Once Again, East Timor Is Betrayed

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Ten
years ago, I filmed secretly in East Timor, a small country in south-east
Asia whose brutal occupation was largely unknown to the outside
world. The title of the film, Death of a Nation, was hardly
an exaggeration. The Suharto military dictatorship in Indonesia,
having invaded the Portuguese colony in 1975, caused the death of
"at least" 200,000 East Timorese, according to a study
by the foreign affairs committee of the Australian parliament. This
represented a third of the population; proportionally, it was an
act of genocide greater than the Jewish Holocaust. The governments
of the United States, Britain and Australia were not only forewarned,
but supported and equipped the invaders. Henry Kissinger personally
gave General Suharto the go-ahead.

In
East Timor, I found a landscape of graves and black crosses that
spilled down valleys and crowded the eye, evidence that whole communities
had been slaughtered by the Indonesian army. In a handwritten record
compiled by a priest, 287 names were listed, including those of
entire extended families, from the elderly to infants such as "Domingo
Gomes, aged two… shot." For me, the most telling and shocking
sequence in Death of a Nation had been filmed five years
earlier on board an Australian air force plane. A party was in progress;
champagne corks popped and there was much false laughter as two
fawning men in suits toasted each other. One was Gareth Evans, then
Australia’s foreign minister. The other was Ali Alatas, his Indonesian
equivalent and Suharto’s mouthpiece. "This is an historically
unique moment," waffled Evans, "that is truly, uniquely
historical." Flying over the Timor Sea, they had just signed
the Timor Gap Treaty, which allowed Australian and other foreign
companies to exploit the seabed belonging to the land of black crosses
and to their victims. The ultimate prize, as Evans put it, could
be "zillions" of dollars.

From
the day Suharto’s paratroopers invaded, Australian governments eyed
East Timor’s natural wealth. Richard Woolcott, the Australian ambassador
in Jakarta in 1975, who, like the British and American ambassadors,
had been tipped off about the invasion, recommended that Canberra
adopt "a pragmatic rather than a principled stand [which] is
what national foreign policy is all about." Australia, he urged,
might "more readily" negotiate a carve-up of the Timor
Gap with the Indonesian dictatorship than with the captive East
Timorese. With this in mind, he proposed that "we act in a
way designed to minimise the public impact in Australia [of the
invasion] and show private understanding to the Indonesians."
There was not a word of concern for the fate of the Timorese.

The
"historically unique" treaty signed by Gareth Evans with
a genocidal regime was, wrote Professor Roger Clark, a world authority
on international law, "the same as acquiring stuff from a thief.
The fact is that [Australia and Indonesia] have neither historical,
nor legal, nor moral claim to East Timor and its resources."

For
more than 60 years, Australia’s relations with its tiny, vulnerable
neighbour have been distinguished by enduring betrayal, bullying
and greed, the antithesis of the self-adulating Australian myth
of "fair go." During the Second World War, more than 40,000
East Timorese were slaughtered by the Japanese for siding with and
protecting Australian commandos, after the Australians suddenly
withdrew. When, in the 1970s, General Suharto sought Australia’s
tacit approval of his long-planned invasion and annexation of Portuguese
East Timor, he got it; the East Timorese were, it was argued in
Canberra, too poor for a "viable" independence — forget
the "zillions" of dollars in potential oil revenue.

In
1985, Australia became the first western country formally to recognise
Indonesia’s bloody conquest, which Evans infamously described as
"irreversible." On a visit to Jakarta in February 1991
to finalise the Timor Gap Treaty, he said: "The truth of the
matter is that the human rights situation [in East Timor] has, in
our judgement, conspicuously improved, particularly under the present
military arrangements." Nine months later, the Indonesian military
killed or wounded more than 450 young mourners at the Santa Cruz
cemetery in Dili, the capital. Evans described this as "an
aberration, not an act of state policy." Soon after the massacre,
the joint Australian-Indonesian board overseeing implementation
of the treaty awarded 11 contracts to Australian oil and gas companies.
Asked about the international principle of not recognising and exploiting
territory taken by force, Evans said, "The world is a pretty
unfair place."

Little
has changed for the present Australian government of John Howard,
whom George W Bush recently appointed America’s “sheriff” in the
South Pacific. This would have been an embarrassment to most prime
ministers, but not to Howard. Indeed, Sheriff Howard and his perilously
gormless deputy, Alexander Downer, the foreign minister, are on
a “mission." It is to take charge of the “failed states” that
make up what Washington calls an “arc of instability” in the Pacific
region. Last year, Australian troops were dispatched to the Solomon
Islands: to “police the chaos," meaning to secure the country
for Australian business. Something similar is under way in Papua
New Guinea, where a regime of privatisation, deregulation and “free
trade” is being directed by a team from Australia.

In
Indonesia, the military has quietly regained the power it enjoyed
under Suharto, and members of its bloodthirsty special forces unit,
known as Kopassus, are once again being trained in Australia. These
uniformed criminals (armed and equipped by Britain) are currently
terrorising the people of the provinces of Aceh and West Papua,
just as they tortured and murdered thousands in East Timor.

In
1999, when the East Timorese people demonstrated extraordinary bravery
by voting overwhelmingly for independence in a UN plebiscite, they
were betrayed once again by Australia. Both Howard and Downer had
been told by Australian intelligence that the Indonesian military
were planning to sabotage the vote with attacks using a murderous
"militia." In Canberra, the sheriff and his deputy denied
knowledge and did nothing. It was only when tens of thousands of
ordinary Australians, long shamed by their country’s brutal duplicity
in East Timor, protested spontaneously in cities and towns across
Australia, that the government agreed to lead a UN force enforcing
the result of the plebiscite.

The
self-congratulations for this "proud stand for peace,"
as Howard called it, apparently with a straight face, also served
to cover his government’s continuing theft of most of East Timor’s
seabed resources. Since 1999, Australia has received more than a
billion dollars in taxes on oil extracted from a field fully situated
in East Timorese territory; East
Timor has received nothing from the same field.

According
to international law, the sea boundary between countries close to
each other is the median line, or halfway point. The Howard government
rejects this, demanding that the old border, agreed illegally with
Suharto, should apply. In keeping with the duties and ethics of
a Bush-appointed sheriff, Howard has refused to recognise the jurisdiction
of both the International Court of Justice and the Tribunal for
the Law of the Sea. Instead, Australia today occupies the East Timorese
seabed and is poised to rob the tiny nation of roughly $30bn over
the next three decades. With the Australian senate’s recent approval
of a new treaty, Howard’s and Downer’s tactic is to pressure the
East Timorese on the seabed issue by constantly threatening to pull
out of negotiations, thus denying a stricken people money they urgently
need for reconstruction. In this way, East Timor is proclaimed a
"failed state" and becomes dependent on and controlled
by Canberra.

Howard
is doing much the same in Iraq. Of the token hangers-on who make
up the Anglo-American "coalition of the willing," Spain,
Honduras, Poland and the Netherlands are about to recall their troops.
Only Australia remains true to the ber-sheriff in Washington. This
begs the question: when will decent Australians again make their
voices heard?

April
2, 2004

John
Pilger
was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. This article was first published in
the New Statesman.

©
John Pilger 2004

John
Pilger Archives

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts