A Fresh Start

Scott Burchill


statistics tell a grim tale. In the first weeks of September this year, 70% of

all public buildings and private residences in East Timor were destroyed. At

least 75% of the population of the territory was displaced, with over 260,000

people being driven across the border into Indonesian West Timor. Even more

ominously, out of an estimated population of 850,000 at the time of the 30

August ballot for independence, 200,000 people are still unaccounted for -

though InterFET believes that if more people than first thought have been

scattered around the archipelago, this figure could be between 80,000 and

130,000. Optimists presume that most of these people are still hiding in the

mountains, too traumatised to return to their villages. Pessimists fear that

many may have been slaughtered by Indonesian military forces (TNI) and their

militia proxies. "We’re missing an awful lot of people here", says

Ross Mountain, the UN co-ordinator for humanitarian affairs in East Timor.


to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, rarely has such a short crisis resulted in

such extensive damage or touched such a large proportion of the population.


those who welcomed the election of President Abdurrahaman Wahid and his new

government as an opportunity to swiftly resolve the crisis, the early signs have

not been positive. According to Jakarta’s own National Commission on Human

Rights, systematic human rights abuses are continuing in the West Timor refugee

camps controlled by militia. Abductions and hostage taking, killings, sexual

assault and the forced recruitment of East Timorese into the militias are a

daily occurrence.


a recent private trip to West Timor, Australian MP Kevin Rudd claimed that NGO

and UN humanitarian agencies have been unable to visit half of the refugee camps

in West Timor, specifically those under militia control in the Belu district

(eastern part of West Timor). At the same time on an official visit to province,

US Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbard said he was alarmed by the ongoing

influence of pro-Jakarta militia in refugee camps in Kupang and Atambua:

"bad things are happening in the militia-controlled camps in West Timor,

where hundreds of thousands of East Timorese are trapped..", he told



UN Security Council resolution 1264 (1999) stressed that it was "the

responsibility of the Indonesian authorities to take immediate and effective

measures to ensure the safe return of refugees to East Timor", only 20,000

of an estimated 260,000 displaced people have been allowed to go home.


also appears that the new government has made little effort to disarm the

militias, as they are required to do under Security Council resolution 1246

(1999), or taken steps to ensure that they cannot conduct cross border

operations against civilians, InterFET or UNTAET forces.


light of Indonesia’s behaviour in East Timor, an act of contrition for the

violence and destruction might have been expected from the first democratically

elected government in Jakarta since the mid 1950s. This would have accelerated

Indonesia’s return to the society of states, and signaled a break with it’s

recent status as an international pariah.


appears, however, that although an apology is required, it is one that should

come from Canberra to Jakarta. President Wahid has said that Australia was

"pissing in our face" on the Timor issue and that he would prefer

relations with Canberra to "remain cool" with a restoration of warmth

depending "on Australia, if they realise their mistakes before".

Indonesia’s new foreign minister Alwi Shihab agrees, saying that "it is

enough that they know we were angry and displeased".


to a world that is truly surreal, one where the perpetrators of heinous crimes

expect apologies from those who exposed and curtailed their genocidal behaviour.

Does the new government in Jakarta seriously expect Canberra to say sorry for

coming to the rescue of an unarmed civilian population that was being terrorised

by its armed forces and their militias? Apparently it does. What

"mistakes" did Australia make? I can think of two. Canberra waited too

long before preparing for a peace enforcement deployment and showed too much

respect for Indonesia’s illegal sovereign claim to the territory. And what

exactly is Jakarta "angry and displeased about"? Perhaps it’s the

realisation of its army’s contempt for basic human decency and its own

preparedness to breach international law.


President Wahid’s views have struck a chord with those in Australia who want an

early restoration of "good relations" with Jakarta. The editor of The

Australian thinks it is time for Canberra "to withdraw from the military

leadership role" in East Timor because "an ongoing military presence

by Australia could hinder the peace process by continuing to antagonise militia

groups", something that must be avoided at all costs. He also berates

resistance leader Xanana Gusmao for wearing army fatigues during his first

public appearances in East Timor after an absence of 7 years. According to The

Australian, Mr Gusmao should not consider himself a military commander and

understand that dressing in ‘jungle greens’ could be seen by some as

"adversarial": a business suit is more reassuring.


foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, has gone further in his desire

for business as usual with Jakarta. Attempting to exculpate Jakarta for its

crimes committed in East Timor, Sheridan argues that "the Indonesian people

are not the same thing as the Indonesian military", who are presumably from

Mars or another galaxy. According to Sheridan, the cause of all the trouble is

Mr Howard’s unfortunate habit of listening to the views of his constituents:

"the Government’s worst statement was the Prime Minister saying in

parliament recently that he wanted foreign policy to be in step with public

opinion", an appalling prospect given the exemplary performance of our

foreign policy elite in recent years.


Indonesian analyst, Bruce Grant, also sees Mr Howard as the problem. According

to Grant, the Prime Minister is "suspect" in Asia because he is a

monarchist, lacks "an emotional commitment to the fortunes of the

region", and loves cricket "which does not help in Indonesia".

Displaying a cultural deference is still Grant’s recommended strategy for

engaging with Asia. The onus is on Australia, and only Australia, to change its

ways. There is no suggestion of reciprocity, even in the light of recent

disturbing events to the country’s north. In Grant’s world ‘Asian values’ and

batik shirts are in, colonial sports and liberal democratic principles are out.


his autobiography, Bill Hayden noted that shortly after becoming foreign

minister in 1983, he "detected a preference among some to be overly

agreeable towards certain outside interests and accordingly not independent

enough in catering for the national interest. At its worst this could manifest

itself in a severe infection of ‘localitis’, where a diplomat serving too long

at an overseas post came to be more identified with the host country’s interests

than Australia’s".


has identified a widespread condition which continues to afflict Australian

journalists and policy makers. In a decent world, journalists who got Indonesia

and East Timor so badly wrong for so long would admit their errors, stop

criticising the victims of these terrible crimes as well as those who came to

their assistance, and seek alternative employment. They would also insist that a

fresh start to the bilateral relationship with Indonesia should, at the very

least, await an admission of responsibility for what the UN believes could

constitute crimes against humanity, and an immediate removal of the threat of

militia violence. In a decent world.



Lecturer in International Relations

School of Australian and International Studies

Deakin University

221 Burwood Highway

Burwood Victoria 3125


Phone: (03) 9244 3947 (Burwood Campus)

Fax: (03) 9244 6755 (Burwood Campus)

Mobile: 0419 355370

Email: [email protected]

Website: arts.deakin.edu.au/sais/Staff/burchill


a critical analysis of current international issues and events visit

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