east timor - our part in their misery

The Age, 23 January, 2006

 

The UN's inquiry into Indonesia's brutal 24 year occupation of East Timor, leaked to the Australian media last Thursday, will come as no surprise to activists who opposed the policies of successive Australian Governments, beginning in 1975. Nor to the people of East Timor.

However, the report which documents torture, rape, slavery and starvation leading to the unnatural demise of as many as 180,000 civilians (from a pre-invasion population of 628,000) should shame those ministers, journalists, diplomats and academics who downplayed or ignored consistent human rights abuses in the former Portuguese colony - incredibly described as "aberrant acts" by former foreign minister Gareth Evans.

This group, known as the Jakarta lobby, not only sought to protect the reputation of the Suharto dictatorship at every opportunity. They went out of their way to oppose East Timor's claim for independence (a "lost cause" - Richard Woolcott) and accused critics of the regime in Jakarta of not only exaggerating the scale of the repression, but of being "racist" and "anti-Indonesian" (Woolcott).

Their influence on official policy has been considerable. Rather than indict those responsible for crimes which would have made Slobodan Milosovic and Saddam Hussein blush, governments from Whitlam to Howard ignored regular reports of atrocities which the Catholic Church believes constituted the greatest slaughter relative to a population since the Holocaust. Why?

When "stability", oil and gas reserves and "good relations" with Jakarta were (mistakenly) thought to be at stake, the state terrorism of the Indonesian military was uncomfortable for Canberra but acceptable, providing most of it could be concealed from the Australian public. When that proved impossible, as in the case of the 1991 Dili massacre, damage control designed to protect the bilateral relationship rather than humanitarian concern, was the order of the day. The Howard Government's current approach to Islamist terror could scarcely be a greater contrast in behaviour.

The double standard continues today. While NATO spends millions trying to track down Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic, Suharto remains comfortably retired in the suburbs of Jakarta, with neither Canberra nor Washington showing any interest in bringing him to account for his considerably more serious crimes.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian legal system is cracking down on small-time drug traffickers but shows no stomach for prosecuting senior military officers responsible for the heinous acts detailed in the UN report. Despite promises to refer these officers to an international tribunal if Indonesia failed to bring them to justice, Alexander Downer now seems equally reluctant to see those he misleadingly described as "rogue elements" in court.

The hefty price of maintaining stability in the archipelago has been paid in Timorese blood and anguish, and yet it still proves elusive. This is because rebellions and secession are partly a reaction to what is being "stabilised" behind Indonesia's political boundaries.

The recent arrival of 43 West Papuan asylum seekers reminds us that turning a blind eye to repression in the name of stability is not only a dereliction of our ethical duty, it is politically shortsighted and usually results in blowback. Unfortunately for these latest arrivals, the government which will decide if they qualify as refugees could not be less sympathetic to their claim for independence. John Howard and Alexander Downer are more committed to West Papua's retention within the Republic of Indonesia than most of the residents of its Eastern-most province appear to be.

And yet after reading the UN report into East Timor, who can dismiss their accusations of political persecution and genocide? Is history repeating itself?

It may be expecting too much for each member of the Jakarta lobby who played such a prominent and nefarious role in East Timor's nightmare to reflect on the UN's findings and examine their conscience. However, governments such as Australia's, which contributed to the immiseration of the East Timorese by recognising Jakarta's illegal invasion and brutal occupation, still owe these people a great deal, the least of which are reparations and the truth about their modern history as detailed in this devastating report.