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Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Tragedy of East Timor - Australia's complicity and cover-up

For decades Australia and the rest of the world has stood by as East Timor was raped by Indonesia's Suharto regime.

East Timor, was a small, Portuguese colony of no threat to any nation.  In 1975, the Portuguese withdrew from East Timor, essentially granting them independence.  The Australian government under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam developed the policy that East Timor should be integrated into Indonesia.  In 1999, the Australian government released some documents from that period which quote Mr Whitlam as saying that Portuguese Timor should be integrated into Indonesia.  Of course, the East Timorese saw things differently and in November 1975, East Timor declared independence.

In December 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, resulting in the massacre of thousands of East Timorese.  Five Australian journalists reported on this invasion as it unfolded and reported Indonesian massacres of East Timorese, reporting it back to Australia. The Australian government stood idly by as the massacres unfolded.  The journalists were eventually captured and murdered by the Indonesian military. From the onset of the invasion and the subsequent occupation, Indonesia received financial and military aid from each Australian government (Labor and Liberal) between 1974 and 1999.

In 2012, Federal Attorney General, Nikola Roxon, refused to release government cables regarding East Timor from 1975 and declined to state the reason.  Associate Professor Clinton Fernandes of the University of New South Wales believes that the cables reveal Australia's complicity in the mass starvation of 100,000 East Timorese following the Indonesian invasion (1).

On 17 March 2012, at a seminar on the Middle East and the Arab Spring, Gareth Evans presented a speech which included reference to NATO's "Responsibility to Protect".  A policy which ostensibly is used to invade countries on the pretext of removing inhumane dictators and the liberation of their people; surreptiously this policy is more about shoring up NATO military and strategic interests in the particular country.  Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Fransisco, also addressed the delegates at this seminar.

In his speech, Zunes accused Evans of supporting atrocities in East Timor while ensuring that Australia had access to East Timor's oil through the 1986 signing of the Timor Gap Treaty, which the Foreign Minister Evans signed with Indonesia.  Evans was so outraged by this accusation that after the speech, he marched over to Zunes and screamed at him "who the fuck are you? where the fuck are you from?".  Evans continued the tirade and stated that Zunes deserved "a smack on the nose". (2)

The 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation by Indonesia was brutal.  It is estimated that under Suharto, around 200,000 East Timorese were killed; one third of its population.  All the while, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States stood by and lavished praises and aid on Suharto.  Some of the Indonesian jets used to bomb East Timorese villages were supplied by the United Kingdom.  Margaret Thatcher, former UK Prime Minister once told Suharto "you are one of our very best and most valuable friends".

Following the resignation of President Suharto in 1999, East Timor eventually won its independence. Australia's then Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, claimed that Australia's intervention was out of humanitarian concern.  Yet in his book, "Reluctant Saviour", Clinton Fernandes reveals that the Howard government initially opposed independence in order to maintain Indonesian rule.  Fernandes asserts in his book, that it was only through independence activists and the public that Howard was forced to send a peace-keeping force and to support the move to independence. (3)

From 1999 to 2003, Australia provided significant financial and military aid to East Timor.  In 2003, this was used as leverage by Alexander Downer to ensure that Australia's interests in East Timor's oil and gas reserves were maintained in Australia's favour.  Downer reminded East Timor of its assistance during the 1999 independence and of the aid being provided.  Australia even withdrew funding for an East Timorese human rights NGO, Forum Tau Matan after it was revealed that they and eleven other NGO's had signed a statement daring to criticise Australia's aggressive approach to East Timor's oil and gas reserves and accusing Australia of "stealing natural resources that rightfully belong to East Timor". (4)

In 2006, this imposition of Australian power resulted in an agreement which allowed Australia to continue exploiting East Timor's oil and gas reserves for 50 years with no defined geographical boundary to limit access or to protect East Timor.  This has cost East Timor billions of dollars in lost revenue from reserves which it owns.

Currently, East Timor is in the midst of elections.  Australia will be taking a close interest in the results as one of the issues that has emerged is the management of East Timor's oil and gas reserves. East Timor has been wanting to process oil on their own land, however, Australia has been avoiding this.  An emerging threat is now from China, who has been negotiating with East Timor to process their oil. East Timor has indicated that if Australia, through Woodside Petroleum, doesn't build pipelines from the oil reserves to East Timor, then they may look at other avenues to have this constructed.  Australia has a keen financial interest in seeing the "right" government elected in East Timor.

For decades, Australia's involvement in East Timor has always been in its own interests whilst being complicit in the genocide of the population and actively raping its natural reserves.

Instead of claiming that Australia's involvement is solely for the greater good (as decreed on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website) (5), Australia should come clean on its history and motives in the area and actively work to genuinely assist East Timor.

The Indonesian genocide may have ended, but the East Timorese still face poverty and starvation as their own resources and potential profits are lost to Australia in a disgraceful abuse of hegemony and capitalism.

All references accessed 6 April 2012.

(1) Matt Peacock, 21 March 2012, 'Roxon blocks release of East Timor Cables', ABC News Online,

(2) Matt Buchanan and Scott Ellis, 20 March 2012, 'A Spread of Fear - Professor Gets Hell From Evans', Sydney Morning Herald Online.

(3) Clinton Fernandes (2005), Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the Independence of East Timor, Scribe Short Books.

(4) Peter Ellis, 30 May 2007, 'Lying for your country'.

(5) Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 'East Timor Country Brief',

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