Australia & East Timor: Senate Passes Judgement

new Australian Defence White Paper, another significant parliamentary report

quietly entered the public domain. The Australian Senate Committee enquiry into

Australia’s East Timor diplomacy presented its final report, a largely factual

history of a dark episode in Australian foreign policy.


in late 1998, the Committee’s investigation was extended following the

post-ballot violence that engulfed East Timor in September 1999. Having received

101 submissions and considered evidence from over one hundred witnesses in

hearings around the country, the report publicly records the story of successive

Australian governments which appeased Indonesia at the expense of East Timor’s

peace and independence. Highlights include:

  • Although

    former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam tried to reconcile the right of the East

    Timorese to self-determination with his preference for the territory’s

    incorporation into Indonesia before the 1975 invasion, he left the clear

    impression, in the Committee’s words, that "the outcome was more

    important than the process". In Jakarta it was also felt that Australia

    favoured Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. According to Ali Alatas, a

    senior official in Indonesia’s foreign ministry at the time – and later to

    become foreign minister – Whitlam "did not show [his] stance of

    opposition" when he was told "what we were doing" on East


  • Mr

    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 1975-8

    constitute perhaps the worst massacre relative to 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 Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) Deputy

    Secretary John Dauth, told them in May 1999 that the militias in East Timor

    were armed and organised by local commanders outside the Indonesian

    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 pictureŠ

    of the relationship between particular commanders of the Indonesian Army and

    militia leaders in East Timor..". Unsurprisingly, Mr Dauth’s plea that

    DFAT was so 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 on the subject.

  • Prime

    Minister Howard’s letter to President Habibie in December 1998 suggesting a

    new dispensation for East Timor was prompted by a survey of elite opinion in

    East Timor which, unsurprisingly, found overwhelming support for

    independence. The results of the survey, conducted by DFAT, were shared with

    Jakarta but have been withheld from the Australian people, including the

    Senate Committee.

  • The

    Committee noted that former foreign minister Gareth Evans’s 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 has been discredited by the research of Des Ball and

    Hamish McDonald in their book, Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra. It also

    described Evans’s claim that the East Timorese could have a proper act of

    self-determination within the framework of Indonesian sovereignty as

    "never a likely scenario".

  • 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 Mr

    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, and even after INTERFET troops arrived in

    East Timor it was "impossible to find a single person there who wished

    the ballot had never happened".


the Senate Committee was found 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 prior to 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". 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". Indeed.


Scott Burchill

Lecturer in International Relations

School of Australian and International Studies

Deakin University


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