In a speech to the Australian Parliament on November 23, 1999, Prime Minister John Howard articulated his reasons for the country leading a peacekeeping force to East Timor, the former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesia in 1975 with Australian and American sanction: “All Australians were deeply distressed by the scenes of violence, death and destruction in East Timor that they witnessed daily after the results of the ballot were announced in early September. We sensed that a small, vulnerable community was about to be denied the freedom it had sought so long and that it had voted so overwhelmingly to achieve.”
Australia’s role in “liberating” East Timor has already entered folklore. Only a few years before, however, the mainstream media and diplomatic elite were praising the reign of dictator General Soeharto. The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly called him “moderate” and the paper’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan dismissed the infamous 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. “The truth,” he offered, “is that even genuine victims frequently concoct stories.” Every prime minister since Gough Whitlam has heaped praise on the despot, including Bob Hawke during his first overseas trip as head of state in 1983. His famous champagne toast to Soeharto remains chilling to this day: “We know your people love you.”
This kind of official cover for the worst of Soeharto’s crimes is precisely what interests historian and activist Clinton Fernandes. He convincingly explains the ways in which the Howard Government actively campaigned “in support of the Indonesian strategy all along. It functioned as an obstacle to East Timor’s independence.” They were forced to act only after a massive outpouring of public outrage. The Jakarta lobby in the intelligence and diplomatic communities is exposed in the most revealing ways.
Successive Australian governments have supported the genocidal policies of Soeharto because he “was able to consolidate a pro-Western, stable, capitalist order in Indonesia”. Furthermore, the aims of the lobby “converge with the foreign policy objective of a stable investment climate in Indonesia. This means a cheap workforce, obedient citizens and docile unions.”
Things started changing in 1998. Then Labor’s spokesman on foreign affairs Laurie Brereton announced a policy shift in the ALP, signalling support for East Timorese self-determination. Not all in his party agreed (including Kevin Rudd, and Fernandes exposes his obstruction of Timor’s independence) but henceforth the Howard Government’s motives were, in hindsight at least, cynically reactionary. Whenever Indonesia committed atrocities in the province, Howard or Foreign Minister Alexander Downer could be relied upon to defend its actions.
In reality, militias were roaming East Timor and causing death and destruction, but as late as July 1999, during Howard’s visit to the White House, the Prime Minister was telling the world that “Indonesia deserved a little more credit and a little more praise for the transition towards a more democratic system of government”. It was a falsity and he knew it.
Fernandes was actively involved in the movement to liberate East Timor, a time in Australian history vividly re-created in this book. The writer passionately explains that human rights was never the reason for leading a peacekeeping force, rather “it was to evacuate observers so that the Indonesian troops could act without foreign witnesses”. Public outcry finally forced the Howard Government’s hand.
With recent media reports suggesting that the re-elected Howard Government is considering a more active relationship with the most notorious arm of the Indonesian military, Kopassus, it becomes even more vital to monitor the true reasons behind such moves.
Antony Loewenstein is a journalist based in Sydney.