- Interview by
- Zacharias Szumer
In the aftermath of the Portuguese revolution of 1974, a process of decolonization took place across the Iberian nation’s former colonies. Among them was East Timor, which declared its independence in 1975. Led by leftist party, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), East Timor immediately faced the wrath of Indonesia’s Suharto regime and its Western allies.
The Suharto regime had come to power in Indonesia in 1965 and, with US backing, had carried out a massacre of the country’s left that claimed up to a million lives. Before East Timor’s declaration of independence, Suharto’s regime had been undermining the decolonization process for years; when East Timor became its own nation, the Indonesian military promptly invaded, ultimately leading to annexation in May 1976. The Suharto regime’s official narrative was that Indonesia intervened only reluctantly in a Timorese civil dispute, with its military acting as a peacekeeping force.
A key ally of Suharto at the time, the Australian government helped do Indonesia’s bidding. Among other things, this meant criticizing Australian activists who relayed stories of starvation, cruelty, and murder following East Timor’s annexation. One of these activists, Peter Job, has since pored over declassified documents proving that Australian politicians and civil servants lied to the public while helping to facilitate some of the worst atrocities of the Suharto regime. He spoke to Jacobin about his research, and his recent book, A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor.
How did you become involved in solidarity activism for East Timor?
When I was twenty years old, I worked on what was called the Radio Maubure link to FRETILIN. Before the 1975 invasion, some Australian activists went to East Timor and gave FRETILIN a two-way radio receiver. After the invasion, when FRETILIN was in the bush fighting the Indonesians, the radio was used to convey information out of the country.
At that time, the Australian government did what it could to close down the radio link and disparage East Timorese claims about major Indonesian military operations, which included starving the population, destroying crops and resources, and other major human rights abuses.
As a result, there was a radio operator in the bush outside of Darwin who had to keep changing positions to avoid arrest who transmitted messages to East Timor. It wasn’t feasible for him to come into Darwin and post FRETILIN’s messages because he would have been caught. So, we set up a separate receiving station, also in the bush outside of Darwin, which I maintained for the last six months of its operation. I recorded the messages they received, which would eventually be distributed to the external FRETILIN headquarters in Mozambique, and to José Ramos-Horta [FRETILIN’s de-facto foreign minister and representative to the UN] in New York.
Although Indonesia and the Australian government denied the Indonesian military’s crimes, we now know that most of FRETILIN’s information was the truth. So that gave me an insight into and a dedication to the Timorese cause, which I’ve had my whole life.
Let’s turn to the main argument of your book. What was the official Australian government line at the time of the Indonesian annexation?
The Australian policy under both Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser was two-pronged. They said one thing to the general public and the international community, and another thing to the Indonesians. What they said to the Indonesians is what they actually did.
Initially, Labor prime minister Whitlam and then opposition leader Fraser claimed to support self-determination for East Timor. However, in September 1974, Whitlam told Suharto that he did not believe that East Timor should be an independent nation, and that it would destabilize the region. The head of OPSUS (the Indonesian Special Operations Service) has said that meeting was a key factor in crystalizing their decision to “integrate” East Timor into Indonesia.
Even before that, Whitlam had sent his personal private secretary to Jakarta to meet with OPSUS, which was the wing of the Suharto government most dedicated to subverting the Timorese decolonization process. Before the invasion, OPSUS also briefed the Australian embassy in Jakarta about covert and violent operations being undertaken by the Indonesians to force integration. These included radio broadcasts, infiltration of Timorese political parties, and covert military operations in which Indonesian armed forces pretended to be Timorese dissidents.
Whitlam and Fraser lied both to Australians and to the international community about what they knew. Whitlam said that Indonesia had no intention of integrating the territory by force, even though Australia’s own intelligence services and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) knew that Indonesia was doing exactly that.
How does Whitlam’s support of Indonesia’s ambitions gel with the more progressive aspects of his record?
Whitlam was quite conservative in his foreign policy. When Suharto gained power in 1965–66, Whitlam was very supportive of the regime. He wrote an article in the Australian in 1967 in which he said how grateful we should be that this new pro-Western regime had come to power. The Australian Labor Party under its previous leader Arthur Calwell had contempt for Asian governments, but Whitlam wanted to break with that and to reach out to Southeast Asia, and particularly members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia was the largest and closest of these, and Whitlam saw it as key. He believed in great power blocs and didn’t have much support for smaller countries. So, he believed that East Timor’s natural place was to be part of Indonesia.
As you write in the book, one of the narratives that the Whitlam and Fraser administrations consistently promoted was that Indonesia had intervened reluctantly, to serve as a neutral intermediary in a conflict between different forces in Timorese society. But the Australian government had been receiving briefings from high-level Indonesian intelligence operatives indicating that they had been actively trying to subvert the decolonization process since the early ’70s.
Australia was aware that Indonesia was actively destabilizing East Timor and using this destabilization as a pretext for invasion. However, the Australian government perpetuated Indonesia’s false narrative.
In fact, before 1975, East Timorese political parties had made a considerable effort to reach out to the Suharto regime. They wanted good relations with Indonesia. They knew that they would have to live with this large neighbor, and they did not want to antagonize it.
For its part, the Suharto regime was also internally divided over the issue of East Timor. At this stage, Indonesia was seeking leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement. And one faction in the Suharto regime feared — correctly — that if Indonesia annexed East Timor, it would thwart this ambition. To some extent, Suharto appears to have shared these concerns. Australia decided to support another faction within the Suharto regime — the OPSUS faction — in order to push Indonesian policy toward intervening in East Timor. Without Australia’s support, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor probably wouldn’t have happened.
It seems this was a critical turning point in Indonesian history. Before the 1965 overthrow of Indonesian president Sukarno, Indonesia was at the forefront of the attempt to create a third bloc outside of the Cold War divide — the Non-Aligned Movement. Under Suharto, Indonesia moved much closer to the American side in the Cold War. Invading East Timor accelerated this.
Australia framed East Timorese independence as a proxy battle in the Cold War — but there’s no reason that it had to be seen that way. Both of the main political factions in East Timor were willing to work with Australia. They were not interested in allowing their country’s independence movement to become a proxy battle in the Cold War.
Indeed, FRETILIN was not a Marxist organization. There were some Marxists in their ranks, but this was also true of the Australian Labor Party at the time. FRETILIN was a broad front that basically supported independence and was in many ways quite moderate, politically.
Nevertheless, the US and Australia framed East Timor’s national liberation movement as a Cold War conflict, in part due to their desire to support the Suharto regime. Remember, in 1975, Southeast Asia had just been through a great deal of change. Vietnam had reunified following the US defeat, while different kinds of Marxist regimes had just come to power in both Cambodia and Laos. And that had only happened months before the Indonesian invasion.
The US and Australia saw Suharto as pro-Western and a bulwark against communism. Australian officials — including the Department of Foreign Affairs secretary at the time — even described the Suharto regime a moderate, responsible, and deserving of our support — ignoring the fact that it had such a bloody record.
Let’s talk about that period from 1975 to 1982. As you argue, the Fraser government effectively became a propagandist and apologist for the Suharto regime.
The Australian government didn’t officially support Indonesia’s invasion. At the UN, Australia even voted reluctantly for the 1975 General Assembly resolution criticizing it. (After that, however, it moved to a position of abstention, before later voting against a series of resolutions criticizing the invasion.)
Early on, Australia officially called for Indonesia’s withdrawal, while behind the scenes we were telling other countries that they had to accept an Indonesian regime in East Timor. In October 1975, Fraser went to Jakarta and met with Suharto. It was after that meeting that his government effectively became an apologist and propagandist for Indonesian actions.
Firstly, Australia misrepresented the historical circumstances before the invasion, to make Indonesia appear to be the injured party and to be intervening only reluctantly. Secondly, when the invasion took place, Australia denied the extent of the abuses, and called reports about them hearsay. This was in spite of the evidence seeping out through the radio link, through Catholic sources, through smuggled letters, and through the testimony of refugees. Eventually, there was so much evidence that Australia could no longer deny what was happening. So, they came up with a series of recommendations about how they could spin this new situation. Instead of denying it, they blamed the Timorese themselves, claiming that East Timor had always been very poor, that they’d always been on the brink of starvation, and that their problems were being exacerbated by a civil war.
Of course, the Australian government was well aware of Indonesia’s campaign to encircle and annihilate pro-independence forces in East Timor. They were aware that the army was attempting to destroy food resources. This is proven by now-declassified reports by Australian officers who visited East Timor and spoke with to Indonesian officials. They knew that Indonesia had a policy of denying food to FRETILIN-controlled areas, which initially included the majority of the population. Australia made no attempt to connect this policy with the appalling tragedy of the artificially caused famine that swept across East Timor. Instead, they blamed it on a combination of Timor’s poor infrastructure, Portuguese colonial neglect, and Timorese irresponsibility in the Civil War.
This cover-up had serious consequences. Some Western nations were becoming interested in supporting East Timor, in response to the evidence coming out. Australia repeatedly lobbied them, claiming that Indonesia was largely behaving responsibly. Since they considered Australia a democracy, and a supporter of human rights in the international arena, Australia’s narrative was given a great deal of credibility.
Australia’s reputation as a country that supported human rights was boosted by the Fraser government’s good position on apartheid in South Africa and its support for ending white-majority rule in Zimbabwe. Consequently, its lobbying on behalf of Indonesia’s invasion made a great deal of difference and delayed the entry of aid into East Timor, muted criticisms of the Suharto regime and allowed their abuses to continue. Had it not been for Australia’s lobbying, Indonesian abuses most certainly would not have been able to continue in the same way.
According to your book, the Fraser government propagated this official “narrative of denial” through a group of sympathetic academics and journalists, who you refer to as “the Jakarta Lobby.” Could you explain how the government fostered this group and funneled its position through them?
They were a group that saw it as their duty to propagate what they called a “responsible position” regarding the Suharto regime. They knew that after Suharto came to power, there was some hostility to his regime and that some of its atrocities were known in Australia. Therefore, they organized a group around academics at the Australian National University, including some journalists as well as diplomats like Richard Woolcott. They met regularly to discuss how they could bolster policies ensuring Australian support for the Suharto regime.
This was completely in accordance with Australian foreign policy, so neither the government nor the department of foreign affairs had any problem with it. When the invasion of East Timor happened, the Jakarta Lobby propagated the official narrative. When critics of the Indonesian invasion pressed members of this group about the circumstances in East Timor, the Jakarta Lobby was not well-informed. Nevertheless, their standing as a group of academics, senior journalists, and senior foreign affairs people gave them a false sense of credibility. This helped convince people they should be believed, and made them a very effective support for the government’s position.
In the book, you explain that in addition to advising their government, Australian diplomats were also giving the Suharto regime PR advice. For example, when news emerged about atrocities in East Timor, they suggested to their Indonesian counterparts that they spin it as the spontaneous behavior of a few out-of-control, lower-ranking soldiers early in the invasion.
Many elements in Australia’s Jakarta embassy did that. At the UN in New York, Australian diplomats were doing exactly the same thing. They actively conferred with the Indonesians on East Timor and cooperated to lobby other countries on the issue; the Indonesians expressed their gratitude in turn. They understood that Australia was seen as a Western country that knew how Western countries thought and how things could be spun.
Australia gave Indonesia a huge amount of advice that Indonesia used for their press releases and public statements. And Australia backed this up with its own lobbying.
Have the senior public servants or journalists who supported Suharto during this time expressed much contrition since?
No, the “old guard” of diplomats and journalists hasn’t expressed much contrition. Neither has the broader Australian community. This should be considered one of the major failings of Australian foreign policy. It’s not just a failing, but a crime that we committed. Australia did far more than turn a blind eye. Australia actively campaigned to facilitate the abuses. They would not have happened without us. It would not have been covered up as it was without the Australian government. There should, I believe, be a reconciliation process to acknowledge what we did. There is, surprisingly, a lack of interest in doing so.