TOMORROW, Alexander Downer launches a book on Australia’s role in East Timor between 1998 and 2000. One wonders why he should wish to reopen this Pandora’s box. Others have recently addressed the issue: writers John Birmingham and John Martinkus, and SBS television’s Dateline on May 9.
The Dateline program contained harrowing statements from survivors of a post-vote massacre in Maliana; from Australians who served in East Timor, Captain Andrew Plunkett and former policeman Wayne Sievers; and analysis by Des Ball of how Australian intelligence information was spin-doctored and suppressed by Canberra before the vote.
The program challenges Downer’s claim that “we behaved most honourably throughout 1999 at the end of the day, we handled it just right and the proof of that is in the result”.
The report of the Senate foreign affairs committee inquiry into East Timor (December 2000) is also relevant: see chapter seven, paragraphs 83 to 142 (Australian policy) and chapter five, paragraphs 42 to 52 (human rights). This authoritative bipartisan account reviews concerns about Australia’s role submitted by independent witnesses.
There remains a strong case to answer. The passage of time does not lessen its importance. Did Australia fail in its duty of care to Timorese people in its policies in months before the vote? Had Australian policy-makers decided during 1999 on a high-risk strategy through which a pro-independence vote could be secured, which General Wiranto’s group would have to accept or resort to atrocities on such a scale that a reluctant Washington would be forced to back UN military intervention?
Downer has dismissed such questions as “extraordinary” and “fantastic”. Indeed, we find it hard to conceive our policy-makers might be so Machiavellian. Yet the public record, witness accounts and leaks admit only one conclusion: in their complex games of deception and counter-deception with the power-holders in Indonesia in 1999 Wiranto and foreign minister Ali Alatas Downer and his advisers were either fools or knaves.
Wiranto and Alatas thought they could exploit president B. J. Habibie’s January offer of a UN-supervised independence vote to cement, through terror, Indonesia’s control of East Timor and have this result internationally validated. Hence the manifest intimidation of February-April, peaking in the Liquica and Dili massacres.
Downer’s aim was to maintain momentum, while quietly building world concern about Timor. He had to avoid frightening the horses. Hence his systematic downplaying of massacres as the work of “rogue elements” and his affirmations that the military (TNI) would manage the vote well. Too much noise about human rights violations would have frightened the TNI (and their partners in Washington) into halting a self-determination process that risked destabilising more important US security objectives in Indonesia. Downer wanted to lull Wiranto and Alatas into believing that a naive Australia would shepherd them through a vote they felt sure of winning.
So Australian observers were told to think positive and tone down negative reports in the interests of the big picture. Our electronic intelligence which confirmed TNI’s scorched-earth plans was spin-doctored, sanitised and even withheld from US and UN interlocutors. Australia relied on its recognised East Timor expertise to hose down international anxiety.
After the May agreement committed Indonesia and Portugal to a UN-observed vote in August 1999 with early admission of UN monitors, Australia sharpened its dialogue with Jakarta. The trap began to close on Wiranto and Alatas, as it became more likely that despite TNI’s intimidation there would be a strong pro-independence vote watched by the world. When East Timor went up in flames after the vote, this forced Bill Clinton’s hand at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum meeting in Auckland. The rest is history.
But Australia’s role through 1999 is profoundly disturbing. To what extent did we wrong-foot Wiranto’s group into launching stupid and murderous actions that would ravage East Timor and shame Indonesia? Did we understand beforehand that the price of East Timorese independence could be widespread bloodshed or did we really believe that we could wing it, with minimal collateral death? Did we deceive ourselves or did we recognise that our real policy was that the end justified the means: that this window of opportunity had to be grasped, whatever the risks we took with East Timorese lives?
The remarkable prevarications to date by Downer and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s main Senate witness, John Dauth, offer no answers to such questions. Answers may not be found in this new book either. Downer may continue to hide behind the empty formalism that Australia was not a party principal to the May agreement and thus is not responsible for subsequent events.
His latest spin on the question of “rogue elements” (on Dateline), that “there were always rogue elements in TNI, in the sense it was not the policy of president Habibie to see the ballot disrupted and violence perpetrated”, simply begs the whole question: What game did we think we were playing with Indonesia? One awaits honest answers, but with little hope of getting them.
