Australia fears the fallout from the East Timor chaos. But Canberra helped create that chaos.
In 1974-1975, it was clear that the collapse of the former Portuguese empire had left East Timor exposed to Jakarta’s expansionist ambitions. The dominant East Timor political group, the moderately progressive Fretilin party, wanted to steer the territory to some form of independence, or at least autonomy.
But Canberra, in its Realpolitik wisdom, decided otherwise. With the help of Richard Woolcott, an activist ambassador in Jakarta, it decided that Australia’s relations with Indonesia were far more important than the fate of less than a million East Timorese, despite the fact that just three decades earlier these same people had suffered horribly from Japanese military reprisals for assisting Australian troops there.
Canberra was helped in that decision by the fact that the West, the United States especially, viewed as dangerously leftwing the Lisbon government that had overthrown the previous rightwing Salazar Caetano regime and had liberated the colonies. In the former Portuguese colony of Angola, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had already seen fit to encourage the antigovernment uprising that continues to cause such dreadful suffering there, simply because the new government there mouthed Marxist slogans. Fretilin was suspected of the same leftist tendencies.
Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam accepted this anti-Fretilin wisdom. As a rather self-inflated politician of the left, he liked the idea he could go along with the hawkish Realpolitik of the Canberra bureaucracy, while presiding over the collapse of yet another colonial empire. At a Cairns meeting in September 1975 with Indonesian President Suharto, Whitlam gave the crucial green light to an Indonesian military takeover.
Soon after, the first round of the massacres that were to see Fretilin eliminated, together with an estimated one-third of the East Timor population, got under way.
Since then, both Canberra and Whitlam have tried to salvage their discredited faces by claiming that since no one could stop an Indonesian invasion at the time they simply went along with the inevitable. But in that case, did they have to go out of their way to tell Jakarta secretly they would help muzzle Fretilin and other activists fleeing to Darwin?
And did Australia have to work actively for years in the U.N. Decolonization Committee in a vain bid to lobby votes against the large bloc of Latin American and pro-Portugal nations in the committee who were determined to keep the East Timor question alive?
By doing so, these nations, together with the incredible, Vietnam-style bravery of East Timorese guerrilla forces fighting out of tunnels and jungles, were eventually able to turn world opinion in favor of the recent referendum on independence.
But as the world now realizes, the voice of the ordinary people in East Timor is one thing. Persuading the people with the guns is another, especially when, as in Indonesia, they have had more than three decades to discover the power of the gun.
For the tragedy of East Timor did not begin in 1975. It began in 1965 when our Western hawks, fresh from their failures to prevent the election of Lee Kuan Yew, then seen as a dangerous procommunist, from being elected to run Singapore, and to promote a Sumatra-based military coup against President Sukarno’s regime in Indonesia, then got themselves involved in heading off an attempt by the electorally dominant Indonesian Communist Party seeking to move against yet another suspected military coup against Sukarno.
The details of what happened in 1965 are murky. What is clear is that when the Indonesian military suppressed the Communist Party, they felt free to wipe out all forms of leftwing activity from the Indonesian islands. Some 500,000 people, including intellectuals, teachers, trade unionists, welfare activists — the usual list of victims when anticommunist killing squads are unleashed — were wiped out in two months.
At the time, Australia and most other Western anticommunist governments were not unhappy to see these killings. Many in Canberra saw them as crucial to Australia’s defense against an alleged Asian communist threat. The brutality of the killings was irrelevant.
Today in East Timor they should be beginning to realize it was relevant.
I myself have a great liking for the Indonesian people. I have been there several times to explain my theory that but for Dutch colonization it is very likely Indonesia could have developed much on the pattern of Tokugawa feudalism and Meiji modernization.
But as with the Japanese, the Indonesians are also given to bouts of emotional frenzy. In Japan, that has been tamed somewhat by defeat in war. But with the Indonesians, the Javanese especially, it remains raw, particularly when people of different beliefs or ethnicity are involved. One result is that we have borrowed the word “amok” from their language.
“Amok” is what we are seeing in East Timor now. It need never have happened. A referendum calling simply for weaker links with Jakarta rather than complete independence was enough. But with the same absolutism that we saw over Kosovo, our Western policymakers now seem to want total solutions. It was inevitable that Indonesian nationalistic forces would object to any breakup of territory, and the vicious militias close to the Indonesian military would be unleashed.
Once again, the East Timor people have to suffer for our Western mistakes.
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