia and privately and repeatedly urged Jakarta to end it. Yet the government played down the dangers, to the extent of dissembling about what was happening on the ground and dismissing warnings of a bloodbath. Such shows of equanimity did little to influence Indonesia or preserve the bilateral relationship. It appears this link was as much overvalued as the power of global public opinion - which helped make InterFET possible - was undervalued. Even this week, Mr Downer failed to explain satisfactorily what such “diplomatic pragmatism” achieved.
Australia’s work in East Timor is atoning to some extent for past errors and omissions. It can do more, by releasing intelligence records, which it was previously reluctant to acknowledge, that could help convict those guilty of crimes against humanity. Atrocities in Indonesia’s Aceh province are now attracting attention, and Mr Downer was more forthright this week than in the past: “I say to the Indonesians, and to the TNI leadership, you have to heed the lessons of East Timor.” Those lessons apply, too, to Australia’s conduct of foreign policy.
Jul 17 Media release by Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer
BD: War Crimes & Crimes Against Humanity - A collection of recent press releases, petitions, articles and news
BD: Military and political aid to Indonesia - A collection of recent reports, articles and news