Tony Kevin is a visiting
fellow at the school of Pacific and Asian studies,
Australian National University
The government moved on Tuesday to quell critics who accuse it of being either misguided or ingeniously clever in the way it interpreted intelligence about the danger posed by pro-Jakarta militias in the lead-up to the August 1999 ballot.
Canberra expressed surprise when the referendum sparked a wave of violence by Indonesian military-backed gangs who razed the breakaway territory, killing about 1,000 people, and paving the way for an international peace enforcement mission.
Critics say the surprise was feigned. And if it wasn’t, then Canberra with its close ties to Jakarta must have been naive.
On Tuesday, Canberra counter-attacked with the publication of a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) book which it calls a “comprehensive account” of the events that led to East Timor’s U.N.-backed secession after 23 often brutal years.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer once again firmly said the government did not know what would happen after the vote and denied it had deliberately downplayed intelligence predicting the violence.
“None of us knew what would happen,” Downer told a news conference after launching the 312-page book.
“But we were always concerned this could happen...and I said over and over again that the most dangerous phase of this whole scenario will be immediately after the result of the ballot.”
APPLAUSE AMID DOUBTS
Many foreign policy analysts laud Australia’s
leading role in the U.N. peacekeeping operation launched in East
Timor in 1999.
But they differ over the way they perceive Canberra’s handling of the months before the independence ballot.
Tony Kevin, a visiting fellow from the Australian National University’s (ANU) Pacific and Asian Studies school, said the government knew the post-ballot violence would force the United States to step in and press Indonesia to allow an intervention.
“I believe the Australian government was manipulating intelligence,” Kevin told Reuters.
“Downer and DFAT were prepared to wear a great many East Timorese casualties to get the required outcome—a vote for independence,” he said.
Other analysts argue that Australia’s senior policy makers underestimated the intelligence received, convincing themselves Jakarta had everything under control.
“I think it is quite plausible that they overestimated their closeness to the Indonesians, relying on what they were being told,” ANU electoral analyst Ben Reilly said.
Still others suspect Australia turned a blind eye to the escalating violence and links between militias and the Indonesian military, not wanting Jakarta to cancel the vote.
Downer dismissed the allegations as conspiracy theories.
“They are the most bizarre conspiracy theories written,” Downer said.
Australia’s opposition Labor party foreign affairs spokesman Laurie Brereton accused the government of being eager to appease Jakarta and too reluctant to criticise human rights abuses.
Jul 17 ABC: Australian
report links Indonesian military with Timor militia
News & release added July 18
"The study, written by Australian diplomats, says the Indonesian military supported the violence of the East Timor militia with weapons, money, transport and strategic direction. It says Indonesian special forces set up a second chain-of-command to deal with the militia. ... A senior Foreign Affairs official says the book shows that Australia must be worldly wise and see that assurances from Indonesia’s military are not always reliable." Australian Broadcasting Corporation
7 ABC: TNI used media strategy to disguise militia links
Interview transcript updated July 14
" ... it was ... in some ways a very slick PR operation. ... By simply focusing on saying that it was the militia who were destroying Dili, or the militia who were responsible for the majority of the destruction, which was simply not the case, it was very methodical carried out by TNI soldiers [Indonesian military] and you could see that. The militia simply wouldn’t have had the infrastructure trucks, planes, ships to carry out such a large-scale deportation of you know, a third of the population basically." John Martinkus, Australian journalist and author of “A Dirty Little War - an eyewitness account of East Timor’s descent into hell"
16 SBS: See No Evil TV documentary added May 18
"I want to make quite clear - it wasn‘t from General Cosgrove and it wasn‘t from the military mission here that decided that policy [of not making public key details of his investigation]. We had a Department of Department of Foreign Affairs rep in Dili and we were getting political advice directly from Canberra, and not necessarily from politicians, but certainly from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade." Captain Andrew Plunkett, Australian Army senior military intelligence officer in charge of gathering evidence of atrocities committed post-ballot
9 SBS: Australias East Timor secret TV documentary added
"In an extraordinary investigation, reporter Mark Davis returns to East Timor to disclose disturbing new revelations about Australia’s secret intelligence information prior to the country’s independence referendum. ... A senior officer has now revealed for the first time that Canberra knew the Indonesian Army had plans to destroy East Timor and murder independence supporters, and failed to alert those most at risk." SBS Dateline (Australia)
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