Forgotten East Timor: Island, principles, people

Oct 22, 2020

Did Gough Whitlam greenlight Indonesia’s violent seizure of East Timor in 1975? The invasion and 24-year occupation took the lives of up to 300,000 people in a population of 650,000 living on a wretchedly poor leftover from European colonisation.

Credit – Unsplash

After Indonesia gunned into East Timor on 7 December 1975, killing six Australian journalists along the way, Whitlam (d 2014), argued there’d have been no assault had he still been in office. Thirty days earlier Australia’s 21st PM had been dismissed by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Malcolm Fraser was caretaker.

Whitlam’s theory isn’t helped by new research from Dr Bruce Watson, Australian lawyer, investment banker and now author of Forgotten Island drawn from a PhD thesis. He found cables in NZ proving the Australian government had ‘precise knowledge of Indonesian troop dispositions, and where amphibious forces would land and by what route.’ That was in mid-October 1975.

Watson’s requests for Indonesian documents have been ignored. His dry response: ‘The circle will only be closed when Indonesia’s democracy matures and it feels confident to release its own files on the matter.’

East Timor had been a Portuguese colony since 1702. During World War II it was occupied by the Japanese. Australian troops and local militia fought the invaders in a guerrilla campaign which led to the Timorese being hailed for their courage. When their land was colonised yet again Australian veterans said their mates had been betrayed.

After the war Lisbon reasserted its authority though with little interest in a ‘subsistence agrarian society’ 14,000 kilometres distant, a remnant of its once great maritime authority.

The plunder of sandalwood was causing desertification. One survey put literacy levels below ten per cent and life expectancy at 33 years. The colony had few roads and social institutions.

On 25 April 1974 the so-called Carnation Revolution in Portugal, a soft military coup against a dictatorship, led to the collapse of its colonial empire, mostly in Africa. A month later in Timor and after a brief civil war the leftish revolutionary group Fretilin declared itself the government.

Australia’s mainstream parties agreed an unstable Marxist enclave next to Indonesia and Australia was a threat to regional security. The Vietnam War was still maintaining high fear levels.

Indonesia already controlled West Timor, formerly part of the Dutch East Indies, so it made sense to run the whole island; some reports claimed Portugal agreed.

The words used when Australia discussed Timor’s future with Indonesia included ‘incorporated’, ‘absorbed’, ‘associated with’ and ‘integrated into’. A transition period and referendum were floated. Independence – which arrived in 1999 through an UN-sponsored referendum – was in 1975 beyond imagination.

Whitlam was keen to get closer to Asia and knew the pass to the bridge was held by Indonesia.

That didn’t mean a welcome ticket for a ‘European power’, geographically near but culturally apart. Watson quotes Asian studies academic Richard Robison saying Asian leaders considered their value system was based on ‘harmony, hierarchy and consensus’. This they contrast to the ‘confrontation, individualism and decay that characterises the liberal West’.

There was also the worry of international embarrassment. Whitlam feared criticism of Indonesia ‘might induce an attack on Australian domestic policies on race, immigration and treatment of Aborigines.’

The Australian rhetoric about East Timor’s future was rich with warming lines about human rights and self-determination, but as Watson concludes: ‘Australia’s liberal ideals are mere abstractions to be abandoned in the face of realpolitik.’

Why would anyone trust the Indonesian military government which had a history of itchy trigger fingers? It had chased the Dutch out of its other islands and a decade earlier had helped kill an estimated half-million citizens it claimed were Communist.

Watson: ‘From Soeharto’s perspective, the concepts that grounded Whitlam were not merely irrelevant but so removed from his experience as to be incomprehensible. This was a collision of worlds in the making.’

Were the leaders’ discussions corrupted by misunderstandings based on cultural differences and misinterpretations? On 6 September 1974 Soeharto took Whitlam to Semar’s cave in Central Java where the Indonesian General sometimes meditated.

Although fat-bottomed, coarse-faced Semar is portrayed as a clown in the ancient wayang kulit (shadow puppet) stories, he’s also the wise dhanyang (guardian) of Java. Soeharto thought himself the modern manifestation.

Watson reckons Soeharto (d 2008) ‘had developed tepaselira (mutual respect) with Whitlam so honoured him by sharing his mystical beliefs.’

Another take is that the agnostic Westerner – who told others the cave experience was a ‘curiosity’ – concluded Soeharto was a mite nutty – and so underestimated his canniness. In other words, the cosmopolitan scholar was outmanoeuvred by an untutored soldier.

In Forgotten Island Watson postulates that the cave visit meant Timor’s fate ‘had likely been sealed. The mutual understanding between the two men was complete.’

How could this be? It would be difficult to find any shared interests or history. Watson: ‘Whitlam was born into a life of comfort and privilege with a heavy emphasis upon education, liberal thought and culture…

‘While Whitlam was digesting Pericles and grappling with Latin declensions, Soeharto was tending buffalo in Java, with no settled home and without even the ownership of a shirt … His was a peripatetic lifestyle and given the uncertainty surrounding his paternity he was rotated amongst distant relatives.’

Australia’s a liberal, humanist democracy which promotes individual freedoms and the rule of law. Mainstream parties and leaders spruik these values. Whitlam and the ALP seemed to be upholders – though not when dealing with Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. Watson asks:

‘(Why) the broader Labor Party, many members of which were far to the left of Whitlam and included at least one Communist, did not display greater resistance to Whitlam’s acquiescence to Soeharto’s actions?’

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation, since 2000 the third-largest democracy. Ostensibly it’s a secular state though almost 90 per cent follow Islam. Australia is a giant continent, four times bigger than Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago. All important facts – but here’s the killer: For every Australian there are 11 Indonesians.

Australia is better armed, more disciplined and has powerful friends which it believes would dash down from northern latitudes to help. But if Indonesia invaded we’d still be in big strife.

According to Watson’s careful analysis, Soeharto’s New Order regime was ‘the antibook of the principles enunciated by the Whitlam Government: authoritarian, violent, illiberal, and undemocratic.

‘(Whitlam) did discard self-determination and he did ‘greenlight’ Soeharto. But holding him personally responsible for the violence is a step too far although the opprobrium remains.

‘Whitlam gambled that Soeharto would incorporate Timor quickly and quietly. He should have taken note of Soeharto’s long record of state violence before endorsing Timor’s incorporation.’

Soeharto was an enigmatic, superstitious rural Javanese once labelled by his superiors as only ‘a moderately capable man.’ Apart from running the country for 32 years he became a champion kleptocrat, allegedly pocketing more than US $ 38 billion while never facing court.

Sir Keith (Mick) Shann, Ambassador to Indonesia 1962-66 reportedly said: ‘I don’t understand the Indonesians. I doubt any Australian does.’

Maybe it’s time we tried harder.

(The author says Forgotten Island is slated for publication next year.)

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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