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"In summary, 'despite the disingenuous approach taken
by Australia towards East Timor over the period of the Indonesian occupation,
it remained a thorn in the side of successive Australian governments'.
It was a thorn well deserved."
Note The text of the report can be found at:
Wednesday 20 December 2000
Guilty as charged: the Timor verdict
Largely unnoticed among the publicity splash produced by the release of
the Defence White Paper, another significant parliamentary report recently
entered the public domain. The Senate committee inquiry into Australia's
East Timor diplomacy presented its final report, a history of a dark episode
in our foreign policy.
Commissioned in late 1998, the inquiry was extended after the post-ballot
violence that engulfed East Timor in September 1999. Its report records
how successive Australian governments appeased Indonesia at the expense
of East Timor's peace and independence.
Among its most interesting findings, the committee reports:
In summary, "despite the disingenuous approach taken by Australia towards
East Timor over the period of the Indonesian occupation, it remained a
thorn in the side of successive Australian governments".
Gough Whitlam believes that only after the 1991 Dili massacre did it become
apparent that "the Indonesian military had overplayed their hand" in East
Timor. Remarkably, he seems unaware that the killings between 1975 and
1978 constitute the worst massacres as a proportion of a population since
the Holocaust. Or he is aware but doesn't think this signifies the Indonesian
military "overplaying" its hand.
The committee couldn't understand why Department of Foreign Affairs and
Trade deputy secretary John Dauth told it in May 1999 that the militias
in East Timor were armed and organised by local commanders outside the
Indonesia military's chain of command, when, according to Professor Des
Ball, "from the end of 1998, intelligence intercepts produced by the Defence
Signals Directorate were providing a very accurate, precise and detailed
picture of the relationship between particular commanders of the Indonesian
Army and militia leaders in East Timor". Dauth's plea that DFAT was too
overwhelmed by reports at the time to arrive at such a conclusion, failed
to convince the committee, which was angry with DFAT's reluctance to provide
it with more definitive information.
John Howard's letter to President Habibie in December 1998 suggesting a
new dispensation for East Timor was prompted by a survey of elite Timorese
opinion that, unsurprisingly, found overwhelming support for independence.
The results of the survey, by DFAT, were shared with Jakarta but have been
withheld from the Australian people, including the Senate committee.
Former foreign minister Gareth Evans' argument that there was no foundation
to the claim that the Whitlam government had known from the outset - via
intelligence sources - that five journalists had been murdered at Balibo
in 1975 has been discredited by the research of Ball and Hamish McDonald.
Whitlam, who had tried to reconcile the East Timorese right to self-determination
with his preference for the territory's incorporation into Indonesia, left
the clear impression, in the committee's words, that "the outcome was more
important than the process".
Former ambassador Tony Kevin told the committee that Canberra was largely
responsible for the referendum and its aftermath, and had no right to put
at risk the lives of so many East Timorese. In reply, the committee said
Kevin ascribed "too much responsibility to the Australian government and
its advisers in the process". Nor did any Timorese witnesses raise these
concerns with the committee. Even after InterFET troops arrived in East
Timor it was "impossible to find a single person there who wished the ballot
had never happened".
Overall, the committee was critical that "since the mid-1970s, there has
been a thread running through East Timor policies of Australian governments
of all political persuasions: that greater emphasis be placed on relations
with Indonesia at the expense of East Timor".
The committee found that "until the latter part of 1999, all governments
have publicly played down reports of human rights abuses in the territory.
They were prepared to accept Indonesian Government assurances and explanations,
and support them, even in the face of other contradictory evidence".
When the prospect of violence was reported before the independence ballot,
"the Australian Government, at least publicly, did not associate the (Indonesian
military), other than `rogue elements', with the militias, despite considerable
evidence to the contrary, including the government's own intelligence information".
It was a thorn well deserved.
Dan Flitton is an associate lecturer in international relations at
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